Spoils of War

The term “spoils of war” refers to any profits or prizes collected by the U.S. as the result of winning a war or during some other such military activity. For example, spoils of war, or “prizes of war,” can be legitimate or illegal. A legitimate prize of war may be a piece of enemy property taken by a soldier either after a war, or while the war is ongoing. An illegal prize of war, on the other hand, is the result of looting or ransacking. To explore this concept, consider the following spoils of war definition.

Definition of Spoils of War


  1. The profits or prizes someone takes during or after a war, either legitimately or illegitimately, as in the case of looting.



Legality of Spoils of War Concept

The legality of the spoils of war concept is that the U.S. acquires profits or prizes as the result of winning a war against an enemy. In other words, because the U.S. won, the property then belongs to the U.S. fair and square. Where things get illegal is when soldiers invade enemy territory and then steal what does not belong to them. This is the act of either pillaging or looting, both of which are illegal.

Pillaging and Looting vs. Spoils of War

Pillaging and looting are very different from spoils of war. For one thing, pillaging and looting involve the forceful invasion of another person’s private property for the purpose of stealing what is not theirs. Pillaging is a war crime on an international scale. Looting is common after natural disasters, such as when people steal televisions from their local electronics store because the store is flooded and there is no one present to supervise the store.

Spoils of war, however, is enemy property that soldiers capture or seize legally. In other words, once the U.S. conquers an enemy, the enemy’s property then becomes property of the U.S. The taking of that property is legal because the property becomes a perk of winning the war. For instance, if U.S. troops defeat an enemy, the spoils of war would be the enemy’s weapons, which are then available to the U.S. soldiers for the taking. A soldier can then bring back, for example, one of the enemy’s cannons as a prize of war.

Spoils of War in World War II

One of the many horrors resulting from World War II was the sheer number of cultural artifacts that Nazis looted as they occupied more and more of Europe. The Nazis looted millions of books and valued cultural items from private homes, museums, and libraries. Though Allied forces decimated many German cities, the Nazis were still able to hide much of their own valued property in places like remote monasteries and mines before the enemy could destroy it.

Many of these items never returned to Germany and instead spread all over the world, depending on who ultimately found them. Immediately following the war, the U.S. worked hard to help return Germany’s spoils of war to the countries to which they rightfully belonged. U.S. authorities in Germany ultimately returned more than half a million items, and over a quarter of a million books looted by the Nazis to the USSR.

Spoils of War Example Involving the Balangiga Massacre

An example of spoils of war took place back in the early 1900s and is still a relevant issue today. In 1901, hundreds of villagers in the Philippines armed themselves with machetes and disguised themselves as women. They then rang one of the church bells in the municipality of Balangiga to warn the locals that a massive attack was about to begin. What followed was the Balangiga massacre, one of the most violent losses American troops had ever suffered in wars occurring in the Philippines.

The U.S. Army killed thousands of villagers – after the villagers claimed 48 of their own – with General Jacob Smith ordering troops to shoot any villagers who looked older than 10 years of age. When all was said and done, the troops took three of Balangiga’s church bells as spoils of war. Thus began the Philippines’ struggle to persuade America to return the historic bells – a struggle that lasted well over a century. The bells are important to the Philippines as a symbol of national pride, and America finally relented and returned the bells in December of 2018.

The moment was so important that the Philippines broadcast it live on national television. Up to that point, America had two of the bells on display for decades in Cheyenne, Wyoming at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base. The third bell was with the U.S. Army in South Korea. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte pleaded with the U.S. in his state of the union address in 2018 to return the bells, as their silence was “painful” for the Philippines. The U.S. acquiesced after passing an amendment to a U.S. law concerning banning the return of prizes of war to foreign countries.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Amendment – The modification, correction, addition to, or deletion from, a legal document.