CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 5. . . .October 7, 2016
Extreme Battlefields: When War Meets the Forces of Nature.
Tanya Lloyd Kyi. Art by Drew Shannon.
Toronto, ON: Annick Press, 2016.
157 pp., pbk., hc., html & pdf, $16.95 (pbk.), $24.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55451-793-0 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55451-794-7 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-55451-795-4 (html), ISBN 978-1-55451-796-1 (pdf).
War-Environmental aspects-Juvenile literature.
Military meteorology-Juvenile literature.
Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.
Review by Val Ken Lem.
Though the guns fire less often now, the Siachen Glacier remains a place of extreme danger. In 2013 a massive avalanche swept through a Pakistani base 4,500 meters (15,000 feet) above sea level. There hadn’t been any avalanches in that spot before. Soldiers believed they had chosen a safe and sheltered outpost. But the wall of snow that hit them was as tall as a seven-story building.
Frantically, the army sent rescue crews and sniffer dogs to the area. Helicopters dropped search equipment. Though some of the 135 bodies were eventually recovered, no one survived.
The avalanche served as a reminder to the world that soldiers were still posted on the Siachen. There may have been an official cease-fire, but General Glacier—by far the region’s most dangerous enemy—is still claiming lives today.
Through the ages, nature has a way of interfering with human plans. Extreme Battlefields presents 10 situations where nature in the form of geography, weather, and seasons played major roles in human warfare. Each chapter begins with an informative title and a list of the environmental challenges discussed. The excerpt above is from “India & Pakistan vs. the Siachen Glacier” subtitled “Facing the General [a nickname for the Himalayan glacier] on Top of the World 1984-Present.” The challenges:
Constantly shifting ice
Temperatures of -40° C (-104° F)
High altitude and thin air
Kyi is a prolific writer for children. She packs her narrative with contextual details and generally avoids the trap of making warfare sound glorious. In fact, in describing the struggle for control of the inhospitable Siachen Glacier complex in the disputed territory between India and Pakistan, she includes a quote from an uncredited expert who describes the battle as “the struggle of two bald men over a comb.”
Some chapters do find human ingenuity overcoming environmental challenges. In the case of Hannibal’s march against the Romans through the alpine mountains, massive boulders prevented their starving elephants from descending to pastures. They applied a technique from the ancient quarries of southern Spain: heat the boulders with bonfires, then pour sour wine on top to weaken and crack the rocks, making them susceptible to demolition with pickaxes.
Farther east but also in the pre-Christian era, the Chinese general Wei Qing’s battle to subdue the nomadic Xiongnu people meant that he had to also battle the Gobi Desert. Even though the victorious Chinese force’s use of repeating crossbows gave them an advantage over the Xiongnu’s bows, their losses in the desert and in battle amounted to 100,000 horses and 20,000 Chinese soldiers. As Kyi points out in a sidebar, the winners write history, and she asks a good question: How would the Xiongnu describe the campaigns of 119BCE?
The chapters are not arranged chronologically or in any obvious sequence. Given the probable market for the book in Canadian and American schools and public libraries, it is no surprise that several chapters focus on American or allied ventures. In December, 1944, during World War II, American naval forces in Task Force 38 found themselves battling a typhoon in the Pacific Ocean near the Philippines. Kyi describes the conditions vividly:
Across the fleet, cooks lashed themselves to countertops. Knives flew across galleys. Sailors were thrown from their bunks.
Almost 800 sailors died battling the storm. Afterwards, the U.S. founded the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii to warn of tropical storms in the Pacific and Indian oceans.
The U.S. Armed Forces and its South Vietnamese allies eventually lost the Vietnam War against the Viet Cong. Guerilla warfare tactics employed by the communist forces included extensive use of tunnels, bunkers and hiding spots. The tunnels at Cù Chu near Saigon had been built during the earlier Indochina War but were expanded when the Americans began bombing the area in 1966. These particular tunnels stretched for 240 km (150 miles) and proved their worth. Despite efforts to eradicate them, many survived and served as headquarters for the guerillas.
The most recent battle is that of the Allied Forces (Afghan, British and American) against the Al-Quaeda fighters under Osama bin Laden in the White Mountains of Afghanistan at the end of 2001. In this case, the fortified caves and underground caverns near Tora Bora seemed unconquerable, and hundreds of Al-Quaeda, including bin Laden, escaped, likely on horseback, to Pakistan through mountain passes during nightfall.
The Canadian-themed chapter deals with the muddied trenches and fields of Passchendaele during the First World War. Other battles featured are the British soldiers combatting escaped slaves in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica in the 1730s, Napoleon’s disastrous winter retreat from Russia in 1812, and the battle of the multi-national patriots led by Antonio José de Sucre against the Spanish forces in Quito, Ecuador, in 1822. In this story, the ash and debris on the slopes of the volcanic Mount Pichincha proved treacherous, particularly when made slick by rain and snow.
The volume includes full-colour illustrations, black-and-white and colour photographs, maps and reproductions of a few historic works of art relevant to the stories. Kyi includes five pages of “selected sources” including some online resources and many journal articles that will not be readily available to readers of this volume. A one-page “further reading” contains mostly books published for juvenile audiences. A good index is present.
A few errors escaped proof reading. East and west are confused in a side entry on the Silk Road. An uncredited image of a horseman from Han Dynasty China is described as “carved” rather than cast in bronze. The description of the death of almost 3,000 people in the attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2001 as “the worst ever on North American soil” is debatable. It may represent the worst terrorist attack, but it is far from the most bloody battle on North American soil, as that gory record dates to the American Civil War where the Battle of Gettysburg between 1-3 July, 1863, claimed more than 36,000 dead, 27,000 wounded and 10,000 missing according to one source.
Overall, Extreme Battlefields will be a welcome introduction to the fields of military meteorology and the environmental aspects of warfare. Fans of military tales will be especially drawn to the accounts. Kyi’s conclusion is especially thought-provoking. Have humans learned from history? Will climate change cause the next extreme battlefields?
Val Ken Lem is the liaison librarian for history, English and Caribbean studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.
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