(Not sure if this should be on the Politics SE)

Wikipedia article on siege:

The universal method for defending against siege is the use of fortifications, principally walls and ditches, to supplement natural features. A sufficient supply of food and water was also important to defeat the simplest method of siege warfare: starvation. On occasion, the defenders would drive 'surplus' civilians out to reduce the demands on stored food and water.

The Lieber code, the code of conduct for Union forces during the American Civil War, states:

When a commander of a besieged place expels the noncombatants, in order to lessen the number of those who consume his stock of provisions, it is lawful, though an extreme measure, to drive them back, so as to hasten on the surrender.

Therefore, at least at some point in the past, it was lawful - even expected - to win a siege by starving the defenders. One might even refuse to allow evacuations to starve the defenders sooner. I can certainly think of several sieges that ended in this fashion (Siege of Lisbon, Siege of Vicksburg). However, somewhere along the line we've come to expect that a besieging army lets humanitarian supplies through or allow noncombatants to evacuate (hence the humanitarian corridors in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war). This seems to disable the ability to win a siege via starvation, and a significant handicap on the besieging army who would be forced into urban combat if they want to win.

When and why did it become the default expectation that a besieging army will still allow humanitarian supplies through?

  • 4
    Did you consider reading texts of Geneva conventions? Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 5:03
  • 1
    @MoisheKohan, that would give one point in time. But is it the earliest point?
    – o.m.
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 6:07
  • 2
    @Allure: Not sieges per se but providing civilians access to food and medication. The notion of a "siege" is too vague to be codified into a law. Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 7:06
  • 3
    I'm not confident that this question isn't based on unproven assumptions. Hypothesis - Nobody has ever been comfortable winning a siege by starvation, and nobody has ever been uncomfortable losing a siege. After the siege, the story is told which minimizes the discomfort.
    – MCW
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 12:11
  • 3
    “So far as individuals are concerned, the application of the 4th Geneva Convention does not depend upon the existence of a state of occupation within the meaning of the Art 42 [of the 1907 Hague Regulations]. The relations between the civilian population of a territory and troops advancing into that territory, whether fighting or not, are governed by the present Convention. There is no intermediate period between what might be termed the invasion phase and the inauguration of a stable regime of occupation.” - ICRC's Commentary on the 4th Geneva Convention books.openedition.org/iheid/94
    – Evargalo
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 12:54

4 Answers 4


TLDR summary; it's complicated -- while some people frowned on it as early as 1919, it wasn't unequivocally accepted in a treaty until the 1970s (AP I), with some highly qualified version appearing in the Geneva Convention IV of '49.

  • The 1919 Commision report [which mentioned starvation as a should-be crime] envisaged a trial of the ex-Kaiser and German WW1 command etc., but didn't really get much traction.

  • The US (under Hoover at least) was supportive of a food exception to blockades, but this was resisted by Britain and France, saw a total blockage as the best way for the League of Nations to deal with "outlaws", short of a war. So, there were also contrary interwar attempts to codify in treaties the WW1 practice of stopping all shipping (carrying food or anything else).

  • In somewhat of a break with that, during WW2, despite the lack of international law clarity at the time, at ICRC insistence, the Allies eventually allowed some food shipments to occupied Greece , but provided these were not paid by the Allies.

  • Some Nazi atrocities like the starvation of Leningrad and the broader Hunger Plan against the USSR were not prosecuted as such after WW2, again invoking lack of laws in that regard.

  • The Geneva Convention of '49 had highly qualified provisions allowing limited aid to children and mothers, and the negotiation of evacuation for other. (The Soviets which boycotted the ICRC until then, suddenly changed tack and supported the ICRC's efforts for more codified protections, out of self-interest against total blockades. But the Western Allies watered down those efforts.)

  • First less ambiguous provisions appeared in the Additional Protocol I, negotiated in the 1970s.

Maybe two Wikipedia articles citing different sources are wrong and one somewhat upvoted & accepted answer here with a dead link (does not point to anything useful, just a landing page) and no quotes is correct somehow, but FWTW:


Blockade causing starvation—including the siege of Leningrad where it killed hundreds of thousands of Soviet civilians—was deemed legal by Allied judges.

citing: Mulder, Nicholas; van Dijk, Boyd (2021). "Why Did Starvation Not Become the Paradigmatic War Crime in International Law?". Contingency in International Law: On the Possibility of Different Legal Histories. Oxford University Press. p. 371

And https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Leningrad#Legality

The judges at the High Command trial—a United States military court convened to judge German war crimes—ruled that the siege of Leningrad was not criminal: "the cutting off every source of sustenance from without is deemed legitimate. ...We might wish the law were otherwise, but we must administer it as we find it".[97] Even such actions as killing civilians fleeing the siege was ruled to be legal during the trial.[98] The Soviet Union was not successful at banning the use of starvation in the 1949 Geneva Convention; though imposing some limits, it "accepted the legality of starvation as a weapon of war in principle".

The first ref there is: Jordash, Wayne; Murdoch, Catriona; Holmes, Joe (2019). "Strategies for Prosecuting Mass Starvation". Journal of International Criminal Justice. 17 (4): 849–879. doi:10.1093/jicj/mqz044.

As for what happened in 1919, that's far from conclusive as the latter piece notes in a footnote:

in 1919, we find one of the earliest references to starvation as a prosecutable crime.


‘Commission on the Responsibility of the Authors of the War and on Enforcement of Penalties - Report Presented to the Preliminary Peace Conference, 29 March 1919’, 14 American Journal of International Law (1920) 95^154, at 144.

However the latter is not a treaty, just the opinion of some commission. And it did not hold that much water later, as the next footnote notes:

Including analysis that starvation should be considered as a form of genocide by R. Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944); United States v.W. von Leeb, supra note 9. Despite expressing significant unease with the state of the law, the judges stated: ‘The propriety of attempting to reduce it by starvation is not questioned. Hence the cutting off every source of sustenance from without is deemed legitimate. [...] We might wish the law were otherwise, but we must administer it as we find it.’

And the paper continues:

Despite these early flashes of recognition, starvation of civilians was not criminalized during the Nuremberg Trials. However, shortly after World War II, the legitimacy and legality of starvation as a method of warfare began to be challenged with the enactment of the Geneva Conventions. The prohibition of deliberate starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare was introduced in the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions of 1977, in Article 54(1) of Additional Protocol I (API) and Article 14 of Additional Protocol II (APII), rendering it unlawful for parties to starve civilians both in international armed conflicts (IACs) and non-international armed conflicts (NIACs), a development considered by some as ‘one of the great achievements’ of the Additional Protocols.

As for what's in the 1949 Geneva Conventions (as opposed to the later protocols), the paper doesn't discuss much but references: Art. 23 GC IV and Art. 17 GC IV. Art. 23 refers to the free passage of consignments, but the provision is rather alembicated and limited:

Each High Contracting Party [...] shall likewise permit the free passage of all consignments of essential foodstuffs, clothing and tonics intended for children under fifteen, expectant mothers and maternity cases.

So only foodstuffs for children under 15 and pregnant mothers should be allowed in?

Art. 17 does not mention food, but says who should be allowed to evacuate, which is however not the whole civilian population (but "children and maternity cases" are included in those allowed, alongside "wounded, sick, infirm, and aged persons".)

So, no, before AP I, it wasn't entirely clear that starvation of most adult civilians until they were all 'sick' (and thus had to be evacuated) was not allowed. And if you a source to say that:

However, except in the narrow context of belligerent occupation, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 retained a permissive posture towards starvation tactics. They require that parties allow “essential foodstuffs” through to adversary territory only when those consignments are “intended for children under fifteen, expectant mothers and maternity cases” and the besieging party has no “serious reasons for fearing” that they may be diverted, controlled ineffectively, or provide a “definite advantage” to the adversary by substituting for goods that it would have provided. In the context of siege warfare, parties are required only to “endeavour to conclude local agreements” for the removal of “wounded, sick, infirm, and aged persons, children and maternity cases”; there is no requirement to succeed in those endeavors, no requirement to allow persons in the protected categories out in the absence of an agreement, and no requirement to even try to conclude agreements allowing other civilians to exit. The notion that starvation methods could qualify as a war crime remained a long way off.

As for the Nuremberg trials, the same piece claims that the reason why the siege of Leningrad wasn't prosecuted for starvation tactics is that "It was a tactic the Allies had used themselves" (although it doesn't provide details/examples of the latter).

Likewise the ICRC commentary on GC:

Although the comprehensive protection of civilian objects and the explicit prohibition of the starvation of civilians are new features in codified humanitarian law, it should be noted that the Diplomatic Conference of 1949 had taken the first step in this direction with the adoption of Article 23 of the Fourth Convention, which provides for aid in favour of the most vulnerable categories of the population, and Article 53 , which safeguards necessities of life of civilians in occupied territory.

Note however that something besieged is not yet considered occupied by the besieger.

As for the fabled 1919 commission, it envisaged Nuremberg-like trials for WW1 (!!). However hardly any of that actually happened. Also, a quick search inside doesn't find mention of food or starvation, although maybe they used some other related term. The closest thing I found mentioned is "the poisoning of springs and of wells". (Aside, it also tried to criminalize "the aerial bombardment of open towns without there being any regular siege", but we know what happened later in WW2 in that regard.)

Ah, yes, the issue is that that text I found is just "extracts" from the 1919 report. The full text reportedly has “deliberate starvation of civilians” listed too somewhere in "§ 5", and it's on JSTOR [p. 114], but item 4 in a list there:

(1) Murders and massacres; systematic terrorism.
(2) Putting hostages to death.
(3) Torture of civilians.
(4) Deliberate starvation of civilians.
(5) Rape.
(6) Abduction of girls and women for the purpose of enforced prostitution.
(7) Deportation of civilians.
(8) Internment of civilians under inhuman conditions.
(9) Forced labor of civilians in connection with the military operations of the enemy.
(10) Usurpation of sovereignty during military occupation.
(11) Compulsory enlistment of soldiers among the inhabitants of occupied territory.
(12) Attempts to denationalize the inhabitants of occupied territory.
(13) Pillage.
(14) Confiscation of property.
(15) Exaction of illegitimate or of exorbitant contributions and requisitions.
(16) Debasement of the currency, and issue of spurious currency.
(17) Imposition of collective penalties.
(18) Wanton devastation and destruction of property.
(19) Deliberate bombardment of undefended places.
(20) Wanton destruction of religious, charitable, educational, and historic buildings and monuments.
(21) Destruction of merchant ships and passenger vessels without warning and without provision for the safety of passengers or crew.
(22) Destruction of fishing boats and of relief ships.
(23) Deliberate bombardment of hospitals.
(24) Attack on and destruction of hospital ships.
(25) Breach of other rules relating to the Red Cross.
(26) Use of deleterious and asphyxiating gases.
(27) Use of explosive or expanding bullets, and other inhuman appliances.
(28) Directions to give no quarter.
(29) Ill-treatment of wounded and prisoners of war.
(30) Employment of prisoners of war on unauthorized works.
(31) Misuse of flags of truce.
(32) Poisoning of wells.

Interesting though that the later (7 page) summary/excerpt from US gov't archives (of the 60 page report) omitted starvation.

BTW, a reason why starvation might have been (quietly) forgotten after/despite the work of that 1919 commission...

Britain first implemented the naval blockade of Germany not as a merciless hunger blockade, but rather as a time-honoured maritime strategy intended to weaken the enemy’s military resources and thereby assist the Allied land war on the Continent. However, its function changed over the course of the war, as Britain broadened the classes of goods subject to interdiction, from a traditional naval strategy focused on military supplies, into a much broader “weapon of starvation,” in the words of Winston Churchill, the British Secretary of State for War, by 1918-1919.

And a somewhat obscure interwar event quoted from Mulder and van Dijk shows the lack of [full] acceptance of the 1919 commission proposals, in the interwar period:

In November 1929, US President Herbert Hoover drew on his credentials as a famine-relieving humanitarian to call for an international agreement to allow food ships unconditional access through blockade lines. But the main proponents of blockade, Britain and France, rejected what they saw as an attack on the deterrent function of the League’s economic weapon.

[footnoted to: ‘Europe Sees Hoover Clash with League in Food Ship Plan; Holds the Economic Blockade, Geneva’s Strongest Weapon, Would Be Nullified’ New York Times (New York, 13 November 1929)

There were even attempts to codify the opposite, in the interwar period, at least with respect to naval interdiction of food shipments:

More battles over blockade brutality were waged in 1930, when both the International Law Association (ILA) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) convened, the former in London in May and the latter in Brussels in October. At the ILA meeting, discussion concerned a new code of maritime law. The question at hand was whether seaborne commerce would be immune from seizure in war, as it had effectively been from 1856 to 1914. Article 15 of the draft destroyed any hope of protection by defining contraband as ‘articles having an enemy destination and susceptible of belligerent use’—a definition wide enough to include any kind of good including civilian supplies. As the German government well understood, this would ‘make the English practice in the World War the foundation of the maritime laws of war’.

[citing the Draft Convention on the rights and duties of Belligerents with regard to neutral property (1930) ILA Journal.]

(That Draft Convention didn't become treaty.)

The idea [to allow food in] did start to get some limited traction during WW2 though:

In mid-1941, the Geneva-based organisation [ICRC] started a major campaign to persuade British officials to temporarily lift the blockade of Greece. But the main agency organising the Allied blockade of occupied Europe, the British Ministry of Economic Warfare (MEW), initially rejected the ICRC relief plan. The MEW argued that the Axis occupiers had the legal duty to ensure sufficient food supplies for the Greeks. Relief efforts, it argued, would only undermine Allied pressure on their enemy’s war effort while a strict blockade could hasten the war’s ending. Privately, MEW officials expressed major concern about the ICRC’s susceptibility to pressure from the Axis occupiers.

With the help of British humanitarians and US public pressure, the ICRC eventually succeeded in early 1942 in temporarily weakening the blockade of occupied Greece. Ships carrying wheat were allowed to dock in Greek ports, and from mid-1942 regular transports with food and medicine began arriving in famine-affected cities.

The aid operations were severely hampered, however, by Allied efforts to maximise the blockade’s effects. For instance, relief shipments had to have special import and export certificates and lengthy negotiations followed between the British blockading authorities and the Joint Relief Commission (JRF), in which the ICRC acted as a key member. The Anglo-American powers had virtually complete control over food markets and funds donated from Allied countries could not be used for food purchases in Axis-occupied areas. As a result of these systematic problems, the ICRC did not repeat the Greek campaign elsewhere during the war.

(Racism is also alleged to have prevented similar ICRC endeavors outside Europe, during WW2.)

Somewhat related to the non-prosecution of the Leningrad siege (for starvation), the people behind the Hunger Plan, were not prosecuted for that either:

Another blind spot is even more remarkable: the neglect of starvation on the part of genocide scholars. It’s striking because the intellectual father of genocide studies, Raphael Lemkin, was keenly interested in the politics of food and famine. In fact, in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944) he devoted more space to starvation and related deprivation than to mass killing. Elaborating on the physical debilitation of groups as a technique of genocide, he began by describing ‘racial discrimination in feeding’ and detailed Nazi guidelines specifying the portion of basic nutrients allocated to different groups, ranging in the case of carbohydrates from 100 per cent for Germans to 76-77 per cent for Poles, 38 per cent for Greeks and 27 per cent for Jews. The second mechanism Lemkin described was the endangering of health by overcrowding in ghettos, withholding medicine and heating fuel, and transporting people in cattle trucks and freight cars. The third was mass killings, which he described in a single paragraph. [...]

At the post-Nuremberg trial of senior civil servants in 1947, the prosecution reproduced a document entitled ‘Memorandum on the Result of Today’s Conference with the State Secretaries concerning Barbarossa’, dated 2 May 1941, just a few weeks before the invasion. It begins: ‘1. The war can only be continued if the entire armed forces are fed from Russia during the third year of the war. 2. As a result, there is no doubt that “x” million people [zig Millionen Menschen] will starve to death if we take out from the country whatever we need.’ It was written by Herbert Backe, state secretary of the Reich Ministry for Food and Agriculture. While the memo left the number of victims blank, Backe’s arithmetic suggested that the entire urban population of the European Soviet Union – thirty million ‘surplus eaters’ – should be starved to death.

[...] The hunger planners fell short of their original target by more than twenty million. Even at this reduced scale, the Hungerplan was a crime comparable in numerical terms to the Final Solution. Indeed, forced starvation was one of the instruments of the Holocaust. Eighty thousand Jews starved to death in the Warsaw Ghetto. Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz from May 1940 to December 1943, testifying before the Nuremberg Tribunal, estimated that ‘in the camp of Auschwitz alone in that time 2,500,000 persons were exterminated and that a further 500,000 died from disease and starvation.’ [...]

Backe was interrogated but by the time the Ministries Trial began in 1947, he had committed suicide, fearing he would be handed over to the Soviets. His predecessor as minister for food and agriculture, Walther Darré, an ideologue of ‘blood and soil’ and aggressive eastward expansion, was found guilty of plunder and despoliation, and sentenced to seven years in prison but released after two. Though Backe’s memo was produced as evidence, the Hungerplan was not mentioned by name. The Allies were in no hurry to criminalise famine or economic warfare.

According to the same source, the word "starvation" did enter in some Nuremberg trials, even if it was not mentioned in the Charter as such.

The Nuremberg Charter didn’t (despite Lemkin’s urging) make genocide an indictable offence, but it did include ‘crimes against humanity’. Starvation-related prosecutions were possible under Article 6, which classed ‘inhumane acts’, ‘extermination’ and ‘persecution’ as ‘crimes against humanity’. There’s a rationale for this: depriving someone of food can be a form of torture, an infliction of suffering pure and simple or with some ulterior goal in mind (such as forcing hungry persons to abandon their villages). Had the drafters of the charter made starvation a crime in its own right, there would have been uncomfortable implications for the Allies, given their own use of blockades. The final judgments at Nuremberg use the term ‘starvation’, but it is ancillary to the wider crimes committed by the Nazi leadership.

Interestingly, according to Mulder and van Dijk, the post-war ICRC drafts of the Geneva Conventions received most flak from the US side this time.

ICRC legal experts suggested regulating both the blockade of occupied territory (Article 49) and of belligerent territory (Article 20). This radical proposal, which struck at the root of the weapon of blockade, required the blockader to authorise food supplies for specific victim groups in belligerent territory. [...]

However, the US delegation blocked this proposal before it was seriously discussed. Calling the proposed restrictions ‘politically inept’, US drafters also tried to undermine the mandatory nature of the ICRC’s proposals. They felt most strongly about losing the blockade-related permissions under international law ‘from the point of view of [our] naked survival’. Commonwealth delegates also expressed concern about losing a ‘decisive’ weapon that would protect Western (and British imperial) interests in future conflicts. [...]

Like its British counterpart, the US delegation was briefed to challenge the Stockholm draft’s mandatory character and its proposed restrictions for blockade. Originally Washington had supported guarantees for civilian food provision as a response to the wartime Greek disaster. But in the wake of the war, the US Army began to express opposition to these safeguards. The Pentagon wanted to minimise international restraints on US warfighting capabilities while the embarrassed delegation in Geneva feared critical press, the loss of support from Western European allies, and being outflanked by the Soviets.

The Soviet Union surprised Western observers when it decided in April 1949 to end its boycott of the International Red Cross and sent a delegation to Geneva to participate in the drafting of the Conventions. By adopting a pro-Stockholm approach, the two former antagonists became strategic partners at this gathering in Geneva, both intent on bending blockade. Since they feared being targeted by future blockades, the Soviet-aligned delegations defended the Stockholm draft’s starvation-related restrictions. Swiss representatives also largely supported the humanitarian ICRC agenda to protect individual victims of war. As their plans to remove all restrictions ran into broad opposition, the British were now forced to change their drafting strategy from deleting to modifying the blockade-related articles–and thereby subverting them. Their new approach was to reshape rather than reject the existing proposals, in line with Anglo-American strategic interests.

To prevent an embarrassing defeat for their Anglo-American allies, a Norwegian drafter put forward a compromise proposal which appeased Britain and the United States by granting some blockade powers while assuaging continental European concerns about supplying occupied territory with sufficient food. The Norwegian proposal created a dilemma for Anglo-American drafters. While it presented a diplomatic way out of the drafting crisis, it broke with their original instructions requiring legal protection for ‘one of [our] most effective weapons’. In the end, the British Admiralty agreed to the Norwegian amendment since it largely secured its key interests by providing ‘very widely drawn’ discretionary powers to reject outside aid. The emergent North Atlantic alliance recognised the need to protect a ‘powerful instrument’ with which it could fight Communism in a future war. Thus the majority of the drafting committee accepted the Norwegian amendment, despite continuing Swiss and Soviet opposition.

In August 1949, the Diplomatic Conference of the delegates negotiating the Geneva Convention dealt a severe blow to the original blockade-bending proposals of the ICRC. It passed a restrictive Article for belligerent territory (23) which endorsed blockade by ‘recognizing that [it was] an essential feature of modern warfare’. Under this new provision, the blockader’s duty to accept food supplies was, in the words of one New Zealand delegate, ‘so circumscribed [that the] conditions [were] so stringent that the article [will] be of little practical value’. In their reports, Anglo-American delegates noted with satisfaction that they had successfully undermined the ICRC proposals.

(The citations for these paragraphs are a bit too numerous to reproduce here. It's mostly memos/reportes from the delegations to the Stockholm conference to their own governments, which have been declassified in the meantime.)

As an aside here, while the Soviets were generally more supportive of the humanitarian-favoring provisions [in '49], they were however opposed to any enforcement mechanisms for the Geneva Conventions.

  • Can you add a TL;DR ? It seems you bring many interesting points, but it is hard to sum them up...
    – Evargalo
    Commented Mar 22 at 14:16
  • @Evargalo: done. Commented Mar 22 at 22:21

I'm not an expert in military history, but as there is no better answer yet:

Mass starvation of civilians was officially outlawed in 1919 after World War I. That means that for example the horrific Siege of Leningrad by the Germans constitutes a war crime.

However, siege warfare is allowed as long as civilians are either allowed to leave the place under siege or foodstuff is allowed in.


  • 1
    should probably be the accepted answer. Commented Mar 16, 2022 at 9:13
  • IIRC signatory law didn't apply in the German:Soviet conflict of 1941. Which left traditional law of war in place. Which meant a great deal of horrific things were lawful. Not all of them: most einsatzgruppen aktion were not against sieges for example. Correspondingly the Soviet Commander of Berlin restored order on the third day of rape. It took western forces into the 1950s to reduce excess ("non-abortifacient" due to local civil law) rapes. Commented Mar 19, 2022 at 4:14
  • Wikipedia seems to disagree on that "Blockade causing starvation—including the siege of Leningrad where it killed hundreds of thousands of Soviet civilians—was deemed legal by Allied judges." citing Mulder, Nicholas; van Dijk, Boyd (2021). "Why Did Starvation Not Become the Paradigmatic War Crime in International Law?". Contingency in International Law: On the Possibility of Different Legal Histories. Oxford University Press. p. 371 Commented Mar 21 at 9:10
  • And: "The judges at the High Command trial—a United States military court convened to judge German war crimes—ruled that the siege of Leningrad was not criminal: "the cutting off every source of sustenance from without is deemed legitimate. ...We might wish the law were otherwise, but we must administer it as we find it"." Commented Mar 21 at 9:16
  • 1
    "Even such actions as killing civilians fleeing the siege was ruled to be legal during the trial.[98] The Soviet Union was not successful at banning the use of starvation in the 1949 Geneva Convention; though imposing some limits, it "accepted the legality of starvation as a weapon of war in principle"". Commented Mar 21 at 9:16

I am going to answer a slightly different question, both broader and more narrow.

"When did it become frowned upon, in the West, to deliberately cause mass civilian casualties?"

This is what a modern siege and bomb approach to urban warfare will result in. If it was just bombing it would also get frowned upon.

I would take the inflection point as somewhere between 1975 and 1990.

During the Vietnam war a number of tactics were pursued, or considered, by the US, that could not help but cause mass casualties, even assuming those were not the primary intent:

Likewise, the Algerian war was fought by France 1954-1962 with relatively little concern for civilians (death toll is claimed to be 300k total by Algeria).

By the time of Gulf War 1 (1991), the extensive coverage of the war was all about the gee-whiz wonders of smart bombs that allowed precise destruction of enemy military assets and avoided civilian casualties.

What had, until that point, been either a deliberately sought-after result, or an easily tolerated side effect had become something that the Western militaries had to give extensive reassurances to their electorate: "we are avoiding hurting civilians as much as possible".

It's just hard to see this demeanor in Vietnam and the wars preceding it. Even though many peace activists were specifically concerned about civilian casualties before, their voice just didn't seem to be that influential.

Let alone during WW2 before, where deliberate civilian casualties were a goal, even if it was dressed up as going after military targets like factories.

  • 1975 is too recent. As I said in the comment above, in 1627-28 there was a siege of La Rochell. In fact Cardinal Richelieu deliberately made people of La Rochelle starve to death.
    – markvs
    Commented Mar 12, 2022 at 1:48
  • If I read your answer correctly then you claim that civilian causalities before 1970 were justified and in some cases a goal to achieve. This seems terribly wrong, Firstly the Hague Conventions did provide some protection for civilians, secondly (and this is the elephant in the room), if under WWII civilians were "fair game" why is then Holocaust such a big deal?
    – Bartors
    Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 10:18
  • @Bartors If I read your answer correctly. You didn't. Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 15:06
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica care to elaborate?
    – Bartors
    Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 15:07
  • 1
    Did I say anything about justified? Or moral? Second, various conventions have been signed at times that in a matter of practice were largely ignored so their presence doesn't in itself change anything to my post. Third the Holocaust is totally unrelated to this. The people murdered there were prisoners, not civilians of an enemy power. Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 15:10

Consider the question: "When and why did it become frowned upon to win a siege by starvation?" "frowned upon" could range in meaning from "to disapprove of" or "morally unacceptable." But that is more of a value judgment than an objective criterion. We do not know enough about ancient attitudes to siege defenses, ancient politics or moral values in order to give a definitive answer. However, we can presume that there always have been some people who would consider the using the tactic of civilian suffering to win advantage in war to be immoral, or at the least strategically counter-productive, and there have always been those to whom victory by causing suffering of non-combatants is acceptable (e.g., "the ends justify the means" philosophy).

But did how starvation by siege even become possible, and hence a viable tactic and a morally questionable one.

I imagine sieges of some sort have been practiced ever since humanity began to settle in cities, whereupon people have preyed upon their inhabitants. The earliest sieges were probably simple encirclements of settlements that lasted just a day or two. As defenses improved, siege times increased too. Since humans can live up to 4 weeks without food, a siege would have to last at least that long for starvation to be effective. If food is stored, siege times increase accordingly.

The Wikipedia article on siege cites the earliest known "city walls" by 3500 BC in the Indus Valley. It's entirely possible that such walls were the first to be attacked and besieged, and that starvation was a factor.

  • 3
    While four weeks without food is possible, a mere eleven days without water will kill nearly everyone even in a temperate clime; in the tropics that likely drops even lower. Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 23:30
  • 1
    There is evidence of city walls plus a seige at Tell Brak in Syria from about 3800 BCE.
    – Spencer
    Commented Mar 12, 2022 at 0:37
  • City walls would be useful against mere raids and have been found in quite early settlements. Sieges require a supply train and other apparatus probably not found before government.
    – Mary
    Commented Mar 12, 2022 at 1:09

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