How to “Ravage” a Country: Destruction, Conservation, and Assessment of Natural Environments in Early Modern Military Thought
Jan Philipp Bothe
University of Göttingen
This article examines the practice of “ravaging” the countryside as a part of Early Modern military thought. It analyses the arguments for destroying or conserving cultivated natural environments and how they were integrated into the emerging theoretical framework on war in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I argue that depriving the enemy of local natural resources by consuming or destroying them was an extreme form of exercising control over an area which was used to exert control over both the supplies for an enemy army and the use of land by the local population. To legitimize this practice, specific arguments were used: destruction was meant to “shorten” a war, and gradually use of this tactic was confined to the home country and defense against enemy invasions. In addition, it was important which resources were targeted: while the destruction of forage and harvests was seen as a form of short-term damage, cutting down trees counted as a form of lasting damage that was undesirable. Some authors of works on military strategy started to argue that devastating the land in the enemy’s country was unpractical, and that (forced) contributions from locals were far more useful. Thus, while authors of works on military strategy did make arguments against “scorched earth” warfare and the “ravaging” of the countryside, they did so purely out of practical considerations which rested on notions of utility, rather than out of any humanitarian considerations.