Review of “The Taste of War: World War II and The Battle For Food” by Lizzie Collingham

This is a fascinating book, but I’m not sure it is a book written for popular consumption (so to speak) in the United States. It is not only incredibly detailed and full of facts and figures, but moreover is somewhat critical of American food policies, taking a decidedly less sanguine view of American actions than can be found, say, in American textbooks. To me, this made the book especially valuable: I always appreciate being provided a whole new lens through which to view history. In addition, after reading many books naming the usual suspects for the motivations, strategies, tactics, and outcomes of the Second World War and the fate of its combatants, it is most enlightening to be presented with something different and intellectually compelling.

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Collingham, a historian from Cambridge, seeks to uncover the important role food played in the Second World War. She avers, rightly, that this is “an often overlooked dimension to our understanding of the Second World War.” She not only wants to highlight how and why, during the war, at least 20 million people died from starvation, malnutrition, and its associated diseases, but to show just how important the demand for food was in pushing Germany and Japan into their radical solutions to the food problem. The vision of Lebensraum shared in particular by Germany and Japan, was a battle not just for land to absorb excess population, but on which to grow food and provide it for the rest of their populations.

1942 U.S. war poster; artist Ben Shahn

1942 U.S. war poster; artist Ben Shahn

Taking each of the combatant nations in turn, Collingham discusses their needs in terms of caloric consumption for both civilians and military, and how they coped with it. Germany, for example, did not want to risk the disaffection over hunger that plagued their country during and after World War I, and engaged in deliberate extermination by starvation of targeted groups. Polish Jews, for instance, were allotted a “derisory” 184 calories a day. The mentally ill, disabled, and Soviet prisoners of war, were put on a “starvation diet” known as “The Falthauser diet” by the “doctor” who introduced it: he argued that his method resulted in death by starvation within three months, and offered a practical solution to “the problem of disposing of these unproductive members of German society…” The Germans even set up “hunger houses” that specialized in this “diet.” As successful as this plan was, soon it seemed that even three months was taking too long, and the Germans came up with more efficient ways to eliminate what they called “useless eaters.”

Not everybody went hungry...

Not everybody went hungry…

Other countries experienced many deaths by starvation that were not so cold and calculating, but were nevertheless the results of misguided or cruel government policies. In Japan, sixty percent of the 1.74 million military losses were due to starvation, rather than combat. In some instances, the troops had to resort to eating their own dead comrades. Japan was isolated, but didn’t have the same resources Britain did to keep imports coming into the country.

Britain had few qualms about starving its colonies in Africa and India to feed the home country. As Collingham reports, “At least 1.5 million Bengalis died during 1943-44, when food scarcity was at its height.” Epidemics, easily killing those weakened by malnutrition, killed another 1.5-2 million. (She does attribute blame to the Indian Government was well as the Brits, but the British could have done much more about the situation had they cared as much about their “dark” subjects as their Caucasian ones.) Britain also left other nations to starve, such as Greece, where some half million civilians perished. Approximately two million starved to death in French Indochina. The parade of gruesome facts is a long one.

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In the Soviet Union, citizens fell under a double whammy, as it were, being starved alternatively by Stalin and by Hitler. It is estimated between 2 and 3 million Soviet citizens died of hunger and malnutrition. [Timothy Snyder writes that between 1932 and 1942, some eleven million Soviet citizens died of starvation, first because of the policy of Soviet leaders and then because of the policy of German leaders. Timothy Snyder, “Stalin & Hitler: Mass Murder by Starvation,” NY Review of Books, June 21, 2012]

Stalin in 1943 - never opposed to having massive numbers of his own people killed

Stalin in 1943 – never opposed to having massive numbers of his own people killed

China also experienced millions of deaths from hunger, not helped by the internal struggles in the country between the Nationalists and the Communists. Collingham reports:

Two million Nationalist soldiers died and at least 15 million civilians, 85 per cent of them peasants, and virtually all of them the victims of deprivation and starvation.”

The perceived ineptitude and corruption of the Nationalist government contributed to the ability of the Communists to take over after the war, when they proceeded to increase the death toll from hunger exponentially. When Mao got power, he began to engage in “land reform” in earnest, which meant murdering some one million “rich” peasants in order to collectivize farms. But he didn’t “need” to murder most of the 30 million reputed to have died during this time; the inept and unjust collectivization process took care of that.

Mao Zedong, friendly happy murderer of massive proportions

Mao Zedong, friendly happy murderer of massive proportions

In other areas after the war, the hunger problem actually increased, not only because of the disruption to planting, harvesting, and available labor because of the war. In 1946 a huge drought affected most of the world (except for the U.S). Thus, in Japan, for example, hundreds of thousands starved to death after the surrender, and in Germany, as Colingham points out, “the population only began to experience hunger after the war (not being able to take food from useless eaters anymore).

Eventually, in 1948, Europe began receiving aid from the U.S. via the much-vaunted Marshall Plan. Americans only finally agreed to share their abundance of food after it became clear that the threat of Communism loomed if the populations abroad were too dissatisfied with their governments. But a portion of the money given to each country had to be used not for food, but for propaganda extolling the benefits of the American way of life, including exhibitions, films, pamphlets, radio shows and concerts.

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Then there were the Pacific Islands. There, during the fighting, the U.S. had leveled crops and fields to install airstrips and roads and bivouacs. At that time, they fully shared their food largesse with the natives, but after they left, the natives had nothing, and no way to replace it. They had become totally dependent on imports, but the U.S., ever conscious of courting the farm vote, would not grant them any tariff relief. So they became impoverished, hungry, and eventually addicted to the chemically-processed, high-fat, and high-sugar foods they managed to buy from the U.S. (at inflated prices). Even today, many of those areas suffer from obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

Two other aspects of food and war receive a thorough treatment by Collingham. One is the logistics of war itself; i.e., the need to keep soldiers who are on the move fed and watered, and with enough vitamins to ward off deficiencies common in wartime. Soldiers also require more calories, since they expend a great deal of energy. The amount of food required is incredible, and the lengths to which combatants will go to get it is amazing as well. (This is of course in addition to the vast amounts of fuel, ammunition, medical supplies, etc. that also need to be transported along with the soldiers. But without sustenance, nothing else will matter.) The importance of making sure there is enough food for both soldiers and civilians, and adequate means of transport to distribute it, cannot be overemphasized. Most of the combatants simply did not think to, or feel able to, release ships and rail lines from the use of the military for conveyance of food. Also, believing, as most combatants initially do, that the war would be short, they destroyed land and crops and animals without worrying where their next meals would come from.

Source: Joint Cultinary Center of Excellence, Parade Magazine, 5/19/13

Source: Joint Cultinary Center of Excellence, Parade Magazine, 5/19/13

Collingham also allocates some space in this book to the problems the future may bring because of the changing nature of the demand for food, both in terms of quality and quantity; the effects on the environment and resulting repercussions; and the unequal distribution of wealth and ergo food, which is bound to affect international relations.

Evaluation: I’ve long been interested in the logistics of war, and the importance of getting food and water not only to the troops but to the animals that service them. It can certainly make a difference in success or failure of an operation, particularly in the desert. (Indeed, in some areas of the world, the fight for water and/or water access is becoming as important as the battle for land used to be.)

I learned so much from this book, and strongly advocate that any scholar of war, history, or socioeconomics at least read through Part I, which contains more general information before the author goes into greater detail. It definitely added to my understanding of world affairs.

Rating: 4/5

Published by The Penguin Press, 2012

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