House Demolition - Uses - Military Uses - Counter-insurgency and Collective Punishment

Counter-insurgency and Collective Punishment

Governments facing insurgencies have often used home demolition as a counter-insurgency technique, as a means of eroding popular support for guerrillas and denying insurgents the use of villages as "safe havens". Mao Zedong, leader of the insurgent Communist Party of China during the Chinese Civil War, famously observed that "The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea." Mao advocated the forced migration of large populations of civilians by means of house demolition to "drain the sea" and deprive insurgents of cover.

This principle was, however, widely recognized well before it was encapsulated in Mao's famous dictum. William the Conqueror's Harrying of the North in 1069–1070, during which his Norman troops systematically laid waste to the rebellious north of England, can be considered an early example of the use of house demolition to deprive an enemy of civilian support. Similarly, during the Second Boer War of 1899-1902, the British army under Lord Kitchener systematically destroyed Boer farms and homesteads in order to prevent Boer guerrillas from obtaining food and supplies, and to demoralize them by leaving their women and children homeless and starving in the open. Comparable tactics were used by the United States during the Philippine-American War and again during the Vietnam War, when numerous villages were burned by US troops and local allies. General Colin Powell later recalled how he had personally participated in the destruction of Montagnard homes when he was serving in Vietnam as a young US Army officer:

"We burned down the thatched huts, starting the blaze with Ronson and Zippo lighters. Why were we torching houses and destroying crops? Ho Chi Minh had said the people were like the sea in which his guerrillas swam. ... We tried to solve the problem by making the whole sea uninhabitable. In the hard logic of war, what difference did it make if you shot your enemy or starved him to death?"

The Soviet Union used home destruction tactics indiscriminately during the Soviet-Afghan War when it sought to depopulate the countryside by attacking civilians in the villages in which they lived. Soviet troops would seize a settlement, expel the villagers and raze homes and other buildings before withdrawing. Sometimes the Soviets simply carpet-bombed villages to destroy them outright.

Similar depopulation tactics were adopted by Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s to combat the rebellion of the Marxist Kurdistan Workers Party in the Kurdish-populated parts of southeastern Turkey, known unofficially as Turkish Kurdistan. About 3,000 villages are estimated to have been destroyed during the Kurdish insurrection. In a high profile case brought before the European Court of Human Rights by a group of Kurdish villagers in 2002, the Turkish government was found guilty of violations of the right to private and family life and the right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions. The court ordered the Turkish government to pay the applicants pecuniary damages for destruction of the houses and cost of alternative accommodations. It found that the several cases brought before it were but "a small sample of a much wider pattern" of house destruction employed by the Turkish government.

Home demolition has also been used — sometimes in conjunction with mass killings — as a form of collective punishment to penalise civilians for guerrilla activities. From the late 19th to the mid-20th century, this was a frequently used and highly controversial tactic employed by the German armed forces to counter the activities of guerrillas behind their front lines. It was used in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 during the German occupation of France, when the Germans were faced with attacks by francs-tireurs, who were regarded explicitly as unlawful combatants. Mayors of occupied villages were ordered to report francs-tireurs operating in their districts or have their houses burned down. When francs-tireurs did attack, homes and entire villages were destroyed by the Germans in retaliation. Following the war, the Germans officially endorsed the use of house demolition as one of a number of forms of collective punishment in the Kriegs-Etappen-Ornung, the manual for the rear echelons, even though this violated international law at the time.

The tactic was used to devastating effect by the Imperial German Army during the Herero and Namaqua Genocide in German South-West Africa, in which an estimated 75,000-100,000 Africans were killed. It was used again during World War I in a wave of systematic violence in occupied France and Belgium in August and September 1914, prompted in part by a fear of a civilian uprising and possible resistance by francs-tireurs. Some 6,000 people were killed and 15,000-20,000 buildings, including whole villages, were destroyed. German forces made a much more systematic use of house demolition tactics during the World War II, razing numerous villages in occupied countries in reprisal for the killing of German troops by partisans. On occasions, the Germans massacred the inhabitants, as happened at Oradour-sur-Glane in France and Lidice in Czechoslovakia. The German reprisal policy was deliberately exploited by Soviet partisans, who would place killed Germans near neutral villages in order to trigger a reaction. The Soviets hoped that the resultant retaliatory killings and house demolitions would goad the villagers into actively supporting the partisans.

The use of punitive house demolitions has been highly controversial in the various conflicts of historical Palestine (now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip). The tactic had originally been used by the British in the Irish War for Independence, and exported to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1945. It was used as a means to "convince fathers to convince their sons that carrying out a terrorist attack, no matter how justified in the grander struggle, meant enormous hardship for the family." Its use was continued by the Israeli government on-again-off-again fashion during the al-Aqsa Intifada of the early 21st century, during which more than 3,000 civilian homes have been demolished. Notably, the family homes of a number of Palestinian bombers were targeted in retaliation for terrorist attacks against Israeli targets. However, the usefulness of such tactics has been questioned; in 2005 an Israeli Army commission to study house demolitions found no proof of effective deterrence and concluded that the damage caused by the demolitions outweighed their effectiveness. As a result, the Israel Defense Forces approved the commission's recommendations to end punitive demolitions of Palestinian houses. (See House demolition in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for more on this topic.)

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