Pillage in War


Pillage has been a part of war for centuries and until recently has been viewed as an inevitable side effect of war, rather than as a phenomenon to be analyzed, categorized, and prevented. There are different forms of pillage, some more violent than others, depending on the type of war, military structures involved, and levels of hostility. Pillage can lead to traumatized refugees and excessive civilian deaths. Goods or spoils include food, water, power, heating, and transportation supplies, or historical, local, and religious artifacts, places of worship, and people. Examples span from ancient Romans in Carthage, Mongols in the east, Spaniards in Tinochtitlan, the Khmer Rhouge in Cambodia, and more recently, in Rwanda, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Many suffer during times of pillage. Civilians lose access to necessities or they suffer sexual attacks. In an attempt to prevent violent personal attacks, women and girls seek to make themselves unattractive and wear fetid clothing, mark their faces, or pretend to be old or ill with a contagious disease. Civilians flee or hide in an attempt to live and to secure sustenance and shelter for themselves and their families. This can result in floods of refugees, leading to disease outbreaks, more suffering, and death. Institutions strive to prevent great losses. Museums, temples, and churches lose exclusive, local religious or historical artifacts. Officials hide historical or valuable artifacts in an attempt to protect them from invading armies and other looters.

Military commanders pillage as part of a military strategy to destroy one’s enemy. The ancient Romans typically pillaged to terrorize their enemies rather than for food or treasures. During the Bosnian War of 1992 to 1995, the Serbs destroyed Muslim libraries in an attempt to completely destroy their enemy’s identity, history, and nationhood. The library in Sarajevo burned for days, consuming the entire building. Book-burnings and destructions of other libraries took place in Dubrovnik, Kosovo, Mostar, and other communities.

The scorched earth policy is a form of pillaging both retreating and advancing forces have used. Some have used the policy in self-defense to deprive invading forces of resources. For example, during the nineteenth-century Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon’s forces suffered a vast and desolate Russian winter, having invaded without adequate supplies. The Russians withdrew and pillaged, destroying everything along the way, eventually defeating the enemy by leading them further into the barren country.

Conversely, with his advancing army, General Sherman implemented a scorched earth policy in his attempt to destroy the south during the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865. This pillage completely demolished the Confederate army, leaving entire villages burned and civilians devastated.

Civilians and armed groups pillage for financial gain. Despite warnings that the national museum in Baghdad, Iraq was under threat if the Americans invaded, the United States began the 2003 invasion of the current Iraq War before the museum could secure its belongings. The museum lost thousands of priceless items to looters, some of which have since been retrieved. The literature on Germans and stolen art treasures, other property, and gold during World War II is immense. With the cooperation of neutral European countries’ banks, the Nazis funded their war effort with most of the gold belonging to occupied Europe.

Depending on the military structure, cultures involved, and laws in place, commanders can loose control of their forces while soldiers pillage, having reached a populated area with food, drink, or people to sexually violate or otherwise harm. Not all armed forces engage in such violence. One study compares the harsh pillaging during the eighteenth-century American Revolutionary War by the North Carolinian militia with the relatively civil behavior of the Continental Army, officers of whom were known to give receipts for the items the soldiers were requisitioning, giving the illusion of future compensation. The latter pillaged from hunger, not greed, and apparently did not engage in senseless violence against civilians or physical property.

Most, but not all, pillage requires some kind of armed forces, whether state or non-state. In poor countries, pillage and other forms of violence against civilians is growing, due to the changed nature of war. In recent years, there are fewer state-sponsored armies and more criminal gangs or political militias, thus creating a disproportionate number of civilian to military deaths due to pillage and other forms of violence, including sexual violence. Though not always successful, modern state armies, in their attempt to abide by international laws, strive to minimize civilian deaths and exorbitant violence.

Wendy Jo Gertjejanssen

See also:

Looting; plunder; sexual violence.


Azam, Jean-Paul. “Looting and Conflict between Ethnoregional Groups: Lessons For State Formation in Africa.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 46 (2002): 131-153.

Lee, Wayne E. Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina: The Culture of Violence in Riot and War. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.

Riedlmayer, András J. “Crimes of War, Crimes of Peace: Destruction of Libraries during and after the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.” Library Trends 56:1 (2007): 107-132.

Smith Jr., Arthur L. Hitler’s Gold: The Story of the Nazi War Loot. Oxford [England]; New York: Berg: Distributed exclusively in the US and Canada by St. Martin’s Press, 1989.

Submitted to ABC-CLIO encyclopedia Atrocities, Massacres, and War Crimes: An Encyclopedia, 2013.