On Ecocide - an Arboreal War Crime
“All is fair in love and war” is an aphorism attributed to the sixteenth century English wit, poet and playwright, John Lyly. Basically, what it means is that in both of those situations one has a free hand, and that, as the end justifies the means, it is perfectly alright to do despicable and underhanded things. One has to be rather cynical to believe that all is fair in love, but perhaps a realist in believing so when it comes to warfare. Even if the motivation for going to war might seem to be, as it certainly must for many participants, morally justified, unnecessary acts of aggression appear to be the inevitable outcome when emotions take control and events get out of hand. No participating side in war is immune to senseless acts of cruelty, from the unwarranted injuring and killing of non-combatants to the wanton and unnecessary destruction of property.
When he stood trial before an Iraqi tribunal in November 2006, Saddam Hussein faced a number of charges for crimes against humanity. One such crime was the massacre of 140 people in reprisal for an attempted assassination that took place when, under the cover of date palm orchards that lined both sides of the main road of the Iraqi town of Dujail, gunmen opened fire on Saddam's motorcade, killing two of his bodyguards. Along with the charges of slaughter of the assassins and other citizens, the Iraqi dictator was charged with the destruction of 250,000 acres of fruit trees. This latter act might seem trivial when compared to Saddam's other crimes, and such destruction of property is quite a common feature in warfare. Why then did it achieve a prominent place in the list of his heinous acts? In part, perhaps, this was because the destruction of fruit trees is in direct violation to a Biblical precept (Deuteronomy 20:19-20) prohibiting, except for the use of timber, the destruction of trees during the siege of a city. Indeed, the roots of this ancient prohibition go back to distant Iraqi history - to the Assyrian use of orchard destruction as a coercive measure in siege warfare, an act that even finds pictorial representation in Assyrian relief sculpture, as seen above.
Despite a fundamental reverence of Biblical law in Christianity and Islam, during the Middle Ages there are occasional records of the destruction of orchards carried out in times of war. In 1182, when Saladin moved against the town of Sinjar in Upper Mesopotamia, Kurdish tribesmen, in the words of the historians Lyons and Jackson: "disgraced themselves by wantonly cutting down trees in the orchards, behaviour that Imad ad-Din contrasted with the discipline of Saladin's own troops."* When the Crusaders attacked Alexandria during the rule of King Amaury they were overcome by a desire to destroy property merely for the sake of destruction. Here is what William of Tyre had to say regarding this episode:
Surrounding the city like a leafy forest were fertile gardens of most delightful aspect, full of fruit tree and medicinal plants. The very sight of this charming retreat invited the passers-by to enter and, having entered, to rest there. Our soldiers invaded these orchards in large numbers, primarily with the object of finding material for building the [siege] engines. Soon, however, they were seized with the sole desire of causing injury and loss, and, with far more zealous effort than had been expended upon the original planting, they cut down aromatic trees, useful for many purposes. Before long, the orchards were levelled to the ground, and no trace of their former condition remained.**
* Malcolm Lyons and D.E.P. Jackson, Saladin. The Politics of Holy War, Cambridge, 1997, p. 181.
**William of Tyre, Chronicon, 19.28, English trans., Emily Atwater Babcock and A.C. Krey, New York, 1943, vol. 2, p. 223.