Conference Program

85th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History

 Landscapes of War and Peace

April 5 - 8, 2018, Louisville, Kentucky

Title: Scorched Earth as Tactic and Strategy
Abstract: "Scorched Earth" describes a variety of military operations. At the tactical level, it involves destroying houses, fields and supplies, often by burning, in order to deprive an enemy of resources. It is a tactic of desperation used by a retreating army on its own territory against an invader. Sometimes invaders also employ scorched earth tactics to terrorize and intimidate, or to ravage territory during a retreat. At the strategic level, "scorched earth" describes particularly ruthless or destructive policies, a win-at-any-cost mentality. Either way, scorched earth is usually a last resort. For the defender, it deprives an invader of resources in the short term, but also prevents one's own army from recapturing and using those resources. For the invader, it is the hallmark of a force that observes no rules of war and willingly harms civilians. Civilians are usually the main loser, regardless of whether friend or foe does the burning.
Scorched earth methods are banned in the 1977 Geneva Conventions, but there are many examples of scorched earth tactics and strategies in history. The Scythians used scorched earth against the Persians, as did the Carthaginians against the Romans. William the Conqueror subjugated the North of England with scorched earth, and the chevauchées of the Hundred Years' War were another example. The Russians repeatedly employed scorched earth in conjunction with trading space for time, from the Great Northern War to the War of 1812 and both world wars. American history offers its own examples, from actions against Native Americans to the devastating raids of Sherman and Sheridan in the Civil War.
This roundtable will examine the use of scorched earth tactics and strategies in military history in a variety of times and places and evaluate the effectiveness of scorched earth as a tactic and as a strategy.
Reina Pennington, Norwich University
Geoffrey Megargee, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Mark Grimsley, The Ohio State University
Kelly DeVries, Loyola University Maryland
Ty Seidule, United​ ​States​ ​Military​ ​Academy

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