Scorched earth

This article is about the military strategy. See Scorched Earth (computer game) for the computer game.

Scorched earth is a military tactic which involves destroying anything that might be useful to the enemy whilst advancing through or withdrawing from an area. The name refers to the practice of burning crops to deny the enemy food sources. The practice may be carried out by an army in enemy territory, or by an army in its own home territory.

The tactic can also be used aggressively to cripple an enemy's ability to operate and fight in their own territory. General Sherman's March to the Sea during the American Civil War is a well known example.

During the Napoleonic Wars, scorched earth policies were successfully employed in both Spain (see Peninsular War) and Russia (see Napoleon's invasion of Russia). Contrary to popular opinion maintained mainly by the Tolstoy novel War and Peace, in Russia the tactic was first proposed not by Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov but Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly.

Future usage and modern alternatives

It remains to be seen whether nuclear, biological, and/or chemical weapons will be used as scorched earth weapons. Using land mines or semiautonomous artillery units (such as the Metal Storm systems) to create denied areas may be an alternative to scorched earth tactics in some cases, and modern solutions of these types may offer friend-or-foe selectivity.


The scorched-earth defense is a form of risk arbitrage and anti-takeover strategy. When a target firm implements this provision, it will make an effort to make it unattractive to the hostile bidder. For example, a company may agree to liquidate or destroy all valuable assets, also called crown jewels, or schedule debt repayment to be due immediately following a hostile takeover. In some cases, a scorched-earth defense may develop into an extreme anti-takeover defense called a “suicide pill”.

One such case is the anti-sales tactic taken by American movie rental chain Blockbuster. Rather than sell off excess stock or donate it to libraries, charities, and the like, store representatives are ordered to "field destroy" all merchandise that is of no further use to the company. This practice prevents others from benefiting from the items in question without patronizing the company. The items can be toys, DVDs or promotional goods.

The scorch-earth defense refers to the classic military strategy in which generals would instruct their troops to destroy all resources upon retreat; the pursuing army would be left with no supplies.

See also

de:Verbrannte Erde lt:Išdeginta žemė sv:Brnda jordens taktik cs:Taktika splen země


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