The Verdict of Battle: The Law of Victory and the Making of Modern War
Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub
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."
pillage, culminating in Louis XIV’s devastation of the Palatinate in 1688–1689, much remembered and frequently denounced in the eighteenth century. Eighteenth-century war, by contrast, was conducted by relatively disciplined professional soldiers, who did not routinely turn their arms on the general public. As Michael Howard makes the standard point, the “brigands” were “turned into soldiers, anarchic violence into the intelligent and controlled use of force. . . . European states [now had]
battle warfare of the past functioned. As a result, they have misunderstood much of the drama, and much of the tragedy, of the history of the law of war. The battle warfare of the past rested on a conception of the law of war that is very different from the modern conception, and very difficult for modern lawyers to accept. For modern lawyers, the law of war is at base a humanitarian enterprise, often close in spirit to criminal law. Its principal business is to prohibit evil acts and punish evil
to commit violent acts. Huizinga’s “noble combat” was prominent among these symbolically charged privileges. High status was partly defined by the privilege of doing violence not only to inferiors but also between equals, and aristocracy, as one medievalist has said, with a shade of exaggeration, was based “first and foremost on the capacity to assert oneself in and through combat.”19 In that sense, engaging in combat was closely akin to such acts as sentencing one’s dependents to death: it was a
nobility could seem from the point of emerging absolutist monarchies. 144 The Monarchical Monopolization of Military Violence Authors of the Romantic era would find it easy to forget these truths, but authors of the eighteenth century did not. When Pufendorf and his contemporaries and successors lived, the defiance and brutality of traditional noble conduct were not far in the past at all. Correspondingly when they wrote about traditions of noble warfare, they generally shuddered. As the
battles were always substituted for direct trial by combat between individual monarchs. But the very fact that battles could serve as substitutes reflects the legal truth that battle and trial by combat were closely associated. Most of all, we must not forget that once the pro forma challenge had been issued, major disputes and claims of royal legitimacy were in fact frequently decided by pitched battle. This is especially true of cases in which battles tested the dynastic claims of two rival