Military afterlives at the bottom of the sea

“Our fragile ocean ecologies are often at the front of my mind. So unsurprisingly, learning about these weapons dumps troubled me. I wondered, how were the afterlives of past wars still lingering at the bottom of the sea? Were our already imperilled marine ecosystems going to be another belated wartime casualty?”

Image by Stephen Masters, via Flicker Commons.

Astrida will be presenting her research on sea-dumped weapons as part of ‘Everyday Militarisms & their Environments‘ on 7 June 2018. This research is part of her MASSIF Fellowship entitled “What the Ocean Remembers,” in collaboration with the SEI.

Drowned bombs and military afterlives

I often snorkel at Clovelly Beach on a Sunday morning. I marvel at the colourful grasses and the big blue groper. I get annoyed at the ephemera of baby wipes and escapee bandaids. But I don’t think I’ve ever considered the possibility of finding an old World War II bomb.

This is precisely what two divers found in Sydney Harbour a few months ago. And while that discovery may sound extraordinary, Sydney’s nearshore waters are in fact home to many old bombs – including 5000 tons of unused chemical weapons, most often containing mustard gas. Drowned about 28 kilometres south-east of South Sydney heads, at a depth of 275 metres, these chemical weapons are part of the hundreds of thousands of tons of chemical ordnance dumped in the planet’s oceans after World War II. Relying on the sea’s “unlimited absorptive capacity” (in the words of Department of Defence researcher Geoff Plunkett, who has conducted most of the published research of chemical weapons in Australia), these 1940s “sea drownings” were viewed as the best way of disposing of the chemical weapons stocks that Australia had amassed at the end of the war, but never deployed.

Our fragile ocean ecologies are often at the front of my mind. So unsurprisingly, learning about these weapons dumps troubled me. I wondered, how were the afterlives of past wars still lingering at the bottom of the sea? Were our already imperilled marine ecosystems going to be another belated wartime casualty?

Militarisms, both spectacular and slow

As environmental humanities scholar Rob Nixon points out, “politically and emotionally, different kinds of disaster possess unequal heft.” On his list of “spectacular” things that get our attention, Nixon includes falling bodies, exploding heads, and volcanoes. Undetonated mustard gas bombs on the seafloor (and not all that far from the shores where we swim, boat, fish, and play) certainly fit this bill. And to prove Nixon’s point: when I mention Sydney’s sea dumped chemical weapons to folks, most are surprised, and many are horrified. How could we allow this? Why aren’t we doing anything about them? Could they still explode?

Far less outrage is expressed when I discuss the more mundane kinds of pollution that swim in our harbours and seas: plastic particulate, for instance, or everyday industrial run-off. These latter examples fit well on Nixon’s other list: things like toxic build-up and massing greenhouse gases, are far less spectacular than bombs. The effects of these disasters accumulate only slowly; their damages cannot so easily be traced back to a single source, and their place in everyday life has often become so normalised that it escapes all notice. But as Nixon points out, it is precisely stories about these ‘slow violences’ of environmental degradation that we need to mobilise. Otherwise, the new normal sneaks in and settles down, before we know it.

Taking heed of Nixon’s warning about the lure of spectacular violence, I wondered what to make of these chemical bombs. Maybe, I thought, I shouldn’t even care – or at least I should care more about the slow smotherings of the sea that I, in my fossil-fuelled and plastic wrapped Western lifestyle, participate in daily. In fact, not unlike chemical ordnance dumps in other seas around the world, the vast amounts of seawater that have bathed those old bombs for almost a century have likely neutralised any harmful chemicals. (In some places, like Hawai’i, old weapons dumps even form the substrate for flourishing sea life, such as the brisingid starfish). And, where chemical reactivation might still pose a threat, leaving the weapons in situ – to be slowly and deeply embraced by the sandy seafloor—is probably the safest thing to do. Pulling them up and out of their wartime resting place would just stir up old trouble, literally.

This doesn’t mean that dumping those weapons in the sea was a good idea, nor that traces of poison haven’t already harmed marine environments at the dumpsites. (In Europe’s Baltic Sea, old mustard gas bombs may be implicated in the deaths of a number of seals.) It just means that there aren’t many great ideas when it comes to disposing of war’s toxic leftovers; there is no “outside” to our lands, seas and skies, where harm could be reduced to zero. Sea dumping (although I cringe to say it) may have been the best of many unhappy resolutions.

Tangled pasts in our everyday present

But what if instead of having to choose between noticing slow violence (like plastic or fertiliser) and spectacular disaster (like war), we used the attention-grabbing power of the spectacular to unpick how war is tangled up with more mundane environmental degradations? What if those chemical weapon dumps helped us trace the legacy of the same industrialised chemistry that brought us sulphur mustard, in contemporary chemical medical therapies and household cleaning products? What if the spectre of scuttled warships directed our attention to the billion-dollar techno-military industry in which our governments still happily invest? What if the risk of stirring up those old sunken war souvenirs – by seabed mining, for example – reminded us of the close intimacy that extraction industries and war still enjoy? Old militarisms, and their environmental consequences, are still with us – but perhaps not in the spectacular forms that we expect.

Astrida Neimanis is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney and Key Researcher at the Sydney Environment Institute. Her research is located at the intersection of feminist theory and environmental humanities, with a focus on water, weather and bodies. Her latest book Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology was published in 2017 (Bloomsbury). Astrida is also Associate Editor of the journal Environmental Humanities.