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Hugo Grotius on sparing Civilian Property from Destruction in Time of War (1625)

This passage comes from Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace (1625), Book III Chapter 12 "On Moderation iin Despoiling an Enemy’s Country" (1625):

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: … Such are Porticos, Temples, statues, and all other elegant works and monuments of art… 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.

  1. 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…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.

About this Quotation:

The OLL has two editions of Grotius book on The Laws of War and Peace online. The 1901 edition was published at a time when a number of Conventions had been convened to modernise the laws of war and to help ward off an expected conflict between the Great Powers of Europe (which nevertheless took place in 1914). This edition contained an introduction by David J. Hill who was Assistant Secretary of State in the U.S., thus giving the project the stamp of approval of the American government. The second edition we have online is a 3 volume edition published in 2005 by Richard Tuck. It is now the definitive scholarly edition of Grotius' work and is part of a 40 volume series on The Enlightenment and Natural Law. Having lived through the early years of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) which devastated so much of central and northern Europe it is not surprising that Grotius would be concerned about the effects of war on innocent civilians and how best to minimise this impact.

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