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IPFS News Link • WAR: About that War

War and Famine

•, By Andrea Mazzarino

Many war stories end with hunger wreaking havoc on significant portions of a population. In Christian theology, the Biblical "four horses of the apocalypse," believed by many in early modern Europe to presage the end of the world, symbolized invasion, armed conflict, and famine followed by death. They suggest the degree to which people have long recognized how violence causes starvation. Armed conflict disrupts food supplies as warring factions divert resources to arms production and their militaries while destroying the kinds of infrastructure that enable societies to feed themselves. Governments, too, sometimes use starvation as a weapon of war. (Sound familiar? I'm not going to point fingers here because most of us can undoubtedly recall recent examples.)

As someone who has studied Russian culture and history for decades, I think of Nazi Germany's nearly three-year siege of the city of Leningrad, which stands out for the estimated 630,000 people the Germans killed slowly and intentionally thanks to starvation and related causes. Those few Russians I know who survived that war as young children still live with psychological trauma, stunted growth, and gastrointestinal problems. Their struggles, even in old age, are a constant reminder to me of war's ripple effects over time. Some 20-25 million people died from starvation in World War II, including many millions in Asia. In fact, some scholars believe that hunger was the primary cause of death in that war.

We've been taught since childhood that war is mainly about troops fighting, no matter that we live in a world in which most military funding actually has little to do with people. Instead, war treasure chests go disproportionately into arms production rather than troops and (more importantly) their wider communities at home. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence and autonomous weapons are being developed with little or no ethical oversight or regulation, potentially removing many soldiers from future battlefields but not from the disastrous psychological scars of war. Meanwhile, in war zones themselves, among civilians, the long-term effects of armed conflict play out on the bodies of those with the least say over whether or not we go to war to begin with, its indirect costs including the possibility of long-term starvation (now increasingly rampant in Gaza).

Today, armed conflict is the most significant cause of hunger. According to the United Nations' World Food Program, 70% of the inhabitants of war- or violence-affected regions don't get enough to eat, although our global interconnectedness means that none of us are immune from high food, fuel, and fertilizer prices and war's supply-chain interruptions. Americans have experienced the impact of Ukraine's war when it comes to fuel and grain prices, but in regions like sub-Saharan Africa, which depend significantly on Eastern European foodstuffs and fuel, the conflict has sparked widespread hunger. Consider it a particularly cruel feature of modern warfare that people who may not even know about wars being fought elsewhere can still end up bearing the wounds on their bodies.