Militarisation of nature

The first ‘new voice’ is Professor Derek Gregory; this highly distinguished geographer is re-writing our understanding of war and conflict by overlapping his knowledge of how the physical contours of the Earth meld with politics and the imagination. In a sense Professor Gregory’s fascination with ‘drone warfare’ encapsulates these preoccupations and his two papers ‘Everywhere War’ and ‘War and Peace’ are real ‘classics’ and a ‘must read’ for anyone trying to understand the world today (both can be Googl-ed). Professor Gregory is the Peter Wall Distinguished Professor at the University of British Columbia and formerly held positions at Cambridge University. His ‘blog’, Geographical Imaginations, is highly recommended: this was a ‘post’ on January 3.

Among other things, I’m still collecting materials about the militarisation of nature (I’m not going to put it in scare-quotes, though it scares me — but we all know that Raymond Williams considered ‘nature’ to be perhaps the most complex word in the English language). So I was interested to read about a secret US-New Zealand programme to develop a ‘tsunami bomb’ to be used against Japan during the Second World War (the official report talks of ‘an investigation into the potentialities of offensive inundation by waves generated by means of explosives’).

Under the codename ‘Project Seal’, the New Zealand Army, working in close co-operation with the Air Force, Navy and the US Navy, set off a series of underwater explosions that triggered tidal waves along the coast of New Caledonia and then the Whangaparaoa Peninsula near Auckland in New Zealand between June 1944 and January 1945. Some 3,700 bombs (mainly TNT) were detonated during the experiments, and preliminary experimental results suggested that a cascade of 10 large blasts (two million kilos 8 km from the shore) would be sufficient to generate a 10-12 metre tsunami capable of inundating a small coastal city.

The project was directed by Professor Thomas Leech, Dean of Engineering at Auckland University, who was seconded to the military for the purpose of developing the bomb. The final report was released in 1950, and the New Zealand Herald reported that its author’s work was considered sufficiently important for Leech to be sent to observe the US nuclear tests off Bikini Atoll in 1946 and to make direct comparisons between the two (the project was seen by some as a potential rival to the atomic bomb).

The report was declassified in 1999 and reported in New Zealand, but it was picked up by conspiracy theorists in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 and the Japanese tsunami following the earthquake in 2011 (‘It is unprecedented in recorded history for two major tidal waves to occur less than seven years apart’; more here) and by news media in Britain and the US at the beginning of this year.

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