The Verdict of Battle: The Law of Victory and the Making of Modern War

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.

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