Forests and Warfare in World History
By J.R. McNeill
Lynn W. Day Distinguished Lectureship in Forest and Conservation History – given at the Forest History Society meeting Durham, NC (2002)
Introduction: For better and for worse, both woods and warfare are fundamental factors in human life, and have been for a very long time. Humankind evolved in park like savannas of East Africa, from hominid ancestors who had lived in forests. We, and they, have used woodlands, and to some extent have been shaped by woodland environments, for millions of years. Warfare, at least on small scales, also extends very far into the human past, and, to judge by the behavior of modern chimpanzees, probably occupied the energies and shortened the lives of our hominid ancestors too. So, in all likelihood, we and our forebears have been making war amid woodlands for at least a million years.
War and warfare is one of the favorite historical topics and has attracted some of the best historians, from Thucydides onward. Forests, forestry, and deforestation also have a distinguished historiography, if rather smaller. Here I propose to explore some of the links and intersections between these two historical subjects.
Before I proceed, it may be helpful to explain some of the things that I am not trying to do. I will not argue that warfare has been of crucial importance in the history of forests generally, nor will I contend that forests have been a major influence upon military history generally. My goal is more modest: I will try to show that at certain times and places the links between military affairs and forests were significant, either for warfare or for forests, or for both. I also hope that some of the points of intersection between forest history and military history prove interesting and instructive, even when not of central importance for larger narratives.
In pursuing this theme I will range over some 30 centuries of history and venture around the world, from New Zealand and Japan to Britain and Brazil. This, then, is an excursion into world history as well, in which I hope to point out some large-scale patterns that transcend the borders and boundaries of particular eras and epochs, as well as of specific societies, states, and civilizations.
I will approach the subject from four different directions, but in every case will arrive at the links between forest history and military history. First I will consider forests as a source of war materiel. Second, I will turn to forests as a direct factor in how wars were fought. Third, I will treat the direct impacts of combat itself upon forests. And fourth, I will reflect upon the impacts upon forests of the business of preparation for war. Obviously these four approaches are closely connected to one another, and in practice will spill over into one another.