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The Verdict of Battle


James Whitman’s The Verdict of Battle: The Law of Victory and the Making of Modern War came out last fall. From the book’s website:

Today, war is considered a last resort for resolving disagreements. But a day of staged slaughter on the battlefield was once seen as a legitimate means of settling political disputes. James Whitman argues that pitched battle was essentially a trial with a lawful verdict. And when this contained form of battle ceased to exist, the law of victory gave way to the rule of unbridled force. The Verdict of Battle explains why the ritualized violence of the past was more effective than modern warfare in bringing carnage to an end, and why humanitarian laws that cling to a notion of war as evil have led to longer, more barbaric conflicts.

Belief that sovereigns could, by rights, wage war for profit made the eighteenth century battle’s golden age. A pitched battle was understood as a kind of legal proceeding in which both sides agreed to be bound by the result. To the victor went the spoils, including the fate of kingdoms. But with the nineteenth-century decline of monarchical legitimacy and the rise of republican sentiment, the public no longer accepted the verdict of pitched battles. Ideology rather than politics became war’s just cause. And because modern humanitarian law provided no means for declaring a victor or dispensing spoils at the end of battle, the violence of war dragged on.

The most dangerous wars, Whitman asserts in this iconoclastic tour de force, are the lawless wars we wage today to remake the world in the name of higher moral imperatives.

I might have overlooked the book if not for two posts last week by Daniel Larison in The American Conservative, along with his link to David Bell’s review in The New Republic.

In Larison’s second post, with the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War’s start approaching, he ponders this passage:

Wars enter their most dangerous territory not when they lose touch with chivalry but when they aim to remake the world.

That suggests a second lesson: great risks for the law of war arise when we commit ourselves to grand campaigns in the name of good government, campaigns for regime change… .The curse of modern warfare, and of the modern law of war, is that … our wars have consistently ended up raising basic, revolutionary questions about the organization of society and the legitimacy of states. We want to go to war only when there is something foul or evil or aggressive about the regime we fight. In America in particular we want to fight only “good wars.” Most especially we want to fight good wars that begin in self-defense and end in the revolutionary cause of spreading democracy through the world. Yet “good wars” easily become bad wars. (p. 251-252)

Larison adds:

One of the problems created by this sort of thinking is that it encourages us to keep expanding what we mean by self-defense. We saw this during the Iraq war debate, when preventive war was sold to the public as a pre-emptive act of self-defense. Despite the fact that the U.S. was illegally initiating hostilities when it attacked in 2003, it was apparently very important to the administration that the war be perceived as one waged in self-defense. Of course, wishing to fight only “good wars” doesn’t necessarily mean that a government fights fewer wars. It usually means that it dresses up the wars that it does fight as if they were justified especially when they often aren’t. Explicit ideological justifications for war create another danger, which is the tendency to argue that the ends justify the means. The main problem isn’t that war supporters are insincere in their desire for democracy promotion, though they might be, but that a war with ambitious ideological goals is one that is very difficult to bring to an end and even harder to “win” in any meaningful sense.

Sounds right to me. Indeed, it sounds obvious. Unfortunately, a lot of people with power didn’t, and still don’t, agree.

Inspired by Larison, I downloaded the opening portion of the book and began reading. I’ve put it aside for now, but may return soon.

Categories: Politics, War
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