When the Japanese took Manila at the end of December 1941, the American forces left behind enormous stores of food in the big, white warehouses of the Port Area. The last of the American military quartermasters and storekeepers took the remaining small boats across the bay to Bataan and Corregidor on their last night. As soon as they left, an orgy of looting took place. Manila stopped being an orderly city for a day and a night.
People gathered at the Port Area and the warehouses were systematically emptied. Mobs of people lurched out of the warehouses with crates of canned beets and peaches, pork and beans and pink salmon, Wesson oil and Crisco, sacked cereal and flour, sugar and rice, salt and pepper, all the food that had been meant to feed the Army then in retreat to the jungles of Bataan where starvation and disease were waiting for them.
The most successful looters were inevitably rich people. Poor people could only take what they could carry. Rich people could send trucks down to the chaos and pay people coming out of the warehouses to load them up. They had the private warehouses and the large homes in which to stack the goods stolen away from the Army and civilian depots.
Soon street vendors were setting up stalls and selling stolen goods on the cheap. Everyone without exception willingly bought them. There was no morality involved or any legal restrictions. Over the next three and a half years, the richest looters were the ones with evaporated milk, Campbell soup, fruit cocktails, and Vienna sausages. When the Americans returned, their “bodegas” still had crates of looted food even as people starved in the streets around them.
War is always an invitation to loot. Baghdad is the notorious example, but most wars move through an area in which the losers flee and the conquerors enter. In the gap between events order vanishes, meaning when you have no law enforcement, everything is up for grabs until patrols and arrest and calm return. “Nice” people come out and loot. So do soldiers. Most recently people looted in the Ostian regions of Georgia.
It turns out that civic order is a very thin veneer. Sure looting is a crime but it is a mass crime. It becomes an acceptable and excusable event, and, best of all, looters very likely will get away with it.