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We will fill their wells. We will burn their fields. We will destroy their trees. WE WILL TURN THEIR LAND BROWN!
— Lion of the Desert (1981)
Salting the earth is an act to curse the land and render fields incapable of crop growth, often used in ancient times as a symbolic act on top of various other scorched earth tactics to indicate the desire of the victor to completely eradicate the enemies' ability to reconstruct themselves after the war, or by those being forced into retreat to ensure that their would-be conquerors would have to put more effort into rehabilitating the land if they won.
So as a trope, characters will often have an analogous action, sometimes literally salting the earth, which performs as a symbolic act to indicate their embrace of scorched earth tactics and the increase of hostilities beyond it. The act can be a movement across the Moral
or Despair Event Horizons
, increasing the threat of a character, making the stakes truly a matter of survival and making the lack of forgiveness or remorse clear. So it is that the act can occur at a pivotal moment in the middle of a war or as the final blow at the end of one.
The action was common in the ancient Middle East and extended to the Middle Ages
. The thing to note, though, is that salt was costly then. Heck, even a bad winter can give us difficulty in getting salt supplies out to spread on the roads. So in these tales, look at salt as not just something bad for the crops but also as something with attributed mystical powers and that you probably aren't going to spread over an entire field, leaving just the corner of some garden being ploughed for the symbology of it. They knew their tropes, even then.
Enough salt will
decrease the fertility of the land. This was discovered first in Mesopotamia, when salts left from irrigation reduced fertility enough that whole civilizations collapsed. Unlike the symbolic versions practiced by the Romans, this involved centuries
of salt deposits building up.
Related to Kill It with Fire
and Death from Above
. Compare There Is No Kill Like Overkill
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- In Batman No Mans Land, Bane plans to blow up Gotham's Hall of Records with low-yield nuclear bombs. He compares it to Rome's tactics, not only destroying the structure but poisoning the ground too. He did all this for Lex Luthor, to make it easier for him to acquire buildings when he has Gotham rebuilt.
- In Worldwar: War of Equals, the scorched earth tactic proves popular with the Italian military as they fall back from overrun areas. The Ukrainians later start utilizing the tactic as they retreat from Kiev.
- Cobalt bombs (see below) were popularized in the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove. The element added to the bombs is referred to in the film as 'cobalt-thorium G'.
- The second Planet of the Apes movie had one.
- Idiocracy: Not the result of malice, but stupidity. A Gatorade ersatz got a law passed at some point to replace all water with their sports drink, because it has "electrolytes", which is "what plants crave". For those not quite scientifically savvy enough to see the mistake (they sure as hell didn't), the electrolytes in sports drinks are salts dissolved in water. It's likely that they would've starved to death if Joe hadn't come around and suggested they use water. ("You mean from the toilet?") He had to pretend he had the psychic power to talk to plants to get anybody to listen to him.
- In The Ruins, the people guarding the titular ruins do in fact salt the earth around the pyramid. Very, very heavily, and for excellent reasons. It's unfortunate that they can't explain them.
- In the backstory of TRON: Legacy, Clu poisoned the Simulation Sea to stop any new Isos from coming to life. Then he started his campaign of genocide against the rest.
- In Shakespeare in Love, when the Rose is closed for having a woman onstage, Wessex threatens to have it dismantled stone by stone and the the place where it was sown with quicklime.
- Neville Shute's 1957 novel, and subsequent 1959 movie, On the Beach, features the cobalt bomb (see below).
- In the novel The Crash of '79 by Paul Erdman, the Israelis use cobalt bombs on Saudi Arabia's oil fields to make them "off limits" to humanity for at least 30 years and end the Arab power over oil.
- The Pak in Larry Niven's Protector are a human forerunner whose third stage of life is a superhuman keyed to protect its own as identified by scent, and so they're at war whenever one of them can see an advantage to their family. To protect the central Library that contains all the knowledge the families are willing to share, (and is tended by protectors who have lost their families) the land around it is seeded with radiocobalt to make the area undesirable.
- In the Wing Commander novel Fleet Action, the Kilrathi build a fleet of super carriers and begin a seemingly inexorable push into human space. Along the way they bombard any human planets with Strontium-90 clad thermonuclear weapons that ensure that the planets will be uninhabitable. Even if the Kilrathi had succeeded, they would have gained little because they would have had no use for the conquered territory. Of course, this was precisely the point, and was the cause of an Enemy Civil War among the Kilrathi that ultimately prevented Earth from being obliterated.
- The Bible, Judges 9:45 - Abimelech conquered the city of Shechem and sowed it with salt. NIV translation: "All that day Abimelech pressed his attack against the city until he had captured it and killed its people. Then he destroyed the city and scattered salt over it."
- Mentioned in passing in The Eagle of the Ninth, and downplayed a bit. The protagonist reflects that the arable land that has been ploughed with salt in reprisal for an attack on the local garrison will be useable again within a few years, but nothing can replace the dozens of young men killed in the fighting.
- The Duchess intends to do this to parts of Lancre in Wyrd Sisters, seemingly For the Evulz.
- Oscar Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" describes how when a murderer was buried in the prison yard, the body was covered with lime and nothing was allowed to grow over his grave:
For three long years they will not sow
Or root or seedling there:
For three long years the unblessed spot
Will sterile be and bare,
And look upon the wondering sky
With unreproachful stare.
They think a murderer's heart would taint
Each simple seed they sow.
It is not true! God's kindly earth
Is kindlier than men know,
And the red rose would but blow more red,
The white rose whiter blow.
Live Action TV
- Sue Sylvester on Glee: "I sold my house to a nice young couple and salted the earth in the backyard so that nothing could grow there for 100 years. Know why I did that? Because they tried to get me to pay their closing costs..."
- The government's final disposition of The Initiative, in season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
Mr. Ward: "Burn it down, gentlemen. Burn it down and salt the earth."
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: When the Federation is unable to hold Deep Space Nine against the Dominion and Cardassian forces, they evacuate it. As soon as they're gone, Kira Nerys destroys the station's computer systems, effectively crippling it for months.
Kira Nerys: Dukat wanted the station back? He can have it!
- The Cardassians trashed the station on their way out just before the beginning of the series, but didn't do nearly as thorough a job. They also exploited Bajoran resources extensively enough that there was famine when they left due to ruined potential farmland (probably on purpose). It's explicitly mentioned that they turned an entire peninsula (once the most fertile region on the planet) into a barren wasteland.
- During the Maquis/Cardassian conflict, the Maquis decided to deal with the problem with a bioweapon that would render the target world unlivable for Cardassians, but fine for humans. Sisko responded by doing the opposite to their worlds.
- The crew of Moya do something analogous in the season 1 finale of Farscape: exploding a ship in the atmosphere of a Peacekeeper moon, which ignites the moon's entire atmosphere.
"Hey you bastards... John Crichton was here!"
- The theme song to Firefly uses it as a form of defiance. Their enemies can "burn the land and boil the sea," but they'll still have the sky. Supposedly it's also a reference to what happened to Mal's homeworld During the War, but the canonicity of this is unclear.
- At the end of Babylon 5: A Call to Arms, after the Drakh's plan to destroy the Earth is foiled, they release a Shadow engineered virus into the Earth's atmosphere that will kill all life on the planet in 5 years, which is explicitly compared to the Roman practice of poisoning wells. The search for the cure serves as the starting point of Crusade.
- In order to avoid getting involved in the Trojan War, Odysseus faked being insane and demonstrated this by tilling the land with salt. Palamedes then put Odysseus' son Telemachus in front of the plough and Odysseus stopped, ruining the ruse.
- In the Fallout: New Vegas DLC Honest Hearts, this is where the villain Salt-Upon-Wounds gets his name. Unsurprisingly, he was taught this tactic by Ulysses, a member of the Roman-inspired Caesar's Legion and Big Bad of the Lonesome Road DLC, who himself plans to nuke both NCR and Legion territory with the Divide's missiles.
- Dead Money's Big Bad, Father Elijah, plans to use the Cloud to render the Mojave uninhabitable.
- In the main game, one sidequest involves trying to stop a radiation leak that's poisoning a sharecropping operation. You can choose between stopping the leak but dooming the survivors of the vault it's coming from, or letting it remain while allowing the survivors to escape.
- The Covenant of Halo bombard human planets with plasma weaponry until the surface is fused into a glass-like mineral, hence the term "glassing".
- An viable and evil tactic to use in the strategy game Lords of the Realm II. Destroy the fields of your enemy own land and since reclaiming it takes forever, the peasants will usually start an uprising before the enemy can recover. This is assuming of course, you don't need said land.
- Discussed in Ahzirr Traajijazeri, the manifesto of a group of Khajiit revolutionaries.
"Let us not forget our purpose. We are thieves and thugs, smugglers and saboteurs. If we cannot take a farm, we burn it to the ground. If the Imperials garrisoned in a glorious ancient stronghold, beloved by our ancestors, will not yield, we tear the structure apart. If the only way to rescue the land from the Leyawiin misappropriation is to make it uninhabitable by all, so be it."
- A tactic in Spore to destroy or capture an enemy colony is to use terraforming tools to reduce it to a lower T score. You can glass a planet if you really work at it.
- The Simpsons: When Homer Simpson needed flowers for a parade float he took all of the ones from the Flanders garden. Flanders didn't really have a problem with this, but questioned the point of salting the soil so nothing would grow again.
Ned: Uh, excuse me neighbour, I couldn't help but notice you picked pretty much all of my flowers
Homer: Can't make a float without flowers!
Ned: Oh, sure enough, but did you have to salt the earth so nothing will ever grow again?
- This was essentially Fire Lord Ozai's plan during Sozin's Comet in Avatar The Last Airbender. Tired of the Earth Kingdom not being oppressed enough, he intended to have a fleet of dirigibles carrying comet-enhanced firebenders burn the entire kingdom to the ground. Then again, given that he is insane, and his sadistic daughter gave him the idea, it's likely less "salt the Earth" and more "kill them all."
- In fact, ash can work as a very effective fertilizer when mixed into soil. While the psychological warfare and intimidation aspect or true to this trope, the practical effect would not prevent replanting and restoration efforts.
- In the China-Vietnam War of 1979, the Chinese army salted Vietnamese farmlands along the border to prevent future border disputes. The Vietnamese army planted landmines in the same regions after the war.
- The Cobalt bomb is a type of "salted bomb" (a bomb intended to contaminate an area by radioactive material, with relatively little blast) originally proposed by physicist Leo Szilard, who suggested that it would be capable of destroying all life on Earth.
- Nearly all the land between Berlin and Moscow was scorched and salted twice in World War II: once by the retreating Russians and two years later by the retreating Germans.
- The city of Palestrina in the Papal States (now in Italy) revolted in the 1290s. When Pope Boniface VIII's forces defeated the rebellion, he ordered the city symbolically plowed and salted. This is one of several reasons Dante put Boniface in Hell.
- The Tavora noble family in Portugal was convicted in 1759 of an attempted assassination of the king (Joseph I) the previous year. They were executed, their palace in Lisbon was destroyed and the land where it had stood was salted.
- Similarly, when a Brazilian revolutionary plot against Portugal's command over the then-colony was put down, the leader, Tiradentes (who is now in republican times considered a national hero), was sentenced to death, his blood used to write a document saying how terrible the thing he did was, his body quartered and pieces of it displayed all over several cities to make an example out of him, his house torn down and the land where it stood salted.
- The Romans were terribly fond of this. The most famous example was their treatment of Carthage, with whom the Romans fought numerous wars before emerging victorious. They destroyed Carthage and salted the earth to make sure nothing could ever grow in its place. Julius Caesar later founded a new Carthage on the same spot, mainly to prove that he could.
- When the Mongols sacked Baghdad, it's said that a year later you could gallop a horse across where the city had been, for no stone lay atop another. Similarly, the destruction of the city's libraries (it had been a center of learning with great universities) supposedly turned the Euphrates River black with ink. (To put this in perspective, a thousand years after the Mongols sacked Baghdad, the city still hasn't recovered.)
- The infamous Hama massacre of 1982, where the Syrian army besieged the city for 3 weeks, killing somewhere between 17,000 and 40,000 people. It's widely considered the Moral Event Horizon for the Ba'ath Party and Hafez al-Assad.
- Israel dropped some 4.5 million cluster munitions in Lebanon during the last days of its military offensive on the country in 2006. Eight years after the 2006 war, Lebanon has not yet finished clearing the cluster munitions and landmines in the south, with Israel refusing to provide UN authorities with maps of the locations of the munitions it dropped.
- During The American Civil War, Major General William Sherman marched from the freshly-captured city of Atlanta, Georgia to the port city of Savannah, Georgia from November 15th to December 16th, 1864. Along the way, his forces destroyed not just military targets, but anything else that could have been useful to the Confederate war effort. This included everything from railroads, to plantations, to civilian farms, destroying or consuming everything they could. "Sherman's March to the Sea" as it was famously called is now considered a remarkable military achievement, a textbook example of "scorched earth" tactics and a very bitter memory amongst Southerners that endures to this day.