[i]?The remnants of war exist as unexploded artillery shells and swaths of unburied landmines. They drift as sea mines in oceans and moulder as dead soldiers left unburied beneath forest leaves.?[/i]
Donovan Webster (author), [i]Aftermath: The Remnants of War[/i]
Unexploded artillery shells, remnants of the First World War, still dormant in French soil; undetonated landmines in Sarajevo, reminders of the destructive war in Bosnia; a quiet farmer?s field in Russia, hiding the hastily buried bodies of 800,000 Germans and 1,000,000 Russians that died in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942; a Dioxin-contaminated village, Khe Sahn, Vietnam, with a disproportional ratio of deformed children. The end of war rarely means the return to normality, especially in those countries that served as battlegrounds for some of the 20th-century?s most devastating wars. In the 20th-century, more than 100 million people as a direct result of world wars and minor, regional conflicts. [i]Aftermath: The Remnants of War[/i], directed by Daniel Sekulich and based on a book by Donovan Webster, is a stark reminder that wars rarely end with the cessation of hostilities. Instead, wars linger both in the imaginations of the survivors and in the (dangerous) physical detritus left behind by retreating war machines.
In France, Sekulich introduces the audience to the French Department du Deminage. The department?s employees, demineurs (deminers), are tasked to search for, uncover, remove, and store (and in some cases destroy) unexploded artillery and mortar shells. The demineurs are shown at work in the Verdun forest, where, during the First World War, more than twenty million artillery shells fell from the sky, killing more than seven hundred thousand men. Roughly 1 out of every 8 artillery or mortar shells failed to explode and pose a continuing danger to humans and animals. The work is slow, tedious, labor-intensive, and extremely dangerous. Since the creation of the Department du Deminage in 1945, more than 600 demineurs have lost their lives. At the current rate of progress, France will be cleared of the remnants of the First World War in seven hundred years.
In Russia, the camera floats above a verdant agricultural field, now an unquiet memorial to the 1942-43 Battle of Stalingrad, where more than three million Germans and Russians fought on the plains surrounding Stalingrad. The Battle of Stalingrad has long been considered the pivotal battle on the Eastern Front, where the Russians held the line and turned back the German onslaught. The Germans were surrounded, starved, and eventually defeated by a superior (in number, if not weaponry) Russian force. The Russians were themselves aided by the harsh, uncompromising winter. Eight hundred thousand Germans eventually surrendered to the Russians; most of the Germans were treated harshly, in retribution for their own brutal actions as they swept through Russia toward Stalingrad. Another eight hundred thousand Germans and one million Russians died in the battle. Most were left unburied, and those that were buried, were buried under a thin layer of soil, leaving a veritable field of bones. Today, fortune hunters use crude tools to dig through the soft earth in order to find valuable World War II-era mementos. A human lifetime can come and go before the battle?s treasures will be exhausted (one man proudly boasts that his own children will be making a living from the mass grave long after he's died).
In Vietnam, the small village of Khe Sahn has been tragically afflicted with a disproportionate number of deformed children. During the Vietnam War, the United States used vast amounts of herbicides (i.e., Agent Orange) to deforest Vietcong-held areas. The purpose: to remove potential cover for the Vietcong guerillas and their collaborators in the peasant villages. The result: the destruction of crops needed for peasant survival. Even worse, one of the main components of Agent Orange, dioxin, leeched into the groundwater and the topsoil, affecting the entire food chain, from fish, to fowl, to human beings. Long-term, villagers in the affected areas began to give birth to children with abnormalities, from deformed, misshapen faces, to motor control problems, and in some cases, blindness. Many of the children have been abandoned to state care. Dioxin poisoning is presumed because testing each child would cost the equivalent of $1,000 U.S. dollars. The United States has refused responsibility for dioxin poisoning and calls for reparations have remained unanswered.
In Sarajevo, Bosnia, after the longest siege in modern history, life has returned to a semblance of normality, but the Bosnians must navigate the newly rebuilt city with extreme care. More than eighteen hundred minefields dot the city?s streets, gardens, and public parks. Many areas are off-limits to the Bosnians, clearly marked with yellow tape and signage. Some areas may appear safe, but aren?t. Like France, Sarajevo employs its own deminers, men who survived the traumas of war only to place their lives in danger on a daily basis. For many, it simply pays better than otherwise available employment. The men, a psychologist informs us, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, a combination of past and current experiences. Landmines, however, are only one-half the problem in Sarajevo: unexploded ordnance (UXO) is a second, but equally dangerous problems. Other crews are exclusively assigned to locate, transport, and destroy unexploded ordnance. There too, some deminers have lost their lives.
There is, however, one point of legitimate criticism: the sin of omission. At 74-minutes, [i]Aftermath: The Remnants of War[/i] offers a far too brief, perfunctory examination of the ?remnants of war.? Nothing was said about the UXO in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. More could have been said about the use of other types of ordnance or munitions, including depleted uranium, which was first used during the First Gulf War (and which former U.S. servicemen claim is the source for Gulf War Syndrome). Nonetheless, [i]Aftermath: The Remnants of War[/i] serves as a powerful, thought-provoking reminder of the human costs of war, of the little known, little acknowledged fact (by the mainstream press) that wars continue to inflict casualties long after the end of wars and regional conflicts. Civilians overwhelmingly pay the cost, in lives and limbs, for the wars conducted by their governments.