The Verdict of Battle

The Verdict of Battle

The Law of Victory and the Making of Modern War

eBook - 2012
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Harvard University Press

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.


Slaughter in battle was once seen as a legitimate way to settle disputes. When pitched battles ceased to exist, the law of victory gave way to the rule of unbridled force. Whitman explains why ritualized violence was more effective in ending carnage, and why humanitarian laws that view war as evil have led to longer, more barbaric conflicts.

Book News
Whitman (comparative and foreign law, Yale Law School) argues that the limited, one-day battles of the 17th century were more successful than modern wars at settling political disputes because they were considered a type of legitimate legal proceeding with binding results for both sides, and because staging a pitched battle was a way of sparing society the horrors of worse forms of warfare. The book focuses on the land wars of the European continent in the 18th century, with an ongoing case of the seizure of Silesia by Frederick the Great in 1740-1742. In opposition to many contemporary commentators, the author argues that the seizure of Silesia was legitimately fought by the rules of 18th century warfare. Whitman describes the decline of the legal culture of battle in the age of the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, claiming that is was not technological advances that ended the pitched battle, but political issues and the decline of monarchies. The book includes a color historical illustration on the cover. Annotation ©2013 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Publisher: Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2012
ISBN: 9780674068117
0674068114
9780674067141
0674067142
0674416872
9780674416871
Characteristics: 1 online resource (323 pages)

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