The Past, Exploding

by Justin

Remember the glory days when we met our enemy on the battlefield, certain of our cause and confident that no amount of diplomacy could check the engines of terror?

I don’t, of course, but my oldest brother and I like to talk about World War II with a sort of desperate longing and an endless admiration for the men and women involved in the Allied campaign. These days the lines are muddier (oilier) and the enemies of freedom seem to be more products of post-industrial greed than any real ideological schism. The terrorism of radical Islam can’t be met directly on the battlefield and offers the quagmire we’re still struggling to escape in the wake of George W. Bush’s presidency. Which is not to say it isn’t a battle worth fighting, but not by traditional means.

The reckless agendas of corporations, however obviously villainous, aren’t generating the outrage one might hope for. The catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico may be some sort of tipping point, but it will require President Obama to mobilize the public and articulate their frustrations. Something remarkable began happening this week as Obama’s careful reactions to the developing economic and ecological disaster gave way to action. As he said in a speech on June 2nd in PA:

We consume more than 20 percent of the world’s oil, but have less than 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves. So without a major change in our energy policy, our dependence on oil means that we will continue to send billions of dollars of our hard-earned wealth to other countries every month — including countries in dangerous and unstable regions. In other words, our continued dependence on fossil fuels will jeopardize our national security. It will smother our planet. And it will continue to put our economy and our environment at risk.

This is great stuff. What I haven’t heard enough about is the way our international strategy is compromised by our dependence on foreign oil. It’s obvious, yes, but doesn’t make headlines as often as it should. He goes on to discuss the critical need for private industry to move past carbon dependence:

Now, many businesses have already embraced this idea because it provides a level of certainty about the future. And for those that face transition costs, we can help them adjust. But if we refuse to take into account the full costs of our fossil fuel addiction — if we don’t factor in the environmental costs and the national security costs and the true economic costs — we will have missed our best chance to seize a clean energy future.

He’s right. This is our best chance. The energy bill was sidelined by the immediate demands of immigration reform (Arizona demanding racial profiling and all), but the scale of the spill in the Gulf has swept everything to the side. This is the hour for Obama to get the public engaged enough that the GOP can’t block significant energy reform. A clear and present villain has proven to be a difficult obstacle for an obstinate and obstructionist Republican Party.

But that’s not what this post is really about. It’s about the scale of World War II and the recent stories of its weaponry continuing to kill. Last Wednesday the Guardian covered the deaths of three bomb squad technicians killed in Göttingen, Germany by a 500kg bomb left over from the 1940s:

Construction workers had found the device about six metres below the ground where the city is building a sports arena.

The three dead men, aged 38 to 55, were experienced in defusing bombs and it was not clear why it exploded, Göttingen police president Robert Kruse said at a press conference today. He said two other experts were severely injured and four others were treated for shock..

City spokesman Detlef Johannson said the team was still preparing to remove the detonator when the bomb exploded.

Unexploded bombs from Allied bombardments and the first world war are found regularly in Germany. Only a few days before, another bomb found in Göttingen was successfully defused.

Every German state has dozens of specialists trained to defuse old bombs, and accidents are rare. Hundreds of police and firefighters are usually involved in helping evacuate people before experts attempt to make safe a bomb.

Couple things: this bomb lay dormant for at least 60 years and none of the 7000 people evacuated prior to the explosion had any idea. What? How real does that make World War II? It’s such recent history, and I think my generation doesn’t appreciate that. The real slayer here is that in the same town another bomb was disarmed just days earlier.

NPR went more in depth today on the same subject:

Each year as spring and summer construction work expands, unexploded aerial bombs, hand grenades, artillery rounds and ammunition are uncovered: Last year, construction crews even found old explosives near the private apartment of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Berlin city officials estimate there are some 4,000 unexploded pieces of ordnance — mostly aerial bombs and artillery — still scattered across the capital.

And more:

Unexploded World War II ordnance remains a problem in many European cities and in parts of North Africa. Berlin city officials estimate the German capital was bombarded by 465,000 tons of explosives and that 1 out of 8 bombs dropped on the city during the war did not explode.

The entire article is interesting, going into the risk taken by those technicians that make a profession of disarming the bombs and exploring the business of selling RAF aerial photos from 1945 to use as guidelines for bomb hunting. Wild, right?

Part of my impression of contemporary Germany is that it owns the Holocaust and the fanatic terror of the Nazis in a very real way. It’s as dark a chapter as a nation can have, and it’s always seemed to be pervasive in the German consciousness – which is a great thing. Maybe sleeping on top of an Allied bomb promotes that awareness. It must be humbling and guiding to feel that close to the worst that mankind can do. It isn’t as recent, but can you imagine living amongst the tangible remnants of American Indian culture? To have that reminder of how not to behave?