Landscapes can be weaponized to influence public opinion and perception during war
Blast craters, barren landscapes and burning oil wells. When we think of the relationship between war and landscape, we think of these destructive acts and toxic legacies. In this view, nature and the landscape are often seen as victims of war.
Yet there have been instances where nations have used the landscape as a weapon. In one such watershed case – Operation Ranch Hand – the US military launched a defoliant called Agent Orange into the South Vietnam countryside to militarize the forest during the Vietnam War.
While the end of the Vietnam War saw an international ban on the use of the environment as a weapon, landscaping – which includes the design and planting of green spaces – continues to present itself as a capable tool to influence the hearts and minds of local populations and ultimately achieve military objectives.
Speaking of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said:
“Winning a battle is not winning the war. Taking a city does not mean that Vladimir Putin takes the hearts and minds of the Ukrainian people. On the contrary, he is destined to lose.
Clearly, US military doctrine sees winning “hearts and minds” as a necessary measure to win a war.
As a design critic who has studied the role of landscapes in warfare, I argue that trees and green spaces can be components of a non-coercive mode of warfare because they can be used to build community solidarity and reduce the likelihood of insurgency.
Winning hearts and minds
The US military’s experience in Afghanistan has proven that having a more powerful military does not guarantee victory in a war.
While the Taliban surrendered Kandahar only two months after the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, the US military remained in Afghanistan and engaged in violent conflict for the next 20 years, eventually withdrawing and bringing the nation under the control of the Taliban.
At the heart of the United States effort to secure peace was the strategy of winning “hearts and minds,” or making emotional and intellectual appeals to the local population through attraction and persuasion instead of the force.
The US military may not ultimately have won the war in Afghanistan, but it has developed tactics to secure peace and win the hearts and minds of local citizens. Although not all efforts were successful, I found several instances where the war aims of the US military aligned with an unlikely ally – the landscape architect profession.
Landscape architects, after all, have always worked to improve public and environmental health. And although hearts and minds are not exactly the same thing as physical and mental health, it is understood that physical health and well-being are necessary to establish a peaceful society.
Green spaces influence health and mental well-being
The legacy of American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in building parks in the United States shows that landscape architects care about public health and social stability. Olmsted was the first professional to use the title “landscape architect” and is best known for designing New York’s Central Park.
Olmsted Parks helped maintain Americans’ mental and physical health and social connections during the darkest days of the pandemic. Urban residents appreciated the greenery in these designed spaces after recognizing that spending time in nature can improve physical health and mental well-being.
Since Olmsted’s time, a growing body of scientific research has concluded that exposure to green spaces helps improve health and well-being. While medical professionals prescribed spending time with nature, landscape architects worked to maximize the positive outcomes of exposure through design.
Landscaping presents itself as a tool capable of influencing the health and well-being and, therefore, the hearts and minds of local populations. Ultimately, he can achieve military objectives through the planning and planting of green spaces.
Arm the landscape
The use of the landscape as a weapon is an underestimated field of study.
In 1976, the United States, along with 47 other nations, became signatories to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques. This treaty prohibits “the modification of the natural environment with a view to its use as a weapon of war” and “acts of war prejudicial to the natural environment”.
As the deliberate destruction of the environment continues, exemplified by the burning of oil wells set on fire by Iraqi troops during the Gulf War, researchers hope that the International Criminal Court will one day be able to prosecute “crimes against the environment”.
More recently, the Stop Ecocide Foundation has worked to provide a criminal definition of ecocide that will have the force of international law, making “serious and widespread or long-term damage to the environment” punishable.
These efforts are commendable and deserve our support. Yet the understandable focus on damage and destruction diminishes attention to acts of war, such as tree-planting efforts, that “improve” an environment.
Understanding the Long-Term Impacts of War
A project undertaken by the US military in Afghanistan saw active troops leading a reforestation effort in the Panjshir region, where they planted 35,000 trees, creating a regional green space.
As many people experienced this regional planting effort, the landscape influenced the hearts and minds of local citizens on a population scale.
Although the US military has now withdrawn from Afghanistan, these planted trees and other green spaces continue to grow and exert influence. Thus, it is not only environmentally damaging acts of war that have widespread and long-term impacts on a population.
As I write from my office in the unceded territory of the Musqueam people, I am more deeply aware that beautiful scenery can manipulate hearts and minds and become a weapon of war. The continued presence of a colonial landscape, designed and imposed on these lands, is easier to recognize if we ask ourselves what this land was like before and after the establishment of a colonial society.
We experience green spaces differently depending on their design and our cultural background. We need to think about who designed and built our local green spaces and for what purpose. Ultimately, it matters that the landscape is redesigned and replanted by local people or by occupying forces.