Column: Mother Nature’s Battle Cry

December 7 came and went, and few marked the day with any comment or memorial. There are no sailors or soldiers who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, still alive. That may be part of the reason few spoke of or made reference to that awful day that propelled America into the greatest bloodbath our species ever experienced. There are memorials to the attack on Pearl Harbor and to World War II, but these were visited by few politicians and few citizens.  It is understandable.  This was an attack and conflict familiar to our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. Not to us. We have had much more recent conflicts to digest. Afghanistan, Iraq, 9/11 all seem more relevant to us adults.  Even Viet Nam is a fading memory.

Most of the nations that participated in World War II have no appetite for war.  Seventy-six years after that nightmare ended, most of the nations engaged in that war want peace and prosperity. And yet, Russia has brought more than 100,000 troops and thousands of tanks and other armored vehicles to the Ukraine border, and another war is imminent.

It is as if the tyrants among us feel the need to remind the world of what it is like to wage war. All those bombs and bullets fashioned to protect the empires built through bloodshed must be used or they will spoil. Thousands or millions will die, and those who order the killing will assure us that it was all reasonable, necessary and unavoidable. Most nations, including our own, invest heavily in the military to assure we live in peace. That nations end up sending its citizens to be crippled or killed in battles intended to bring power or wealth to a few says more about the leaders of those nations than it does about the citizens who end up bloodied and broken.

The unknown factor in all wars is how Mother Nature will participate. Prior military action in the Ukraine and in that region known as the Crimea felt the impact of an indifferent Nature when thousands of troops, including those from Great Britain, were taken out of action by illness.  It was in this theater that Florence Nightingale proved that improving sanitary conditions for troops could have a major impact on the survival of the soldiers.  Warfare has always brought with it the burdens of disease and famine, either of which or both of which routinely decimate the ranks of those with weapons and those nearby. Cholera, measles, and even the flu have played major roles in the outcome of military conflicts.

Many historians believe that the flu decided the victor in World War I.  It was misnamed the Spanish flu because censorship of the media in England and France banned all mention of the pulmonary disease that was killing troops at a horrific pace. The media in Spain did not face the same constraints, and so it was called the Spanish flu because only the Spanish newspapers were carrying stories about this highly contagious disease that killed its victims in as little as a day. The median survival, which was the time from symptom to death in half of the individuals infected, was 30 hours or less.

Some have claimed they can identify the battle during which close combat between British and German soldiers enabled the flu virus to spread from infected British forces to the German troops. The rapid spread and lethality of the virus in the German ranks in 1918 assured the Allied forces of a victory that would only have been accomplished with protracted fighting if Nature had not stepped in with the viral knock-out punch.

The Allied military leaders attributed their victory to brilliant leadership and superior resources. The German military and political leaders blamed their defeat on the treachery of “the Jews.” Even though many of the German soldiers were highly decorated Jews, the festering antisemitism that developed over prior centuries provided an easy scapegoat.  Influential Germans spread the myth of the “Dolchsturz,” the stab in the back, by this ethnic minority. The reasoning behind the myth was that it was better to be defeated by the treachery of a minority than to acknowledge that the ineptness of the German monarchy, the overconfidence of the highly esteemed but overrated German military strategists, and a highly lethal lung disease led to their horrific losses and defeat.

Innumerable military campaigns have been defeated by infections or unexpected infestations.  In World War II, American soldiers picked up parasites called schistosoma as they waded through the swamps on Leyte, a strategic area in the Philippines held by the Japanese. These microscopic parasites passed through the skin of the troops and evoked a frequently lethal inflammation of the brain. Some estimates indicate that the death toll from these schistosomiasis infestations exceeded strictly battle-related deaths.  In the conflict in Viet Nam, another parasite, a liver fluke, caused lethal changes in the liver that often did not become apparent until years or even decades after it was acquired by the unsuspecting soldier. Malaria and diarrhea have also defeated many armies.

Mother Nature has not distinguished between the aggressors and their victims. In America, much of the west was ‘won’ through depopulation by disease, rather than by military action.  Native Americans were frequently provided with blankets that had been used by smallpox victims.  Measles spread from the more resistant Europeans to the exceedingly vulnerable Native Americans without any subterfuge.  The Native Americans and Europeans exchanged a variety of sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis and gonorrhea, with death or disability often resulting from these exchanges. The contamination of the soil with a variety of infectious agents, including anthrax, proved challenging for those working or fighting in the fields. Before pasteurization was introduced, the contamination of cow’s milk with a variety of germs, including the tuberculosis bug, meant that people literally risked their lives when they could afford a diverse diet.

One of the great nineteenth century Prussian military leaders, Helmuth von Moltke, famously observed, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” In war the problems faced include the participation of an uncontrollable force, Mother Nature.  Whether she attacks the men and women at war with plagues or famine or just terrible weather (as experienced by Napoleon when he invaded Russia in 1812) cannot be predicted or anticipated.  On days like December 7 or September 11, we would be wise not only to remember the horrors of war but also the unpredictability of the outcome.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.