The computer game Scorched Earth takes its name from an ages-old military tactic. In its most basic form, Scorched Earth warfare is the practice of denying either a victorious enemy or a defeated opponent the use of those lands touched by the war. If one is retreating before an opponent, or one is destroying lands that have been conquered, any arable fields and crops will be torched; structures set ablaze, etc. This might be done either for tactical or punitive reasons.

There are variants on the actual methods used. Simply burning the crops and fields hasn't, until modern warfare, been terribly effective in the long term; burnt crops actually fertilize the ground, and most structures before the Middle Ages were either of stone or were of scant enough construction that their loss was negligible. The oldest method of permanent damage recorded is the practice of sowing the earth with salt - increased soil salinity led to aridity, rendering the land unusable for generations to come.

The Bible (Old Testament) records the use of this policy; in Judges 9:45, we read: "And Avimelekh fought against the city, all that day, and he took the city, and slew the people in't, and pulled it down, and sowed it with salt." Later, more famous uses of the tactic may be based on Biblical use if not chronicling; the Romans, upon defeating the Carthaginians, famously strew salt about the earth of Carthage to render it useless. Aramaic tablets, describing treaty terms between Syria and Arpad, contained the following passage:

Just as this wax is burned in the fire, so may Arpad be burned along with (her . . . dependencies). And may Hadad sow them with salt and tares and may they never more be (so much as) named. (emphasis mine)
-James Latham, The Religious Symbolism of Salt (Paris: Editions Beauchesne, 1982), pp. 81-82.

The earliest historical (as opposed to allegorical or mythform) reference to this I have been able to find is in oblique references in The Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides, which describes the use of salt (ocean) water on fertile land.

The modern English term is a bit harder to track down. The tactic is no stranger to the Americas or to Europe; from Sherman's destructive rampage through Georgia during the American Civil War, to the use of the tactic against Native Americans during the American Revolution and during the Western expansion, the idea is a familiar one. An online history of Old Fort, North Carolina, claims the first use by a non-Amerindian, at

In his western drive against the Cherokee Nation, [General Griffin] Rutherford is credited with the first “scorched earth” warfare in the Americas, so tellingly employed later by General Sherman in the Civil War. He and his men burned a great number of villages and crops as they drove the Indians farther west.

This doesn't tell us much about the actual etymology of the term, however. Webby gives us definitions of Scorch, but none include this use. However, the Fourth Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary (pub. circa 2000) states that some meanings of the word include:

  1. To burn superficially so as to discolor or damage the texture of. See synonyms at burn.
  2. To wither or parch with intense heat.
  3. To destroy (land and buildings) by or as if by fire so as to leave nothing salvageable to an enemy army.

Pushing the web to its limits of trustworthiness, there is an entry in Etymology Online (on Geocities, however, at which reads: "Scorched earth military strategy is 1930s, translation of Chinese jiaotu, used against the Japanese in their advance into China." This is more akin to our modern conception, which tends to focus more on the use of the tactic by a retreating combatant; Stalin's Russia made famous use of the technique against the advancing Wermacht during Operation Barbarossa in WWII; Saddam Hussein's military torched the Kuwaiti oilfields at the end of the Gulf War in 1991 to deny them to the Kuwaitis and their Western allies.

- this has been a History of War node, at the request of m_turner! -