March 22, 2008

Food as a weapon of war

Food & Culture Encyclopedia:

Food as a Weapon of War

Providing or withholding food during times of conflict can be just as potent a weapon as the guns, bombs, and explosives of opposing armies. Control of food supplies during war is important because wars disrupt the seasonal pattern of growing crops, displace farming populations, and prevent the transport of food within the area of conflict. The economic costs of war may so impoverish citizens and local governments that they are unable to purchase or distribute needed food, even if it is available. A major focus of the Marshall Plan for Europe after the Second World War was to prevent the kind of starvation and social upheaval that had followed World War I. More recent relief efforts have focused on distributing food to refugees of many regional conflicts, where imposed famine was part of the combatants' military strategy in countries like Liberia, Mozambique, Somalia, and Sudan.

Withholding Food

Food can be withheld by preventing it from being grown and harvested, by destroying it after harvest, by preventing it from being shipped to where it is needed, or by contaminating it and rendering it unfit for consumption. Indigenous farming populations have been scattered or exiled from their native lands by conquering armies to make room for their own colonists who would subjugate and establish their hegemony over the local inhabitants, and provide food and warriors for future campaigns. Ancient armies have "salted the earth" and destroyed irrigation systems to make an area unsuitable for growing crops. In the culmination of the Punic Wars with Carthage in the third and second centuries B.C.E., Rome defeated the armies of Hannibal, destroyed his empire, and ploughed the land with salt to make it infertile. The Roman practice of contaminating water supplies by dumping dead animals into wells has continued into recent history as demonstrated by an instance during the American Civil War when Confederate solders fouled the water supplies of Union forces with dead animals. There are no instances of widespread contamination of food during war in the modern era, perhaps because of the universal condemnation of such practices by all civilized nations. Sieges of fortified positions have been used since time immemorial to starve, demoralize, and physically weaken the ensconced combatants. Pictorial representations in Egypt depict sieges over 4,000 years ago, while the Iliad of Homer describes the siege of Troy by the Greeks over 3,000 years ago. It, like many of the numerous sieges that followed, ended not through force of arms, but through deception and treachery. The Spartan siege of Athens that ended the Peloponnesian Wars (431–404 B.C.E.) was ineffective as long as Athens could obtain food by sea. Only by allying themselves with Persia and destroying the Athenian navy were the Spartans able to starve them into submission. A similar maritime strategy was employed, but in reverse, by Emperor Leo III of the Eastern Roman Empire, whose forces destroyed the Arab navy, maintained food imports, and broke their siege of Constantinople in 717. Sieges often do not work because the besieged forces have stored or can obtain enough food for the duration, or because the invading forces cannot obtain enough food or maintain their supply lines because of the surrounding hostile population.

A continuing problem with siege warfare was that the attackers could run out of food or succumb to disease in their unhealthy encampments. For this reason, the parties of siege warfare in the medieval West often agreed on a time limit, after which the besieged forces could leave without penalty. Such civility was rare even then, and certainly has not persisted to modern times of total war. Parisians were reduced to eating rats during the siege that ended the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, and over a million Russians starved to death during the 500-day siege of Leningrad in World War II; more civilians died in Leningrad than in the bombings of Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki combined.

In modern times, sieges have expanded and evolved into embargos of critical war materials (for example, food, medicine, oil, strategic metals, technology, etc.) by nation-states. England imposed an embargo by sea for that area of Europe occupied by Napoleon, and Germany tried to embargo food and war materials to England and Russia by the United States in the Second World War. While food is now usually not embargoed for humanitarian reasons by the major powers, economic sanctions remain an implement of international policy and genocidal starvation as accepted strategy in some regional conflicts.

Scorched Earth

Many countries have adopted a "scorched earth" policy (destroying anything that might be of use to an invading enemy) to prevent an invading army from living off the land. Both attackers and defenders in conventional wars and guerrilla struggles have used this strategy. During the U.S. Civil War, General William T. Sherman brought "total war" to the heart of the Confederacy by his infamous "March to the Sea" across Georgia and South Carolina, a scorched earth policy that is still debated as being barbarous or sound military strategy. The British used a scorched earth policy during their war with the Boers in South Africa, and the French conquest of Algeria (1830 to 1844) used it to starve the natives into submission. Unless ruthlessly enforced, it is often difficult to convince people to destroy all they have in advance of an invading force. The conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar was almost prevented by this tactic, but Vercingetorix's guerrilla campaigns were ineffective because he could not persuade his countrymen to adopt this painful policy wholeheartedly.

Russia very effectively used a scorched earth policy during its invasion by Swedish armies in 1709, Napoleon's armies in 1812, and Hitler's armies in 1941. Because the Russians removed most of the food and crops in advance, Napoleon's half-a-million-man army could not live off the land as they had in previous campaigns. Despite being able to capture Moscow, they were too emaciated to hold it and had to retreat. The inability to find food locally also created severe problems for the German military in World War II, which was trying to feed three million soldiers. Forests, stores and transports were set afire; all grain and millions of cattle were shipped from the Ukraine to Russia, leaving nothing for the advancing German armies. However, nothing was left for the peasants who were equally bereft of food and shelter. As the Germans retreated towards Berlin, they too implemented a scorched earth policy to slow the pursuing Russian army.

Providing Food

Since, as Napoleon is quoted as saying, "An army marches on its stomach," procuring enough food to support an army in the field is a paramount concern for all commanders. Although weapons, clothing, and shelter are of the greatest immediate importance to soldiers, logistical support to provide food and material is often the decisive element in winning wars. Soldiers often had to truly "live off the land" even when in permanent garrisons or semipermanent encampments during lengthy sieges. Improvements in food preservation, packaging, and transportation have made modern armies immune to local vagaries in the availability of food.

The technologies of canning, freezing, dehydrating, and irradiating food were greatly advanced by the necessities of war. In 1795 Nicholas Appert, a French chef, won a prize offered by Napoleon for a way to prevent military food supplies from spoiling. By 1806, Appert's principles for canning meats and vegetables in jars had been successfully applied to the canning of meat, vegetables, fruit, and even milk for the French Navy. The English adopted the process to use with metal containers in 1810, and when Napoleon faced Wellington at Waterloo in 1815, both of their troops ate canned rations.

Frozen foods had been around since the 1920s, but did not become important until they were used to feed U.S. troops overseas during the Second World War. At home, frozen foods caught on with American consumers because canned foods required precious metal and were rationed, while frozen foods were not. Dehydration has been practiced for millennia by peoples who dried grasses, herbs, roots, berries, and meats by setting them out in the sun. Dehydrated foods are important for the military because of their light weight and minimal volume. During World War II, the U.S. Army tested irradiation on fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and meat. Irradiated food has been pioneered and extensively used since the 1960s by the military and NASA. The responsibility to feed large numbers of people on military bases and on the battlefield, and its enforced administrated structure provides an excellent opportunity for large-scale testing of new food-handling and preparation technologies by the military. Coupled with the mandated desires of the U.S. Congress for the military to eat domestically grown food, even in distant military operations, and the realities of combat, many food-handling technologies have been first implemented by the military before they gained widespread acceptance by civilians.


Catton, William B. Bruce Catton's Civil War: Mr. Lincoln's Army; Glory Road; A Stillness at Appomattox. New York: Fairfax Press, 1984.

Dunnigan, James F. How to Make War. 3rd ed. New York: William Morrow, 1993.

Keegan, John. A History of Warfare. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Leckie, Robert. Delivered From Evil: The Saga of World War II. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.

Marshall, Samuel L.A. World War I. New York: American Heritage, 1985.

Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars. New York: Harper Torchbook, 1977.

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