Thursday, October 13, 2011

Book Review: Lizzie Collingham's The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food

I read this book in August and thoroughly enjoyed it. The review below is being submitted to the Canadian Army Journal's book reviews section and I thought I'd share it here. Good reading for foodies and history buffs alike. MP+

COLLINGHAM, LIZZIE, London, Penguin Books, 2011, 634 pages, $50.00.

That deaths (at least 20 million) from starvation, malnutrition, and related diseases exceeded deaths (19.5 million) from military action in World War Two may surprise readers of this book. Besides this shocking number of dead from hunger, millions more worked and fought for years on the brink of starvation. Lizzie Collingham, a British social historian, has done us a great service by offering a comprehensive picture of the grievous human cost of World War Two. She explores the role of food in the ideology that led the world to war, in the social context of total war and its cost on populations, and in the military context of feeding vast militaries. Collingham connects this piece of human history with contemporary security issues by noting the parallels between food availability and demands then and now.

The growth of urban populations and their growing demands for more nutritious and costly foodstuffs is not just a phenomenon of today’s world. The same trend was at work in the West and in Japan in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The US had enormous agricultural potential to exploit, while Britain could feed its population by leveraging its Empire and its maritime trade. The totalitarian governments of Germany and Japan, with their ideologies of racial superiority and entitlement, were unwilling to rely on trade with Britain and the US to feed their people. For the Nazis, who remembered the Allied blockade and use of hunger as a weapon during World War One, food security was a strong motivator. This book effectively argues that the German and Japanese desire to secure their food supplies was a major cause of World War Two.

German and Japanese planners looked to Eastern Europe and Manchuria respectively to resettle their surplus farmers and develop breadbaskets for their empires. The populations of these regions would be systematically displaced and starved, thus creating living room for the conquerors. Collingham calls this policy of deliberate extermination by starvation the “exporting of hunger”, the wholesale plundering of the food supplies of others so that the homelands would not go hungry. In fact the implementation of these policies was chaotic and unsuccessful. In eastern Europe the ingenuity with which people bartered, hoarded and found alternate food supplies meant that the Nazis accelerated their concentration and destruction of Jews in order to meet their self-imposed quotas of eliminating “useless mouths”. Policies of genocide and food security thus went hand in hand.

Collingham’s accounts of how governments worked to feed their peoples and militaries will fascinate students of logistics and social science. Total war placed enormous stresses on food production. Shipping and transport was destroyed or diverted from moving food to moving troops and war supplies. Factories switched from agricultural to military production, leaving tools, tractors and fertilizers in short supply. Agricultural labour was moved into militaries and industry. To compensate, governments adopted rationing based on their internal values of entitlement. For the US, the mobilization of its vast food resources inspired the slogan “Freedom From Want” as an American war aim, thus banishing ghosts of the Depression and inspiring a new middle class standard of prosperity. In Britain, egalitarian standards of rationing shed light on pre-war class-related nutritional deficits and led to social reforms that lasted until the Thatcher era. In the dictatorships, rations were allocated based on one’s value to the war effort. Soviet workers and soldiers functioned on the brink of malnutrition through the worst years of the war. In Germany, the ruthless plundering of other countries’ food reserves (as Canadian troops discovered liberating a starving Holland) meant that most Germans did not face starvation until the final collapse. Only Japan, which had its maritime shipping totally destroyed as the Pacific War turned against it, was unable to feed its soldiers and citizens. By 1943 the Japanese government was reduced to exhorting its people to eat “Decisive Battle Food” that included insects, rice straw and seaweed.

Adequately feeding militaries of millions posed huge challenges. In the Allied armies, the increased democratization of societies meant that citizen soldiers had higher expectations than did those of the Great War. Britain thus introduced its Army Catering Corps as part of reforms to culinary standards previously so low they caused sit down strikes in 1941 among Canadian troops stationed in Britain. The quality of field rations improved gradually, though in hostile environments such as the Desert and New Guinea, troops often survived on bully beef and biscuits. German troops were expected to augment their rations with food confiscated locally, at the detriment of occupied populations. Their Russian opponents were generally hungrier and became expert foragers, keeping scurvy at bay by eating nettles and boiling pine needles. The worst off were the Japanese, who, often isolated and marooned on islands, were reduced to eating dried grasses, palm starch, and, ultimately, each other. American troops became the wonder of the world for their seemingly unlimited rations, and it is no wonder, as Collingham notes, that “plentiful American food became a symbol of the United States’ economic prosperity”.

It is difficult for Canadians today to imagine a world where hunger and thoughts of food haunted waking life for billions, although for parts of the globe that world still exists. For decades after 1945, societies ruined by the war struggled with hunger while the victors, particularly Americans, dedicated themselves to increased consumption of meat and dairy products. Other countries followed the American example as they recovered, and so consumerism, obesity and “diseases of affluence” are legacies of the war. Advances in nutritional science, food preservation and storage technologies are more positive results. As global population and food demands continue to climb, as climates change and as agriculture reaches yield limits, Collingham predicts that governments (and, by implication, militaries) will once again need to manage the world’s food supplies and relearn the lessons of World War Two.

1 comment:

Gene Packwood said...

So many fascinating books (including the Junior Officers Reading one) and so little time. Sigh.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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