Review: The Taste of War

Written by Keith Simpson on 25 April 2011 in Culture
Keith Simpson MP reviews Lizzie Collingham's book on how the politics and practicalities of food influence warfare

Writing a book about an aspect of war that has contemporary relevance is challenging, but historian and independent writer Lizzie Collingham has been here before. Her previous books include Imperial Bodies: the Physical Experience of the Raj and Curry: a Tale of Cooks and Conquerors.
During the Second World War at least 20 million people died from starvation, malnutrition and associated diseases – a number to equal the 19.5 million military deaths.

The Taste of War is divided into four sections: food, an engine of war; the battle for food; the politics of food; and the aftermath. It begins by showing the important role food played in driving both Germany and Japan into conflict, and Collingham argues that this perspective on the cause of the war is relevant to the contemporary global food situation. Today’s developing world faces just as much pressure to feed a growing urban population with nutritious, often more costly food – with increasing potential for global impact.

Much of this Collingham blames on the changing eating habits of the North American and European societies in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Then, a shift from a grain-based vegetarian diet to one rich in meat and milk led to greater diversion of the world’s grain harvest into animal fodder. A parallel rise in living standards among the middle classes in developing countries, she postulates, as well as industrial development in parts of Africa and Asia have gradually reduced food self-sufficiency and increased dependence on a volatile food market. This leads to competition and potential conflict.

The core of the book examines the food policies of the major combatant nations, and there is strong condemnation of Nazi Germany’s deliberate starvation of targeted groups, particularly in Poland and the Soviet Union. Not only morally wrong, it was also incompetent and counter-productive to the Nazi’s war aims. On the Allied side, scientists and nutritionists worked hard to maximise the energy output and immunisational efficiency of troop rations. The US armed forces, apart from infantry under combat conditions, had the luxury of full rations, while Japanese troops were often forced to live off the land. And in every theatre of operations, civilians suffered the most.

Food supply was dependent upon strategic decisions and logistics. Collingham documents Japan’s inability to defend its merchant marines against US air and submarine superiority, preventing it moving food supplies from occupied Southeast Asia to the homeland. In Britain, the agricultural resources of the Empire were crucial in feeding the country, and as a bargaining tool with the US.

Churchill was ruthless about food and shipping, and the author condemns his decision not to divert supplies to prevent widespread starvation in Bengal in 1943-44, although she acknowledges that local officials were partly to blame.

And starvation was worse in the aftermath of war. Rationing increased in Britain in 1946, and for defeated and occupied peoples even basic supplies disappeared. One of Collingham’s more interesting and controversial claims concerns the US military wartime food administration. She argues that there was no overriding aim to destroy Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, but rather to defend the American way of life. American dominance during and after the war, particularly of food production and distribution, established American eating habits and tastes worldwide, changing traditional local and regional patterns. To their lasting detriment.

Review by Keith Simpson, Conservative MP for Broadland and PPS to William Hague

Lizzie Collingham
Allen Lane, £30

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