Natives and Exotics
World War II and Environment in the Southern Pacific
Ambitious in its scope and scale, this environmental history of World War II ranges over rear bases and operational fronts from Bora Bora to New Guinea, providing a lucid analysis of resource exploitation, entangled wartime politics, and human perceptions of the vast Oceanic environment. Although the war’s physical impact proved significant and oftentimes enduring, this study shows that the tropical environment offered its own challenges: Unfamiliar tides left landing craft stranded; unseen microbes carrying endemic diseases disabled thousands of troops. Weather, terrain, plants, animals—all played an active role as enemy or ally.
At the heart of Natives and Exotics is the author’s analysis of the changing visions and perceptions of the environment, not only among the millions of combatants, but also among the Islands’ peoples and their colonial administrations in wartime and beyond. Judith Bennett reveals how prewar notions of a paradisiacal Pacific set up millions of Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, and Japanese for grave disappointment when they encountered the reality. She shows that objects usually considered distinct from environmental concerns (souvenirs, cemeteries, war memorials) warrant further examination as the emotional quintessence of events in a particular place. Among native people, wartime experiences and resource utilization induced a shift in environmental perceptions just as the postwar colonial agenda demanded increased diversification of the resource base. Bennett’s ability to reappraise such human perceptions and productions with an environmental lens is one of the unique qualities of this study.
Impeccably researched, Natives and Exotics is essential reading for those interested in environmental history, Pacific studies, and a different kind of war story that has surprising relevance for today’s concerns with global warming.
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