A Very Strange Book

Have any of you read James Q. Whitman’s The Verdict of Battle: The Law of Victory and the Making of Modern War? As Whitman’s book is no bestseller and my blog no mega popular web spot, I realize the chances that one of you will say yes is low, but I’d be most interested in hearing what you think of the book if you have read it.

I think it a very strange book. Two chapters into The Verdict of Battle, and I can’t say that I’ve managed to wrap my head around Whitman’s thesis. That thesis, as far as I can tell, is that pitched battles are a form of legal proceeding, and for contestants that submit themselves to this legal form of war, warfare is remarkably effective is settling claims while limiting the carnage to the battlefield. This legal procedure, argues Whitman, is much more effective than the modern humanitarian laws of war. But we can rely on it no more because the law of the pitched battles, or the law of victory (just victoriae), as distinguished from the law of just causes for declaring war (jus ad bellum) or the law governing behavior in war (jus in bello), reigns when a) the monarchy monopolizes the power to do violence and b) when that power is exercised towards the end of property acquisition. Modern warfare fails in one or both of these measures and therefore are not governed by jus victoriae. This is a tragedy, argues Whitman.

This last may be the most counter-intuitive point in Whitman’s overall thesis, but I find the whole argument to be very strange. I can neither agree nor disagree with Whitman’s argument; I can’t quite grasp his idea, but I can’t say that the gist of what Whitman says entirely escapes me either;  I don’t know where the logical or factual flaws are, and I don’t have the confidence to declare that they aren’t there. There’s something unsettling about The Verdict of Victory, and it disquiets me even more that I can’t quite put my finger on what this something is.

Let me know what you think of the book.

Whitman’s “The Verdict of Battle”, a baffling book

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