An Interview with Alex Souchen, Author of “War Junk”

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Blair Stein recently interviewed Alex Souchen about his new book “War Junk.” This interview has been edited and condensed.

Whenever I work through a reading with my undergraduate students, I ask them for their “Grandma summary.” That is, if your grandma called you and asked what War Junk was about, what would you tell her?

I would say that my “grandma summary” is: “when wars end, the weapons and supplies accumulated to fight don’t just disappear. Rather, surplus military gear lives on in peacetime and poses significant liabilities and dilemmas to postwar societies. The transition between war and peace happens when munitions are ushered through a disposal process that reshapes their value, forms, and functions according to new political, economic, social, and environmental imperatives. My book examines how the Canadian state implemented a disposal strategy for its surplus munitions and supplies from 1943 to 1948, and how Canadian citizens responded to the divestment by reducing, reusing, and recycling war junk to improve their postwar lives.”

In many ways, War Junk is a book about predicting the future. The War Assets Corporation (WAC) was assuming that the consuming public would behave a certain way after the war, guessing at amounts and locations of surplus materiel, and trying to imagine solutions to problems that had not yet arisen. What were some “predictions” that the Canadian government got right? Got wrong? What was the state’s biggest concern about the “future”?

That’s actually a really interesting way of framing the “disposal problem” facing the Canadian state at the end of the war—they had to look forward, at the future, to deal with stuff from the past. And because the plans they made were all based on assumptions about the future, they were constantly adjusting them as events unfolded and once their assumptions were proven only half right.

Although the scale and scope of disposal in 1945 was exponentially greater and cut across far more industries than in 1919, the precedent of the First World War loomed large in policymaking during the Second World War. The big lesson they took away from disposal operations in 1919 was that they had failed. When surpluses were put up for sale after the First World War, speculators vacuumed them up for cheap and then quickly resold them before new production got back underway. This undercut normal supply channels with a sudden bonanza of goods that were acquired through intermediaries that had no connections to the industries concerned. As a result, prices for new goods dropped to unsustainable levels for legitimate manufacturers, causing them to cut employment and production. In the 1940s officials were consciously trying to avoid re-creating the economic conditions that would start the Second Great Depression.

Avoiding economic disaster was probably the biggest concern, and the biggest thing they got right. However, the manner in which they succeeded prompted a great deal of criticism and acrimony. Basically, to prevent speculation and deflation, the WAC set itself up to be a wholesaler and only sold surplus assets at the highest prices possible to public institutions and established businesses, who either reused the assets, recycled them, or resold them to end users. This cut down on speculation and inflated prices, and sent goods back through the companies that had just produced them. Today, we call this reverse logistics. The problem was the WAC was barred from selling directly to the public and only distributed through established intermediaries who kept prices high and sometimes gouged clients with hidden fees. Canadians were stuck paying more for less, and with the high consumer demand pent up after years of scarcity and sacrifice, many people were angry at the WAC’s sales and destruction policies—and especially at having to pay market prices for second-hand goods that their tax dollars had paid for during the war.

This calls upon another question that War Junk works through: who owns war surplus? Did debates about “ownership” change as particular materiel went from not-junk to junk?

The “trash versus treasure” debate was central to the whole history of munitions disposal. In the transition from war to peace, objects could gain new values, forms, or functions as thrifty people tinkered or renovated objects to suit their needs. So, garbage is a mutable concept; one person’s trash is someone else’s treasure. For example, the Royal Canadian Air Force considered a whole bunch of aircraft as junk and declared them surplus after the war, but those planes were filled with thousands of parts and technologies that could be reconfigured in different ways by farmers. So “barnyard bombers” (as they were known) were coveted purchases, not because they were planes, but because they had so many parts that could support agricultural mechanization. 

A “barnyard bomber.” Image credit: Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection

Now, we also have to remember that not every plane was purchased, so the WAC had to incinerate the leftover aircraft whenever the storage and maintenance costs eclipsed potential sales revenue. When reports about the bonfires surfaced in newspapers, the optics looked terrible: the WAC was wantonly destroying things that Canadians would have purchased, and worse still, things that Canadian tax dollars had paid to procure in the first place! Maybe I’m overly sympathetic to the WAC, but I found that the acrimony over destruction programs ignored the complexities and nuances involved. There was always a rational explanation, but the critics usually missed the WAC’s repeated marketing campaigns or the fact that incineration was actually saving tax dollars from being wasted on future storage and maintenance costs.

In what ways is this an “environmental” story?

I would argue that Canada’s natural resources and vast tracts of underpopulated lands were some of the nation’s most important contributions to the Allied cause. In just a few short years, Canada became an industrial hub for military procurement and a proving ground for weapons testing and training, which brought significant expansion in infrastructure and major ecological changes across every region of the country. The Alaskan Highway and Northwest Staging Route often gets most of the attention, but Chemical Valley in Sarnia is a product of wartime investments in synthetic rubber, and so was the mass production of fertilizers and the mechanization of agriculture. Plus, we can trace the origins of most Canadian airports back to the British Commonwealth Air Training Program, which trained nearly a quarter of all aircrews in the entire British Empire. So, the environmental scale of the war effort was pretty significant, and as a consequent, disposal operations mirrored that scale.

A lot of this, then, is about using “space” as part of the war effort. What were some of the spatial challenges in collecting, storing, processing, and disposing war surplus?

As far as spatial challenges go, there were many. Following the war there was a big storage crisis in the military, as budgets were cut and force structures were adjusted, the available storage space was quickly filled with all of the things the armed forces wanted to keep. As a result, physically removing the surplus assets (from factories, military installations, or wherever else they were left) was critical to the postwar transition. So the WAC had to take custody, relocate items to its warehouses, appraise and evaluate them, and then put them up for sale or scrap – all so the state could profit from disposal. I called this the logistics of disposal in my book, and it involved thousands of different locations across the country, aircraft boneyards, ship and vehicle graveyards, abandoned relics in the North, and contaminated spaces – both on land and in the oceans.  

It seems as though the “storage crisis” that arose at the end of the war led to a tension between the theory, so to speak, of what to do with all of the stuff and the material realities of the stuff itself. What’s an example where what you’ve called the “logistics of disposal” was faced with the materiality of the things in practice?

One example involved the decontamination operations at munitions factories and proof ranges. The WAC and Department of Munitions and Supply established very detailed standard procedures for the postwar cleanup at these sites, and funded extensive remedial work to remove all the explosive residues, chemicals, and unexploded ordnance so that the equipment, building materials, facilities, and real estate could be resold. There were legitimate environmental and health hazards that had to be dealt with, but the operations were always limited by contemporary knowledge of toxicity, available equipment, dwindling financial resources, and accelerated timelines for reconversion. In the end, they were never able to completely remediate these landscapes, especially given some of the crude methods they employed (like area burning and ocean dumping), so the toxic dangers persisted. In some cases, you can still see traces of the ecological damage today at places like Nobel, Ontario, while the thousands of dumpsites (full of conventional and chemical weapons) off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts pose concerning hazards for the fishing and energy industries.

You can follow Alex on Twitter: @AlexSouchen

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War Junk will be available in paperback on November 1, 2020

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Blair Stein

I am Assistant Professor of History at Clarkson University in northern New York State. I teach history of science and technology and environmental history, and I write about the links between geography, technology, and modernity in twentieth-century Canada, with a special interest in aviation.

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