Review of Souchen, War Junk

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Alex Souchen, War Junk: Munitions Disposal and Postwar Reconstruction in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2020. 282 pgs. ISBN 9780774862929.

Reviewed by Henry Irving.

The Second World War was the most destructive conflict in modern human history. The war also reached well beyond its front lines, resting on an unprecedented military and industrial mobilisation. Canada is a staggering case in point. Military production for Allied forces caused its Gross National Product to double between 1939 and 1945. In practical terms, this equalled hundreds of thousands of military vehicles and billions of rounds of ammunition. Meanwhile, Canada’s own armed forces were transformed beyond all recognition. Souchen begins War Junk with an example from the Royal Canadian Navy, which he explains grew from a handful of ships to over 1,000 vessels, becoming the third largest fleet in the world (5). While this mass mobilisation is the book’s context, its purpose is to analyse what happened next. For environmental historians, Souchen’s most important argument is that the leftovers were “a form of waste that was both trash and treasure” (13).

The book is split into six chapters. The first two take a broadly chronological approach and deal with the politics and administration of the Canadian government’s approach to war surpluses. Chapter 1 charts the start of this process in 1943-44, while Chapter 2 runs briskly through the transition to peace in c.1944-47. Both deal with competing pressures from public and private bodies, introducing the prevailing fear that a flood of supplies onto the civilian market would lead to deflation. This hints at the project’s beginnings as a more conventional study of demobilisation, linking material concerns to veteran’s rehabilitation and the broader management of Canada’s post-war economy.

“Abandoned trucks on the Canol Heritage Trail, near Mile 222.” 
Credit: Anthony DeLorenzo, 31 July 2012

The later chapters are thematic and explore the way that the system designed in 1943-44 worked in practice. Chapter 3 considers the logistics of disposal, reminding readers that the bureaucratic “flood of forms” introduced in Chapter 2 was “accompanied by mountains of objects” (81). Chapter 4 explores the hierarchies of worth that were used to determine the fate of munitions and mainly deals with those that were destroyed. Chapter 5 is focused on items that were resold or reused in the civilian market, ranging from shipping to medical equipment. Finally, Chapter 6 considers both industrial recycling and “thrifty” upcycling, or bricolage, at a more human scale.

Souchen begins most chapters with a vivid example to introduce the main themes. The case studies include a speech by the Minister of Reconstruction, a fatal accident involving bedframes, a lottery for surplus military trucks and, in the conclusion, a Greek shipping magnate with a rather crude sense of humour. The illustrative approach is continued in each chapter, adding to the book’s readability and demonstrating the depth of Souchen’s research. The most arresting examples are those that demonstrate the afterlives of military objects, which is one of War Junk’s key contributions (12). These range from the repurposed army huts that allowed the postwar expansion of Canadian universities (165) to the decaying oil pipes, communication lines, and trucks that line today’s Canol Heritage Trail in the Yukon and Northwest Territories (108-9).

“Surplus naval vessels awaiting disposal in the WAC’s Pacific coast graveyard at Bedwell Bed, British Columbia, February 1946.”
Credit: City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 586-4200, Don Coltman, Steffens-Colmer Studios Ltd.

War Junk effectively conveys the mind-boggling task that faced Canadian authorities at the end of the Second World War. Take, as an example, Souchen’s account of the fate of 100 Mosquito fighter-bombers in 1947. At the end of hostilities, the aircraft had been cocooned in plastic and put into storage at the de Havilland aircraft plant in Toronto. In 1946, the planes were deemed surplus to requirements, but no buyers were found before the storage contract expired. In the end, the aircraft were burnt as the cost of scrappage was uneconomic (134). These Mosquitos were a fraction of the roughly 7,000 aircraft deemed surplus to military requirements, 80 per cent of which were considered unsafe for civilian use and scrapped, cannibalised, or destroyed (130-31). Examples such as these underscore just how wasteful the Second World War was, building on recent work such as Peter Thorsheim’s Waste Into Weapons: Recycling in Britain during the Second World War (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

This is combined with an appreciation of the war’s long-term environmental impacts. Souchen is broadly sympathetic to those charged with carrying out Canada’s transition to peace and is careful to contextualise their decisions. Nevertheless, he does not shy away from critical examples, whether the lax approaches to safety that led to fatal accidents or the decision to dump hundreds of thousands of tons of munitions in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Highlighting the pollution caused by unexploded ordnance in its conclusion, the book hints at an array of possible projects on the toxic legacy of decisions taken in the 1940s, especially for Indigenous communities. War Junk ends by considering parallels with the repatriation of armaments from Afghanistan after 2012 and makes other direct references to contemporary lessons that could be learnt from the study of past waste regimes. Again, in Souchen’s words, “More research is needed in this vital area” (211).

“Lancaster Bombers left to rot outside Pearce, Alberta (circa 1950-55).”
Credit: Bomber Command Museum of Canada Collection

Given the scale and scope of the disposal effort undertaken after 1945, it is remarkable that War Junk is the first study to engage with it in depth. It is an unequivocally original book. Yet this comes at a small price. Firstly, the book’s structure leads to some unavoidable overlap (and part of the administrative background to Chapter 5 might have been better placed in the first two chapters). Secondly, the chapters are necessarily framed by a range of distinct historiographies. These span histories of environment, business, material culture, and technology, as well as military and administrative history. While Souchen carefully sketches out three main historiographical contributions in the book’s introduction, these are not revisited, leaving the reader to draw the links between each contribution themselves.

The book is, however, best judged against the three tasks it sets itself. These are to focus attention on the legacies of militarisation; to show how military history can be combined with with material culture and discard studies; and to augment historical understandings of war-related waste and pollution. War Junk makes a significant contribution in each case and anyone writing in its wake will have a far easier point of reference. Although published in a series on Canadian military history, this book will interest readers working in a range of disciplines, in Canada and beyond. As a historian of wartime Britain, that is no bad thing.

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Henry Irving

Henry Irving is a Senior Lecturer in Public History at Leeds Beckett University in the UK. He is a historian of Britain in the Second World War, with interests in the public’s response to wartime conditions, legislation and propaganda. He has published on wartime recycling and wartime controls over industrial production.

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