The Verdict of Battle

The Verdict of Battle: the law of victory and the making of modern war

James Q. Whitman
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 300
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  • Book Info
    The Verdict of Battle
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06811-7
    Subjects: History, Political Science, Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. A Note to the Reader
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-24)

    Two armed groups meet in pitched battle. There is a chaotic struggle. Many of the combatants are killed. At the end of a conflict lasting a few hours or perhaps an entire day, one group flees, or perhaps both do. One group, usually the one that manages to hold its ground amid the terror and killing, is deemed the victor.

    How should we think about such an event? From the point of view of a pacifist, it can only be regarded as a senseless collective slaughter, a descent into irrational barbarism, a horror. Consider a seventeenth-century painting, The Aftermath of...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Why Battles Matter
    (pp. 25-49)

    This is a book about pitched battles, about the sorts of events that Vegetius, the ancient military writer, called “a fateful day of open confrontation” between armed groups. Many contemporary specialists in military history deny that the pitched battles of the past were really events of much military importance. It is important to begin by challenging what these specialists say, explaining why pitched battles really do matter.

    Ordinary people generally think of pitched battles, these “fateful days” with their high drama, as the natural climax of war. Famous battles like Marathon, Hastings, and Waterloo were the classic topic for traditional...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Accepting the Wager of Battle
    (pp. 50-94)

    It is exceedingly difficult for modern readers to understand how anyone could think of a battle as a formal legal procedure. The first reaction of any sensitive modern person to the sight of a battlefield is likely to be a humanitarian one: extreme revulsion and horror, mixed with shock at the evident senselessness of the loss of life. Michael Howard describes how this modern attitude has grown up since the mid-nineteenth century:

    Before 1850 few people outside the military profession knew what a battlefield was really like; though it is arguable that pain, disease, mutilation, and sudden death were so...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Laying Just Claim to the Profits of War
    (pp. 95-132)

    At 5:00 on the morning of April 10, 1741, with two feet of snow covering the uplands of Silesia, Frederick the Great began arraying his forces around the encampment of the Austrians in the village of Mollwitz in preparation for battle. The Austrians were unaware that the Prussians were drawing up around them; as Frederick later wrote in his dramatic narrative of the battle, the experienced Austrian general, Wilhelm Reinhard, Count of Neipperg, had allowed himself, stunningly, to be taken by surprise.¹ As Frederick’s advance guard took up its position, they detected the unsuspecting Austrians moving into the open in...

  8. CHAPTER 4 The Monarchical Monopolization of Military Violence
    (pp. 133-171)

    A genealogist”—so began Voltaire’s satirical definition of war in his Philosophical Dictionary of 1764—“proves to a prince that he descends in a direct line from a count whose relatives had made a family pact three or four hundred years before with a house of which no memory subsists.”

    This house had distant pretensions to a province whose last possessor has died of apoplexy: the prince and his council find his rights perfectly obvious. This province, which is several hundred leagues away, may protest that it does not know him, that it has no wish to be governed by...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Were There Really Rules?
    (pp. 172-206)

    The eighteenth century was an age of exceptional military restraint, but that does not mean that it did not witness terrible battles. Among the most terrible was Malplaquet, “the battle that averted the collapse of France.”¹ Malplaquet was a nightmarishly bloody exchange fought in early September 1709 between France and its opponents in the War of the Spanish Succession. It is using the example of the bloody battle at Malplaquet that I now turn to a crucial, and much debated, question about the civilization of warfare in the eighteenth century: whether there were really rules.

    The Battle of Malplaquet is...

  10. CHAPTER 6 The Death of Pitched Battle
    (pp. 207-244)

    The sun of the 1st September,” reported the Quarterly Review in October 1870, “rose on perhaps the greatest event of modern history.”

    To describe the battle of Sedan is beyond our province; and the daily papers have supplied the public with all the thrilling incidents of which their intrepid correspondents were the observers. It must suffice to say that the Germans enveloped the French position on all sides. . . . The battle had commenced at five in the morning, and at five in the afternoon the apparition of a French general waving a flag on the summit of the...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 245-262)

    In the aftermath of World War I, many yearned for a return to the contained warfare of the eighteenth century, that “last and most beautiful creation of the old civilization destroyed by the French Revolution.”¹ Especially during the ominous and anxious decade of the 1930s, authors such as the American military historian Hoffman Nickerson spoke longingly of the lost orderliness of the eighteenth-century world.² By far the most famous of these interwar laments was produced by Basil Liddell Hart. In his 1934 book The Ghost of Napoleon, Liddell Hart launched a bitter and controversial attack on all of the strategic...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 265-314)
  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 315-316)
  14. Index
    (pp. 317-323)