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.A few of the blurbs:
“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.”—William Ewald, University of Pennsylvania Law SchoolFollow the link for the TOC and an interview with Whitman.
“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.”—Samuel Moyn, author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History