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Hugo Grotius (1583–1645). The Rights of War and Peace. 1901.

Book III

Chapter XII: On Moderation in Despoiling An Enemy’s Country

  • Lawfulness of despoiling an enemy’s country—Forbearance of using this right, where things may be useful to ourselves, and out of an enemy’s power—Forbearance in the hopes of speedy conquest, or where things are not immediately necessary to support an enemy, and aid him in maintaining the war—Buildings for the purposes of religion not to be wantonly destroyed—Advantages of this moderation.

  • I. ONE of the three following cases is requisite to justify any one in destroying what BELONGS to another: there must be either such a necessity, as at the original institution of property might be supposed to form an exception, as if for instance any one should throw the sword of another into a river, to prevent a madman from using it to his destruction: still according to the true principles maintained in a former part of this work he will be bound to repair the loss: or there must be some debt, arising from the non-performance of an engagement, where the waste committed is considered as a satisfaction for that debt: or there must have been some aggressions, for which such destruction is only an adequate punishment.

    Now, driving off some of our cattle, or burning a few of our houses, can never be pleaded as a sufficient and justifiable motive for laying waste the whole of an enemy’s kingdom. Polybius saw this in its proper light, observing, that vengeance in war should not be carried to its extreme, nor extend any further than was necessary to make an aggressor atone justly for his offence. And it is upon these motives, and within these limits alone, that punishment can be inflicted. But except where prompted to it by motives of great utility, it is folly, and worse than folly, wantonly to hurt another.

    But upon duly and impartially weighing the matter, such acts are oftener regarded in an odious light, than considered as the dictates of prudent and necessary counsels. For the most urgent and justifiable motives are seldom of long continuance, and are often succeeded by weightier motives of a more humane description.

    II. It may be possible, under some circumstances, to detain what belongs to an enemy, so as to prevent his deriving advantage from it, in which case it would be an unnecessary and wanton act to destroy it. And to such circumstances the divine law has an eye, in ordering wild trees to be made use of for the construction of works in a siege, while fruit-trees, and every thing necessary for the support of man, ought, if possible, to be spared.

    III. Where there is an expectation also of speedy victory and conquest, prudence will dictate to a general or commander of any kind the necessity of forbearing from all acts of destruction, by authorising and committing which he would only be injuring those possessions, that are likely to come into the hands of his own state or sovereign. Thus, as we are informed by Plutarch, when Philip had overrun Thessaly, destroying and plundering the whole country, Flaminius ordered his troops to march in a regular manner, as through a ceded country which had become their own.

    IV. In the next place, it is unnecessary to destroy an enemy’s country, when he has other sources, from which he can draw his supplies, as for instance, the sea or any adjoining territory. Archidamus, in Thucydides, attempting to dissuade the Lacedaemonians from a war with the Athenians, asks them, what object they propose to themselves by such a war? he asks them if they suppose that Attica can easily be laid waste owing to the advantage, which their troops have in superiority and numbers? but, says he, they have other dominions to furnish them with supplies, and they can avail themselves also of maritime importations. So that under such circumstances, it is best to leave agriculture unmolested, even on the frontiers of each side: a practice lately followed in the wars of the low countries, where contributions were paid to both parties, in return for such protection.

    V. There are some things of such a nature, as to contribute, no way, to the support and prolongation of war: things which reason itself requires to be spared even during the heat and continuance of war. Polybius calls it brutal rage and madness to destroy things, the destruction of which does not in the least tend to impair an enemy’s strength, nor to increase that of the destroyer: Such are Porticos, Temples, statues, and all other elegant works and monuments of art. Cicero commends Marcellus for sparing the public and private edifices of Syracuse, as if he had come with his army to protect THEM, rather than to take the place by storm.

    VI. As this rule of moderation is observed towards other ornamental works of art, for the reasons before stated, there is still greater reason, why it should be obeyed in respect to things devoted to the purposes of religion. For although such things, or edifices, being the property of the state may, according to the law of nations, be with impunity demolished, yet as they contribute nothing to aggravate the calamities, or retard the successes of war, it is a mark of reverence to divine things to spare them, and all that is connected therewith: and more especially should this rule be adhered to among nations, worshipping the same God according to the same fundamental laws, although differing from each other by slight shades of variation in their rights and opinions. Thucydides says that it was a law among the Greeks of his time, in all their invasions of each other’s territories, to forbear touching the edifices of religion: and Livy likewise observes that, upon the destruction of Alba by the Romans, the temples of the Gods were spared.

    VII. What has been said of the sacred edifices of religion applies also to monuments raised in honour of the dead, unnecessarily to disturb whose ashes in their repose bespeaks a total disregard to the laws and ties of our common humanity.

    VIII. Although it does not fall within the province of this treatise to inquire into the utility of war in all its various branches, but only to regulate its practices by confining them within due and lawful bounds; yet it will not be improper to observe that rules and practices derive much of their merit from the utility, with which they are attended. So that one great quality, to recommend the moderation above alluded to, will be found in its preventing the enemy from being driven to those resources, which men never fail, at last, of finding in despair. It is a just remark made by some Theologians, that all CHRISTIAN princes and rulers, who wish to be found SUCH in the sight of God as well as that of men, will deem it a duty to interpose their authority to prevent or to suppress all UNNECESSARY violence in the taking of towns: for acts of rigour can never be carried to an extreme without involving great numbers of the innocent in ruin. And practices of that kind, besides being no way conducive to the termination of war, are totally repugnant to every principle of Christianity and justice.