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John Hagney: When food becomes a weapon in war

John Hagney

By John Hagney

”Putin’s aggression in Ukraine has strangled agriculture production and used food as a weapon of war.” – President Joe Biden, June 22

The phrase “food as weapon” originated with a Soviet commissar as Soviets weaponized food in 1921 against “class enemies,” coercively requisitioning Ukrainian grain to feed Russians. Two million Ukrainians starved to death. Recall Joseph Stalin’s sardonic statement during the 1932 Soviet-orchestrated famine in Ukraine: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”

Death by conventional weapons of war is horrific yet perhaps less wretched compared to death by starvation. In late-stage starvation, the body feeds on its own organs. Death is painful, protracted.

Today, blocking food relief violates Geneva Conventions, yet the pernicious practice persists as in Taliban obstruction of food aid to Afghanistan. In modern history, European imperial powers and ruthless demagogues used food to pacify and extinguish recalcitrant subjects, war by other means.

Ireland, 1840s. England regarded Ireland as its colony. As with other imperial subjects, English viewed Irish as indolent savages only civilized through England’s paternalistic despotism and discipline of labor servitude to its empire.

At the time, 5% of Ireland’s land was owned by Irish, the balance by absentee English. This inequity caused chronic, pervasive Irish hunger inciting rebellions including the 1848 Famine Rebellion led by Thomas Francis Meagher, the subject of Tim Egan’s “The Immortal Irishman.”

The “Great Hunger” was initiated by a potato blight, yet the English policy of plundering Irish livestock and grain to feed the burgeoning English industrial working class exacerbated famine. This was a genocidal policy. Sir Charles Trevelyan affirmed the Crown’s righteous mission: “God sent this calamity to teach the Irish a lesson.”

One million Irish perished, from a country of about 8.4 million in 1840.

India, late 19th century. Imperial ambitions stifled by the American Revolution and re-energized by sanctimonious “white man’s burden,” the English acquisitively conquered China by opium, India by rapacious rule through pliant Indian princes, the Raj.

Seventeenth century India produced 22.5% of the world’s GDP, Britain 1.8%. With the Raj these statistics were reversed as English extracted products such as opium, cotton and sugar for export depriving Indian farmers of land to grow food. When Indian rebellions erupted the English ravaged Indian crops and poisoned wells.

Ten million Indians starved to death.

This asymmetrical warfare, a template for European imperial enterprises, would be replicated by the French in Algeria 1866-68, Vietnam in 1945 and by the English in the 1930s against Palestine peasants.

Ukraine, 1929-1933. Stalin seized peasant land for abysmally counterproductive collectivization of agriculture. Ukrainian peasants resisted collectivization, memories scarred by the 1921 famine. Agriculture atrophied. To punish Ukrainian defiance and to feed Russian workers slaving to industrialize the Soviet Union, Stalin starves Ukrainians in the “Holodomor,” the “Holocaust.” A child born 1932 in rural Ukraine had a life expectancy of seven years. As in Leningrad and China’s Great Famine later, some desperate Ukrainians resorted to cannibalism.

Eight million Ukrainians died.

Soviet Union, 1941-44. Hitler’s Hunger Plan was devised to starve 30 million “useless eaters” in Soviet cities. Grain from black earth Ukraine could then be used to feed Germans. Although the Plan fell short of its macabre objective, Soviets in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Leningrad were starved.

In sieged Leningrad the 900-day famine decimated 1 million.

China, 1958-62. Mao Zedong launches the Great Leap Forward to industrialize an economy dependent on 90% of its labor to produce food. Peasants were compelled to relinquish their land to inefficient communes and toil in improvised backyard furnaces producing useless pig iron. Food vanished.

Mao, convinced that peasants were hoarding grain, imposed draconian decrees to fulfill delusional quotas while commune leaders fabricated harvest yields to placate Communist apparatchiks.

Fifty million Chinese perished.

For some, famine sowed a fruitful harvest. In Ireland, the Great Hunger impelled the emigration of 2 million Irish to America and fed the 1916 Rising, culminating in Irish independence. In India, the brutal famines and repression coalesced into the formation of the Indian National Congress, Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha resistance and 1947 independence. In Ukraine, the Holodomor endures as an icon to defy Russian hegemony. And in China, the famine incubated nascent critics of Mao. In retaliation, Mao unleashed in 1966 the Cultural Revolution in which 100 million Chinese were persecuted. With Mao’s 1976 death, surviving critics assumed power in China and commenced capitalist modernizations venerating the cult of Mao.

Those who flaunt international law wielding food as a weapon should remember the observation of a witness to England’s genocide against South African Boers in 1901: “Revolutions are built on empty bellies.”

John B. Hagney has a master’s degree in Russian history. His thesis on Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms was published in the International Journal of Oral History, translated in six languages. He taught history for 45 years at Lewis and Clark High School.