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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

After the Fighting Ends, Then What? : AFTERMATH: The Landscape of War by Donovan Webster; Pantheon; $23, 288 pages

August 28, 1996|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

There may be something to be said against little boys playing soldiers, cowboys-and-Indians, and other kinds of war. There is also quite a lot to be said for it. Apart from the fact that they'll always want to, it is not entirely absurd to think that in some fashion play violence eases the other kind.

Either way, it does offer one valuable lesson to real war. When you finish playing, you have to put everything away. Unfortunately it is a lesson ignored, and the ignoring has had ever more terrible consequences as war succeeded war through the 20th century. In his vividly reported, dismaying book, Donovan Webster charts the growing horror of the "aftermath" of his title.

Each of the six chapters is a visit: to France, where sappers are still digging up and dying from the bombs and shells of the First World War; to Kuwait, where 4,000 technicians sift sand in a billion-dollar effort to disarm 7 million mines; to Vietnam, where much of the same work is done involuntarily by peasants who then arrive legless at the hospitals. No billions are available to remove the mines; on the other hand, thousands of plastic limbs are being turned out at $38 apiece.

We visit the Salt Lake desert where a cleanup is planned for a war never fought. A half-billion-dollar incinerator is being readied to destroy about half of our 1.2 million pounds of lethal nerve and mustard gas. An official report cites 3,000 design flaws; the builders and the Defense Department believe that the risk level is "acceptable."

There is a visit to the steppes outside Volgograd A gray scree covers them: uncounted tens of thousands of crumbled Axis skeletons, unburied after 53 years. Only recently have the Russians agreed to let Germany and Austria build cemeteries for them.

Some of Webster's writing is hasty, and some of his figures are confusing. There is too much potted summarizing of the several wars, particularly the more recent and presumably more familiar ones. The author is judgmental, and quite rightly. Perhaps he is too quick--a child of his American generation and education--to label as "denial" the lack of apparent anti-American anger among Vietnamese officials.

But he holds fiercely and impressively to his theme. Modern war does some of its worst killing when it is over because the technology--mines, bombs, nuclear waste, deadly chemicals--never really let it be over. The people Webster talks to and the things he sees not only bear the theme out, but they are, in themselves, vividly and sometimes beautifully portrayed.

The account of a visit to the wooded hills of Alsace and the Flanders plain is not the most horrific part of the book. (That, possibly, is the hospital shelves of deformed fetuses--one with four heads--collected from an Agent Orange spray zone in Vietnam.) In some ways, though, perhaps because we think of France as a realm at peace, it may be the most arresting.

Webster walks, talks and eats with the blue-coveralled demineurs who, since 1946, have dug up and neutralized 18 million live artillery shells, 110 million grenades and 600,000 aerial bombs, some dating to the Franco-Prussian War--630 of them died doing it.

Near Verdun alone, an estimated 12 million shells remain. "We have plenty of time," Henri Belot, a section chief, remarked when he and his men knocked off for lunch.

Not long after Webster's visit, Belot, who spoke of the buried explosives as "asleep" and demonstrated the pains taken to keep them from "waking up," awakened an 80-year-old shell. He remains crippled by mustard gas.

Another demineur said something that must catch at the conscience of any American. Surveying the still-unhealed Flanders plain, he remarked: "Decades of rebuilding. Years and years of hardship. That is what happens when you have wars on your land, not on the land of your enemies."

Citizens of a country with the most advanced war technology in history, we have never been on the receiving end of such a thing, let alone lived and died with it for generations after. That would change, of course, if the design flaws in the Utah nerve-gas incinerator and our arrangements for storing nuclear bomb waste turn out, after all, to pose something besides "acceptable risk."

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