Landscape after battle

Geoff Dyer unearths the debris of modern conflict; Aftermath: the remnants of war by Donovan Webster, Constable, pounds 16.95

Anyone who has visited the battlefields of the Western Front will be familiar with the piles of rusting shells in the corners of fields, uncovered by French farmers in the course of ploughing. Many writers and poets have been moved by the way the past keeps breaking the surface of the present like this. Each year, writes David Constantine,

"the ground breaks out in an eczema of iron,

Lead and the bones of men and the poor horses ..."

What Constantine and others have expressed so evocatively, Donovan Webster has chosen to research scrupulously. His book is less a meditation on landscape and memory than an investigation into unexploded ordnance and unclaimed human remains from various theatres of war: northern France; the bone-strewn wastes near Stalingrad; Vietnam; Kuwait. Another chapter records the damage the US military inflicted on its own soil by testing atomic weapons in Nevada at the height of the Cold War.

The theme, throughout, is the way that wars do not end when they end. The detritus of battle goes on killing and maiming long after the armies have retreated and the peasants and farmers have returned. Land-mines are the most extensive - and topical - problem in this respect, and the pages devoted to their clearance (in Vietnam and Kuwait) are among the best in a revealing and impressive book.

Or a revealing and impressive series of bulletins, rather: although Aftermath has an automatic unity, as all the parts are about the same thing, none of them is diminished by being read independently. Any number of chapters could have been added without disturbing the balance, because it is a book by the simple fact of accretion rather than by intricately achieved form.

In the opening sections, Webster proceeds like the French demineurs he is interviewing, "slowly, gingerly", unsure how to reconcile the personal details - "I stop the car, step out, and begin reading the headstones" - and the reporter's professional obligation to keep himself at bay. He is often deeply moved, but, reluctant to free himself from the relative safety of orthodox reportage, prefers to dramatise his feelings in terms of his interviewees' gestures: "He removes a pack of Marlboros ... from the breast pocket of his overall. He lights one, takes a long puff, and exhales. The smoke drifts up through the mist, rising along Fort Montberault's tall, earthen walls." It's a bit precious, this kind of thing, and the urge to make smoking an objective correlative for vast, unspoken emotion leads, almost inevitably, to adverbial insistence: "Shtrykov smokes cigarettes and stares quietly ..."

As the book goes on, Webster becomes less of a participant, more a characterless detector of material. By the time we get to a hospital in Vietnam - where, due to the spraying of Agent Orange and other defoliants, babies are still born with shocking deformities - this self-restraint works extremely powerfully. The impact of these pages is all the stronger for being a straightforward, unflinching account of what he sees rather than what he feels.

The same is true of the chapters dealing with Kuwait and Nevada. In them, Webster concentrates not just on the damage done in the past but also on the practicalities of cleaning up the mess in the present and the immediate future.

Naturally, he laments the waste of life and resources necessitated by this endeavour. But he is unable to suppress a sense of implicit excitement at the firepower unleashed on Iraq as smart weaponry "streaked", "slammed", "pounded" or "smashed into" Baghdad.

It may be impossible to refute his claim that, years after the war, it's "not the high-tech pounding" that's causing problems in Kuwait. But it is ironic how, while pointing an accusing finger at American companies who profit from low-tech land mines, his language comes close to endorsing the efficacy of products from the top of the range of catalogues of military hardware.

Webster's researches uncover - often literally - harrowing evidence of the residue of conflict, but his arguments inevitably urge readers beyond the range of the book's title. As an epilogue on attempts to destroy America's stockpile of unused chemical weapons concedes, the beforemath of modern war is now incalculably hazardous.

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