Book review – Scorched Earth: Environmental Warfare as a Crime against Humanity and Nature

7-minute read

Whenever war breaks out, our concern is understandably first and foremost with the human casualties. The tremendous environmental toll tends to take a backseat. However, environmental destruction can and has long been an effective military strategy. In Scorched Earth, historian Emmanuel Kreike surveys four centuries of environmental warfare around the globe to show it is neither uniquely Western nor the unwanted love child of modern science and technology.

Scorched Earth

Scorched Earth: Environmental Warfare as a Crime against Humanity and Nature, written by Emmanuel Kreike, published by Princeton University Press in January 2021 (hardback, 523 pages)

Judging by the cover and the title, I admit that I went into this book expecting it would look at the environmental cost of war. Instead, as part of the Princeton series Human Rights and Crimes against Humanity, Kreike surveys the long history of both targeting and weaponizing the environment to defeat opponents. Two key phrases, used throughout, should be introduced here. First is environmental infrastructure, which encompasses everything humans depend on in their environment for their livelihoods: homes, fields, crops, orchards, stables, livestock, granaries, wells, dams, canals, etc. Second is environcide, which is the destruction of that infrastructure through scorched earth tactics, sieges, plunder, armies living off the land, etc. Environcide invokes both genocide and ecocide and Kreike unites these concepts for two reasons. First, to break through what he sees as the artificial divide between nature and culture. Second, to go beyond the traditional divide between the effect of war on either society or on the environment and instead focus on the neglected and unholy trinity of war-environment-society. Another important goal of this book is to show that, even in cases where that was not its primary intent, destroying environmental infrastructure could result in genocide all the same, and has long been explicitly wielded as a military tactic to that end. As such, he argues that it should be recognized as a violation of human rights on the same footing as genocide.

Kreike’s historical overview sprawls over nearly 400 pages and ten chapters, encompassing the 16th to early 20th centuries, and discussing conflicts around the globe. This includes wars in Europe between various kingdoms and polities in modern Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, and particularly the Netherlands.Being of Dutch origin, Kreike has used the opportunity to discuss conflicts that are normally neglected in the English literature (and being of Dutch origin myself, having grown up in the area he discusses, this was of particular personal interest). But the book also discusses colonial wars in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. For readers interested in military history, this book contains a tremendous amount of detail, with 95 pages of footnotes bearing witness to the research that has gone into it. Next to history literature, Kreike has mined archives in several countries for contemporary details from reports, letters, resolutions, witness statements, and other sources, while his chapter on 20th-century Angola and Namibia draws on oral interviews for two earlier books. Though he avoids gory details, the non-stop litany of plunder, rape, torture, murder, extortion, war taxes, deforestation, tactical inundation, famine, epidemics, sieges, the torching of farms, villages, and food stores… safe to say this is no light reading. I could stomach a chapter a day and, by my standards, took a long time to read this book.

“[…] even in cases where that was not its primary intent, destroying environmental infrastructure could result in genocide all the same, and has long been explicitly wielded as a military tactic to that end.”

Amidst all the historical detail, several themes stood out as particularly interesting. The first relates to perception. Kreike singles out the demographic collapse of indigenous North Americans here. This is often cast in terms of the Columbian Exchange or the virgin-soil-epidemics narrative popularised by e.g. Jared Diamond: we introduced new microbes to this continent, resulting in fatal epidemics. However, as Kyle Harper also pointed out in Plagues Upon the Earth, this downplays the role of brutal violence and oppression that produced vulnerable refugee populations. (As an aside, the same disconnect happened with the 20th-century Famine of the Dams in Angola and Namibia that hit recent refugees hardest – it was not all down to climatological factors). Related to this is how it coloured our subsequent perception of indigenous Americans as primordial hunter-gatherers living in close harmony with nature, instead of as war refugees who had lost their settlements and were forced to adopt new lifestyles. The last point is that settler propaganda depicted North America as a rich wilderness paradise, ignoring that much of that so-called wilderness was environmental infrastructure previously occupied and maintained by indigenous Americans. In fact, such recently abandoned areas were preferred by settlers, as they were already cleared of vegetation and had rich soils.

Second is the matter of agency. Environcide was not only inflicted by invaders but equally by defenders, whether it was 16th-century Dutch rebels flooding their countryside before retreating into fortified towns to hinder Spanish forces, or 18th-century indigenous Americans in Guatemala burning their villages and food stores before the advancing Spanish conquistadores. The success of European colonists frequently depended on local allies willing to act as guides, interpreters, etc. in exchange for rewards, whether it was 18th-century indigenous North American tribes allying themselves with British forces, or 19th-century Aceh groups assisting the Dutch invasion of Sumatra. Kreike argues that the line between victim and perpetrator is often blurred: people can be both simultaneously, and past victims can become future perpetrators, as in the case of the Rwandan genocide.

“the virgin-soil-epidemics narrative […] downplays the role of brutal violence and oppression that produced vulnerable refugee populations.”

Third is the attempt to introduce rules of war to minimise violence towards civilians. In practice, these rules were routinely ignored and frequently opposed by military commanders: “18th-century limited war was a lofty ideal, not a lived experience” (p. 175). Especially the lack of army logistics forced soldiers to live off the land and extort food, fodder, transport, and accommodation from local villagers and farmers. More pernicious was how these rules were twisted to argue that indigenous people “posed a deadly threat to civilization because they did not fight by the rules of war” (p. 245), cynically ignoring that neither did Europeans.

As impressive as the historical scholarship is, I want to briefly raise two points Kreike neglects to discuss. First is the question of relevance. The notion of environcide is backed up by surveying four centuries of history up to the 1920s, but Kreike wants to see it criminalised in the present. How pervasive is it today? My gut feeling says it is, but I admit that my knowledge here is woefully underdeveloped. The jungle defoliation campaigns of the Vietnam War and the burning oil wells of the Gulf War come to mind. Many more relevant examples could no doubt be mentioned, and nuclear and modern chemical weapons make available new ways of environcide. Second is the matter of implementation. Kreike argues why, but not how, international law should recognize environcide as a violation of human rights. Since the idea of environcide is modelled on that of genocide, I missed some analysis of the latter. His introduction briefly mentions when genocide was defined, but how effectively is it punished? Why has ecocide been barely acknowledged? And can we draw lessons from this as to what might stand in the way of the recognition and uptake of environcide on the same footing as genocide? No doubt legal experts around the world would need years to hash this out. Still, Kreike’s thoughts and comments on the above two points would have rounded out the book and could have started building a bridge between this body of historical case studies and 21st-century war.

Overall then, Scorched Earth is a thoroughly researched academic book that sits at the intersection of military history and environmental history and especially delivers for readers of the former. A fascinating topic that is by no means light reading.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Scorched Earth

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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