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.
In the course of unearthing the jus victoriae tradition, Whitman offers a badly needed and faintly blasphemous revision of the laws of war. (In contrast to the monoglot bibliographies of most Anglo-American scholarship on the laws of war, Whitman engages with original texts in both ancient and modern languages.) To begin with, Whitman scrapes off several decades’ worth of received ideas from just war theory, now enjoying a revival… Most refreshingly, Whitman rejects the piety that the laws of armed conflict—currently euphemistically called ‘international humanitarian law’—are crafted in order to restrain lethal violence, rather than to facilitate and optimize its use. Whitman cautions against the widespread faith in the power of law to beat swords into humanitarian surgical instruments… The legal tradition rediscovered by James Whitman may eventually be useful in world politics, as in the multipolar future that is very slowly arising.
Unlike some military historians, Whitman does not romanticize his subject, or express any nostalgia for what Oliver Wendell Holmes famously called the ‘incommunicable experience’ that allowed soldiers to feel ‘the passion of life to its top.’… [The Verdict of Battle] offers a disturbing challenge to some of today’s most widely held assumptions about the history of international relations… [Whitman displays] massive erudition, stiletto-sharp logic, and the heated, repetitive eloquence of a master litigator addressing a jury… A book that devotes so much time to Central European battles of the 1740s, and to legal luminaries whose careers pre-dated the American Revolution, will probably attract few readers in the Department of State or the United Nations. Yet the denizens of those institutions could do worse than to read this book and ponder its conclusions… Whitman has written an often brilliant book… An intelligent book such as The Verdict of Battle, which reaches back into history to provide a genuinely different perspective on warfare, deserves a serious hearing.
Challenging contemporary views of the law of war and the function of battle, Whitman asks readers to forget what they know about post-Napoleonic wars of annihilation and revisit a time when a battle was a momentous wager to resolve disputes by ‘chance of arms.’ During the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth, the side that held the field after a pitched battle could claim victory and so set the terms of peace. Battles were often bloody and vicious, but at least they produced definitive conclusions without spilling over into the rest of the country. Whitman knows it is pointless to wax nostalgic for a past form of warfare that might have worked for absolute monarchs but would hardly be suited to the modern world. Still, comparing earlier wars with contemporary ‘fights to the finish’ allows him to ruminate about the possibilities for restraint in war and to challenge international lawyers to develop a ‘law of victory’ that would support agreement on who had won a war and what was gained as a result.
At a time of growing insularity among American lawyers, [Whitman’s] breadth of outlook is refreshing. He has a universal curiosity. His historical knowledge is impressive. He writes with elegance and wit… [A] stimulating book.
Whitman offers a provocative argument against the idea that modern Western laws and practices of war represent a vast improvement over earlier models… The history Whitman provides is eye-opening.
A truly wonderful work, written in a captivating style. The historical narrative is gripping, and impressive erudition springs from the pages. Whitman’s bold argument is that by outlawing war, and any tangible winning, we have forced the entire exercise of war to exist outside of law, and therefore, outside any true limits. The Verdict of Battle is particularly challenging in its implications—what we can or cannot learn from this history—for conflict in the present day.
This is one of the most remarkable books about law to have emerged in a long time. The depth and precision of the questions Whitman asks, and the originality of the answers he proposes, take us from the origins of the modern state to the ways in which law has determined many of the fundamental features of the modern world. Sure to be a classic, this stimulating and insightful book will appeal to any reader curious about war, battles, or how the world we inhabit came to be the way it is.
This book cannot be ignored. Impressively erudite and brilliantly audacious, it reinterprets centuries of writings on the law of war and offers fundamental revisions and refutations of modern authorities on the history of war itself. Readers will be challenged, and while they may dispute elements of Whitman’s argument, they will gain immensely by coming to terms with his interpretations. The Verdict of Battle goes well beyond a ‘must-read’; it rises to the level of the essential.
The Verdict of Battle is an exceptionally important book from a master historian that places our current debates concerning the laws of war in a telling new light. Whitman is a provocative critic of the ways in which humanitarianism has come to modern law—and distorted our understanding of premodern warfare. The book will completely recast future discussion among historians and leave other readers pondering what can be done to legalize conflict to serve humanity for the better.
- 336 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
Sorry, there was an error adding the item to your shopping bag.
Sorry, your session has expired. Please refresh your browser's tab.