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How Countries Militarize Landscaping During War

Yet there have been instances where nations have used the landscape as a weapon. In one such watershed case – Operation Ranch Hand – the US military launched a defoliant called Agent Orange into the South Vietnam countryside to militarize the forest during the Vietnam War.

The US Army launched a defoliant called Agent Orange in the South Vietnam countryside to militarize the forest during the Vietnam War as part of the Operation Ranch Hand project. [Photo: USAF/Wiki Commons]

While the end of the Vietnam War saw an international ban on the use of the environment as a weapon, landscaping – which includes the design and planting of green spaces – continues to present itself as a capable tool to influence the hearts and minds of local people and ultimately achieve military objectives.

Speaking of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said:

“Winning a battle is not winning the war. Taking a city does not mean that Vladimir Putin takes the hearts and minds of the Ukrainian people. On the contrary, he is destined to lose.

Clearly, US military doctrine considers winning “hearts and minds” a necessary measure to win a war.

As a design critic who has studied the role of landscapes in warfare, I argue that trees and green spaces can be components of a non-coercive mode of warfare because they can be used to build community solidarity and reduce the likelihood of insurgency.

Winning hearts and minds

The US military’s experience in Afghanistan has proven that having a more powerful military does not guarantee victory in a war.

While the Taliban surrendered Kandahar only two months after the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, the US military remained in Afghanistan and engaged in violent conflict for the next 20 years, eventually withdrawing and bringing the nation under the control of the Taliban.

At the heart of the United States effort to secure peace was the strategy of winning “hearts and minds,” or making emotional and intellectual appeals to the local population through attraction and persuasion instead of the force.

During Operation Allies Welcome, a U.S. military service member plays with an evacuated Afghan girl at an Afghan refugee camp November 4, 2021 at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. [Photo: Jon Cherry/Getty Images]

The US military may not ultimately have won the war in Afghanistan, but it has developed tactics to secure peace and win the hearts and minds of local citizens. Although not all efforts were successful, I found several instances where the US military’s war aims aligned with an unlikely ally – the landscape architect profession.

Since Olmsted’s time, a growing body of scientific research has concluded that exposure to green spaces helps improve health and well-being. While medical professionals prescribed spending time with nature, landscape architects worked to maximize the positive outcomes of exposure through design.

Landscaping presents itself as a tool capable of influencing the health and well-being and, therefore, the hearts and minds of local populations. Ultimately, he can achieve military objectives through the planning and planting of green spaces.

Arm the landscape

The use of the landscape as a weapon is an underestimated field of study.

In 1976, the United States, along with 47 other nations, became signatories to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques. This treaty prohibits “the modification of the natural environment with a view to its use as a weapon of war” and “acts of war prejudicial to the natural environment”.

An oilfield on fire during Operation Desert Storm, Kuwait. [Photo: Jonas Jordan/United States Army Corps of Engineers/Wiki Commons]

As the deliberate destruction of the environment continues, exemplified by the burning of oil wells set on fire by Iraqi troops during the Gulf War, researchers hope that the International Criminal Court will one day be able to prosecute “crimes against the environment”.

More recently, the Stop Ecocide Foundation has worked to provide a criminal definition of ecocide that will have the force of international law, making “serious and widespread or long-term damage to the environment” punishable.

These efforts are commendable and deserve our support. Yet the understandable focus on damage and destruction diminishes attention to acts of war, such as tree-planting efforts, that “improve” an environment.

Understanding the Long-Term Impacts of War

A project undertaken by the US military in Afghanistan saw active troops leading a reforestation effort in the Panjshir region, where they planted 35,000 trees, creating a regional green space.

A U.S. Army officer plants a sapling during the ‘Afghan Future Takes Root’ initiative in Panjshir, Afghanistan. [Photo: 1st Lt. Holly Hess/DVIDS]

As many people experienced this regional planting effort, the landscape influenced the hearts and minds of local citizens on a population scale.

Although the US military has now withdrawn from Afghanistan, these planted trees and other green spaces continue to grow and exert influence. Thus, it is not only environmentally damaging acts of war that have widespread and long-term impacts on a population.

As I write from my office in the unceded territory of the Musqueam people, I am more deeply aware that beautiful scenery can manipulate hearts and minds and become a weapon of war. The continued presence of a colonial landscape, designed and imposed on these lands, is best recognized if we ask ourselves what this land was like before and after the establishment of a colonial society.

We experience green spaces differently depending on their design and our cultural background. We need to think about who designed and built our local green spaces and for what purpose. Ultimately, it matters that the landscape is redesigned and replanted by local people or by occupying forces.

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