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. Wars and revolutions started because of it. Heck, even now 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.
- In Gate, after the Empire's disastrous and humiliating defeat against the JSDF in episode 2, where they lost over a hundred and twenty thousand men in a matter of days, the Emperor orders the regions surrounding their capital burned down. Youji's recon team witnesses this firsthand when they see a dragon burning up a seemingly random part of the forest, until they realize there was supposed to be a village there. They discover the remains of it the next day.
- In Batman: No Man's 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.
- In The Dragon King's Temple, Toph briefly mentions a time Aang put out a burning village with a flood of ocean water. The villagers chewed him out because the salt water ruined their crops.
- Cobalt bombs (see the Real Life section 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".
- In Idiocracy, this trope is not the result of malice, but stupidity. This happened because, at some point, a Gatorade ersatz got a law passed to replace all water with their sports drink under the reasoning that 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 actually 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?"). Note that, to do this, he had to pretend he had the psychic power to talk to plants since, otherwise, no one would 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. Namely that the ruins hold man-eating vines, so they salt the earth around the pyramid in an attempt to keep the vines from spreading. 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 place where it was sown with quicklime.
- In Pacific Rim: Uprising, this is the Big Bad's goal: Kaiju blood reacts violently with rare earth elements, and if a Kaiju can throw itself into an active volcano rich in such elements (namely Mount Fuji), the reaction will blanket the earth in toxic fumes that would wipe out all life on the planet.
- 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.
- 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 the titular station 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 threatening to do the opposite to the Maquis-held worlds.
- When the Federation is unable to hold the titular station 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.
- 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. Mal's home planet, Shadow, was bombarded from space by The Alliance so badly that it was rendered completely uninhabitable.
- 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 the series itself, after it has become clear that Clark's regime has been defeated by Sheridan's armada, before he is arrested, he sends the command to the defense satellites around Earth to fire at the planet itself, to wipe out most, if not all, of the people on it, before putting a bullet into his head.
- Played for laughs in Parks and Recreation; the ultra-libertarian Ron Swanson is given an "Employee of the Month" award by the city of Pawnee, to which he responds by sawing it into pieces, burning them, burying the ashes in Illinois, and finally salting the ground he buried them in.
- Game of Thrones. Lannister forces Rape, Pillage, and Burn the Riverlands in retaliation for their rebellion against King Joffrey. We get a close look at what's left afterward in Season 4 when Sandor Clegane and Arya Stark trek through it on their way to the Vale.
- Person of Interest: In the final three episodes, Finch steals and modifies a powerful computer virus in order to destroy Samaritan, but The Machine warns him about the devastating consequences its use will cause. Finch goes ahead with it, anyway. It's soon revealed that the virus will destroy The Machine as well as Samaritan. On top of that, once it actually launches, it winds up causing general global devastation that takes a full week to contain.
- The Magic: The Gathering card Rain of Salt.
- Not to mention the much more literal Sowing Salt.
- In the backstory of Vampire: The Masquerade, the vampires of Rome had the lands of Carthage salted to trap their enemies, who have become one with the earth to hide.
- In the history of the High Elves of Warhammer, there was a civil war that split the nation. The point of no return when two different races would form came when a king whose family had been killed by the enemy moved to scorched earth tactics and would salt the fields of their lands on the continent, driving them onto a completely different land.
- Several Death Worlds in Warhammer 40,000, most notably the homeworld of the the Death Korps of Krieg, gained their Death World status thanks to liberal use of nuclear weapons.
- An extreme example would be Inquisitor Kryptman's strategy against Hive Fleet Leviathan. Since the Tyranids consume the bio-mass of any world they conquer to increase the size of their swarm, Kryptman ordered Exterminatus on the planets in the Hive Fleet's path, reducing them to lifeless husks. This succeeded in slowing the Tyranids' advance, but killed billions which had a disastrous effect on battlefield morale but more importantly cost the Imperium several inhabitable worlds, which are a lot harder to come by than a few million soldiers, and saw the Inquisitor excommunicated for his excesses.
- One strategy for starving out the Tyranid Hive Fleets involves letting them make planetfall and start eating everything... and then Exterminatus-ing the planet from orbit, killing everything on it. This works better than the aforementioned strategy of burning the planets before the Hive Fleet gets there, since the Tyranids have to expend some energy to attack the planet and they lose the forces they landed. Unfortunately, the predicted size of the Tyranid swarm is so huge that even if the Imperium did this to literally every planet in their domain, it wouldn't be enough to completely defeat the Tyranids.
- This is only to be expected, when you take in the fact that the only sounds the Astropaths can hear when listening to outside of our galaxy, is Tyranid chittering on the left side, and continuous WAAAAAAAAAGH on the other side. Thus outside of our galaxy, most likely only Orks and Tyranids are running rampant, both infamous for their generation of units out of almost nothing.
- The Word of Blake in BattleTech would saturate planets were they were defeated with nuclear weapons. Several of them ended up becoming uninhabitable. And civilian populations paid for it with their lives.
- 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.
- As shown in the page image, 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.
- A common tactic in turn-based strategy games like Civilization is to send small armies to pillage improvements like farms and mines around the enemy cities, if you aren't strong enough or interested in actually capturing the territory. Not only does this put a dent in your enemy's production, but your citizens won't care what your army is doing, while the enemy's citizens will be angry with them, not you.
- The Novalith Cannon and Heavy Fallout siege tactic in Sins of a Solar Empire both reduce the population growth of enemy worlds. Not to be used when you plan to re-colonize those worlds immediately afterwards, of course...
- Also in Sins of a Solar Empire, the Vasari Loyalist faction can survive without the need for planets as long as their rulership is intact; to that end, they have the ability to utterly annihilate planets that they colonize, rendering them virtually worthless for others to colonize long after they're gone.
- In Ancient Empires, Catapults can destroy houses, turning them into ruins. Ruined houses still give defense bonuses to units on them, but won't restore HP or produce gold. This fits the trope when a player does this to their own houses in advance of an enemy invasion. Enemy soldiers can capture houses for their own side, but if a house is destroyed they'll need to spend a turn repairing it first.
- This is a legitimate strategy in the Total War series. In the course of your imperial campaign, it's likely that you will come into the possession of cities that don't make strategic sense to hold, usually due to them being the fringes of your territory where corruption and unrest are the highest, requiring massive economic resources to upgrade, and/or requiring massive troop resources to defend. So once you've captured it, you can exterminate the populace, demolish all of the buildings, and even send in a plague-infected character to drive the population even further down. Then abandon it and allow it to rebel. It can provide a good buffer against enemy forces who, even if they capture it, won't get much use of out it.
- In Three Panel Soul Matt drops a match and some salt-shaker salt as he quits. It's done "in the spirit" of the idea.
- "That's not quite burning and salting the ground as you leave." "I'm not really that mad anymore."
- 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 neighbor, 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?
Homer: Heh heh... yeah...
- This is 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 intends 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 the Captain Planet and the Planeteers episode "Scorched Earth", the evil spirit Zarm possesses a dictator and implements a "Scorched Earth" policy against the rebels by blowing up oil refineries, which make flames that are almost impossible to put out and release toxic smoke. His general protests that the nearly irreversible damage to the environment is not worth it, but Zarm threatens to execute him for treason if he doesn't help. Zarm doesn't really care if his side wins; he just wants to cause as much suffering and destruction as possible. Fortunately, Captain Planet was able to put the flames out.
- Steven Universe: It's eventually revealed that the monsters the Crystal Gems are always fighting are actually their fellow Gems who were corrupted/mutated when the Diamond Authority did this. When it became clear that the war for Earth was lost, the Diamonds decided to just evacuate and then deploy a horrific sound-based Fantastic Nuke that warped the minds and bodies of any Gem caught in it's range. Pearl, Garnet, Rose, and Bismuth are the only Crystal Gems who escaped this, as the former three were under a shield and the latter was in a Pocket Dimension (Amethyst was still in the ground and didn't emerge until later). In this case the planet itself was unharmed, but the basic intent was the same; the Diamonds felt that if they couldn't have Earth, than no one could.
- 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 Stalingrad was scorched and salted thrice in World War II: nominally by the retreating Soviets (the few things actually destroyed were power-stations, dams, and railway-bridges), actually by the advancing and occupying Germans (to feed their under-supplied troops), and again by the retreating Germans (again to feed their troops, but also to tie up Soviet resources). Amusingly, some German accounts (most famously General Friedrich von Mellenthin's) of their 'scorched earth' strategy go so far as to claim that they had only stolen food from Soviet civilians (and left them to die) to spare them from the humiliation of the barbarous Hunnic-Asiatic hordes (which passed for the bolshevik military) doing likewise! Less amusingly, these accounts were taken seriously prior to the 1990s and a new wave of scholarship focusing on the German military's war crimes.
- 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, though this theory likely started in the 19th Century. Julius Caesar later founded a new Carthage on the same spot, mainly to prove that he could. This was a metaphor for Rome's destruction of the city, and even then wasn't thought up until much later. Most of the farmland surrounding Carthage was actually given to Roman veterans of the Punic Wars as a retirement pension.note
- 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 Mongols did this a lot. Not just by sacking cities, but also by importing nomadic herding tribes into areas that had previous been devoted to settled agriculture dependent on extensive and maintenance-intensive irrigation systems. The result? Massive deurbanization and desertification due to overgrazing across Central Asia, the effects of which are still felt today. Afghanistan, for example, had a greater share of its population in cities before the Mongols showed up than they do now.
- 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 until three years after the war.
- During The American Civil War, Major General William Sherman (Trope Namer of War Is Hell) 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. Sherman himself justified his campaign as bringing the suffering of the war right to the people of the South, and that by destroying their property, he might avoid having to destroy their men.
- After he had been fired by Harry S Truman for his arrogant and insubordinate antics, Douglas MacArthur devised a plan that he said could win the Korean War. It involved first delivering an ultimatum to the Soviet Union that China must cease hostilities in Korea note or the United States would destroy China's capacity to make war note and sow radioactive material in the north of Korea to impede further moves by the Chinese and Korean Communist forces. Both Truman and his successor thought this proposal was horrifying and dismissed it out of hand.
- This was Russia's defensive strategy during several major invasions throughout history, be it Charles XII's breach, or Napolean's Grand Armee. The country largely scorches their farmland and villages to ensure that nothing could be plundered to resupply the invaders when the territory was overrun; this, in turn, slowed the invaders down until winter struck, and the casualties began mounting heavily due to attrition. This is such a common tactic that peasantry were more or less completely fine with it, as by the time of the Napoleanic Wars, they leaped at the opportunity.