War’s sidekicks and allies

In his new book, The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History, Ned Blackhawk argues that

”the most traumatic development in American history [is] the loss of indigenous life due to European diseases. Epidemics tore apart numerous communities and set in motion large-scale migrations and transformations. North America’s total population nearly halved from 1492 to 1776: from approximately 7 or 8 million to 4 million.”

Guns and steel—and horses—played their parts, but diseases are now seen as the primary cause of indigenous population collapse across the Americas. It’s been a long slog in acknowledging the power of diseases and their impacts on population loss. In 1491: New Revelations about the Americas Before Columbus, Charles Mann says that many early anthropologists argued that there were no more than one million Natives before contact, that disease could not wipe out half a population. Mann and the virologists he quotes show how they can and did, with analyses of the body’s immune system and recent findings of big historical disease die-offs in Europe as well as the Americas.

Diseases, and the mass migrations that accompanied them and the wars of conquest, received little attention as I was “learning” history. In our textbooks we learned about Squanto, Montezuma, the Inca kings—and the conquerors: Columbus, Cortez, Pizzaro, and their kin. We learned the names of war leaders, kings, queens, and emperors. Then and now, the popular books about Tecumseh, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Joseph, and Geronimo center on battles and broken treaties—land grabs of one kind and another. There are stories of infected blankets, but no accountings of the deaths by smallpox, malaria, diphtheria, and measles. The Haudenosaunee went to war with other tribes to replenish populations lost to European diseases—but that is something I only recently learned. The migrations we read about, the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the Navajo Long Walk, are dramatic stories, but only chapters in the real stories of tribal migrations due to war and disease.

In the history classes that I remember, from high school U.S. and World History to college Western Civ and Modern European History classes, diseases were not importrant. We learned about the men—almost exclusively men—making military and political decisions. We learned about the machines of war and the industrial revolution, the inventions that turned history’s wheels.

New histories, Mann’s book among them pay more attention to war’s allies, disease and migrations. The impact of the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918, is now, in part due to our own Pandemic, recognized as a major player in the Great War and early twentieth century history. Current scholarship—and scholars have been diligently at it these 100 years—says that the “Spanish” influenza started in the US Midwest, moved with our troops by train across the country and then by ship to Europe. From there it spread across the world, aided by and embedded in the War, and took 21 million lives worldwide, over 675,000 in our own country.


Although news reports of the Hamas/Israeli war now mention the possibilities of hunger, bad water, and disease ravaging the decimated cities and towns in Gaza, and we get daily reports of migrations across our own southern border, the reports are not headlines. They are still backstories to the bigger stories about the politics of migration and the violence of wars and civil wars in the Middle East, in Ukraine, Africa, and South America.

We saw the pictures of the terrible Hamas attack, and we’ve seen the pictures of devastation in Gaza and the West Bank. In Gaza, we get peeks at hospital deaths due to lack of water, medicine, and care, but I have heard no speculation about the number of dead beneath the rubble, and, although there have been warnings of diseases about to explode, no reports of infectious explosions.

And while our eyes are glued on Israel and Gaza, half a million have died in Syria’s Civil War, almost half due to hunger and disease. Almost half a million in Iraq as well, and in Yemen, over half of the 377,000 civil war deaths are already attributed to hunger and disease.

And that’s not the end of these wars and demolition by famine and disease. There are over 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey alone, another million in Jordan and Lebanon, and Europe is groaning with refugees from Middle East’s wars and Africa’s droughts.

Now we hear some Israelis say they will leave the country, and Gazans say they have no country left. While the absurdity of a week-long cease-fire and freedom for 100 hostages and 200 or 300 Palestinian prisoners giving way to war-again that claims that many lives in its first two days, we’re left to wonder how many more will die of bombs and building collapses, how many of thirst and hunger, how many of diseases due to lack of food, water, and medical care. Over a million Gazans have already been displaced, and, when the shooting stops, as it always eventually does, how many will keep walking out of their homelands.

Hamas and Netanyahu talk more war, but war’s less glamorous partners, deaths by disease and mass migrations, are not on their lips.

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image from Oregon Public Broadcasting, Mahmud Hams

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