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Painful Truth: Looting has a long history in war

Russian troops stealing everything they can carry off is part of a long, ugly tradition
Road workers load a destroyed Russian tank onto a platform in the village of Andriyivka close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, April 11, 2022. Andriyivka was occupied by the Russian troops at the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war and freed recently by the Ukrainian army. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Among the atrocities of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, looting isn’t the worst. But it seems to be one of the most perplexing for modern commentators.

Following the Ukrainian victory and the Russian retreat in the battle of Kyiv, returning civilians have discovered their homes stripped almost bare – everything from computers and TVs to perfume, vacuum cleaners, curtains, and underwear.

Footage of Russian soldiers in Belarus mailing home package after package has also emerged.

But this isn’t weird at all. Looting isn’t just a common feature of war. For most of human history, it was the main reason to make war in the first place. Our modern era, in which governments try to ban or control looting, is the aberration.

Since at least the Bronze Age if not before, the typical soldier on the march has asked himself two key questions: Is it nailed down, and can it be pried loose?

Some of the earliest epics and legends are about war as a form of organized theft. Ireland’s The Tain is also known as The Cattle Raid of Cooley, and in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the ancient king of Uruk fought a monster to gain access to valuable cedar wood.

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Empires have typically expanded thanks to the opportunity for plunder (plus a little glory). The Romans took slaves by the tens of thousands, along with gold and silver. Every medieval army looked forward to pillaging captured cities, and entire methods of warfare were based on simply rampaging through the enemy’s territory, eating up the food of the local peasantry, stealing whatever could be carried off.

Some looting has always been informal – foot soldiers grabbing whatever they can to sell back home. But other forms of looting were regulated by the government. The British Navy as we know it wouldn’t exist without organized looting, they just did it a whole ship at a time, a practice immortalized in Jane Austen’s classic Persuasion. In the novel, Captain Frederick Wentworth has raised himself up from low station to high by acquiring “prize money,” the cash the British government paid to victorious officers and their crews when they seized a French ship.

Regulating looting was the first step in attempting to phase it out. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the king discovers one of his former drinking buddies has been executed for looting a church. Henry notes he had ordered “nothing taken but paid for.” After all, he’s trying to become king of both England and France, and he needs to win hearts and minds.

Looting has also been discouraged because it causes disorder. Troops busy stealing (or drinking booze they’ve just stolen) can’t fight as well.

In the beginning of warfare, loot was the aim of both kings and commoners. War paid for itself. Over time, organized armies tried to stamp it out.

But for poorly paid and poorly led soldiers, looting will always be a temptation. Russia’s wholesale looting of Ukraine is a symptom of a backwards military force.

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Matthew Claxton

About the Author: Matthew Claxton

Raised in Langley, as a journalist today I focus on local politics, crime and homelessness.
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