Food as a Weapon of War

Using food as a weapon of war goes back to the dawn of civilization.  Torched granaries are often found in the ruins of ancient cities destroyed by war.  In Medieval Europe, war usually meant laying siege to castles and towns until the enemy population was starved into submission.

Richard the Lion-Hearted used siege warfare to defeat his rebellious French barons.  Then he ordered that their fields be sown with salt condemning the local Gascony population to starvation because nothing could grow in salted fields.  That was the point for Richard.

In 19th century America, killing the buffalo was an intentional government policy aimed at destroying the primary source of food for the Plains Indians.  Eventually starving Indians agreed to confinement on reservations in return for regular rations of food.

Once they were on reservations, Indian agents routinely withheld rations from “hostile” Indians who objected to forced assimilation.  When starving Indians left their reservations in search of food, newspapers published lurid accounts of attacks on white settlers, conveniently omitting the reason why the Indians were off the reservation.  Then the military would hunt down the Indians and force them back onto the reservations….where their food rations were withheld because they were “hostiles”.

Today food is still used as a weapon of war from Yemen to Syria to Venezuela to the refugee camps run by the United Nations.  In Yemen and Syria, each side prevents the distribution of food to areas they consider hostile.  In Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro’s regime gives food only to party loyalists and recently ordered the military to block the border with Columbia to prevent a convoy of food from reaching starving Venezuelans.  U.N. refugee camps are routinely blockaded to prevent food deliveries.

Another threat to U.N-supported refugees arises from the erratic behavior of the U.S. government. The current U.S. administration continues the practice of reducing financial support of the U.N. citing a variety of reasons. Since the U.S. covers about a quarter of the entire U.N. budget, a loss of American funding means that millions of Rohingyas, Palestinians, Yemenis, Darfuris, and countless others are threatened with starvation since less money means less food is distributed in refugee camps.

Using food as a weapon is usually justified as a suitable punishment for an enemy.  A starving enemy is too weak to fight. While undeniably true, this justification should be rejected as barbaric and inhumane.  Using food as a weapon of war is a collective punishment against civilians.  Collective punishment targeted at civilian populations is prohibited under the “crimes against humanity” laws enacted since World War II.

Individually we may feel helpless, but collectively we have the power to remind governments of their U.N. treaty obligations. Ending the practice of using food as a weapon of war is a humane and ethical goal. It’s also a pragmatic goal. After all, we may someday find ourselves on the “enemy” side of a war.


About Norma Shirk

My company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, helps employers (with up to 50 employees) to create human resources policies and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to help small companies grow by creating the necessary back office administrative structure while avoiding the dead weight of a bureaucracy.  To read my musings on the wacky world of human resources, see the HR Compliance Jungle ( which alternates on Wednesday mornings with my new history blog, History By Norma, (available at To read my musings on a variety of topics, see my posts on Her Savvy (

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