Insects and war

Despite my posts about the healing power of insects and why we need insects, there is no denying that they don’t always have our best interests at heart, and why should they?  I am thinking particularly about the insect that bit my shoulder almost two weeks ago and is still stopping me from sleeping on that side.  I am also thinking about the impact that insects have had on soldiers at war.

“History is pocked with the traces of malaria.  Some have said it helped topple the roman empire. It was present during the US civil war, infecting more than half the soldiers.”
– Gordon Grice

Over the course of history, more soldiers have died from insects than from the weapons of war.  They have affected entire armies, affected the outcome of wars and in doing so, determined the direction of the future.

Along with mosquitoes, lice have had an incredible impact on wars.  One of the worst outbreaks of typhus was caused by lice and ravaged the trenches of world war 1.  It causes high fever, headaches, respiratory distress and even death.  It killed three million people in eastern Europe between 1914 and 1915.  It often follows war and natural disasters and “by decimating armies, it has determined the outcomes of battles and entire wars, prompting some writers to call the body louse the most important animal in history” (Grice).

Typhus also affected soldiers in 1814 when Napoleon’s troops were attempting to invade Russia.  Over the three year campaign, 105,000 men were killed by war whilst 219,000 were killed by insect borne diseases. Later in the 1800s, a Russian army was ravaged by hemorrhagic fever.  We can see examples like this throughout history and those countries who are prepared for insect attack and can manage and mitigate the effects are often the ones who come out on top.  As much as it is about fighting the enemy, war is about fighting insects.

As well as directly affecting soldiers, insects have also been used to shape our thinking about wars.

“These battles are more like ant fights than anything we have done in this way up to now”
– Wyndham Lewis

The changing nature of war and weapons reduced the personal interaction with the enemy.  No longer was it necessary to get up close, instead the enemy was reduced to specks on the horizon, dots on the landscape, insects to be exterminated. This brought with it a shift in attitudes, one which Siegfried Sassoon captured when he said of World War One soldiers:

“The solider is no longer a noble figure.  He is merely a writhing insect among this ghastly folly of destruction.”

As war became more about extermination, we became more fixated on exterminating insects.  Chemicals developed for the World Wars would go on to be used as pest controls in agriculture and would lead to the crisis described by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring.  However, the need to manage insects in war would also lead to the war office joining forces with entomologists and increased interest in studying insects resulting in the disciplines and knowledge that exist today.

Further reading

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