Wartime environmental impacts were noted as far back as the ancient world, when the Romans salted the earth around Carthage to keep the Carthaginians from replanting their fields. Medieval sieges took a heavy toll on soldiers and civilians alike. During the U.S. Civil War, General William Tecumseh
ecosystem the interacting system of a biological community and its non-living environmental surroundings defoliant an herbicide that removes leaves from trees and growing plants
A U.S. Air Force jet spraying Agent Orange along the Cambodian border during the Vietnam War. Bettmann/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.)
Geneva Conventions humanitarian rules governing treatment of soldiers and civilians during war
Hague Conventions international agreements governing legal disputes between private parties
Sherman's "March to the Sea" laid waste to large areas of the South, including civilian settlements and farms. In World War I, British forces deliberately set Romanian oilfields afire; in World War II, both Germany and the Soviet Union engaged in "scorched earth" tactics; and in the Korean War, the United States intentionally bombed North Korean dams to cause floods.
Such tactics have always been controversial and led to periodic attempts to regulate them. The Old Testament (Deuteronomy 20:19-20) prohibits armies from cutting down fruit-bearing trees, and the Qur'an similarly commands against cutting trees or killing animals unless necessary for food. In 1863 the U.S. Army adopted the Lieber Code, which limited the actions of Union troops and was a precursor of modern military manuals. Since the twentieth century, international armed conflict has been governed by a series of treaties, the Geneva Conventions and the Hague Conventions, that have progressively restricted military tactics and weaponry, such as banning the targeting of civilian property or the use of poisonous gases. Occasionally, this body of law was directed toward environmental damage. For example, at the Nuremberg Trials, German General Alfred Jodl was found guilty of war crimes for his scorched earth tactics in occupied territory (although another general who used similar tactics, Lothar Rendulic, was found not guilty on the grounds that his actions were dictated by military necessity). However, the primary purpose of the international law of war remained humanitarian, aimed at eliminating inhumane weapons and reducing civilian casualties.
Burning oil wells in Kuwait, which were sabotaged by retreating Iraqi troops at the end of the Persian Gulf War, 1991. (©Peter Turnley/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.)
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