From our modern vantage, warfare of the past often appears barbaric. The close quarters of combat and high death counts, all conducted at the whim of rulers, can strike us as monstrously inhumane. And yet, as James Whitman argues in The Verdict of Battle, pitched battles of the past were far more effective at containing their violence than today’s sprawling wars of idealism. In the article and video below, Whitman details the evolution of warfare, and highlights some lessons of the past.
Pitched battles are gruesome events. Consider the description of the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino in 1859 given by Henri Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross: “The poor wounded men... were ghastly pale... They begged to be put out of their misery, and writhed with faces distorted in the grip of the death-struggle...” When we read such accounts it is difficult to imagine that anybody could regard a pitched battle with anything but horror.
Nevertheless for many centuries our ancestors thought of pitched battles as a good thing—in fact, a blessing for society. A pitched battle may be nightmarish for the soldiers who fight it, but it is a contained way of settling an international dispute. If a conflict can be decided by a day of concentrated killing on the battlefield, then violence can be prevented from spilling over to the rest of society. In fact, for many centuries staging a battle was deemed to be a perfectly acceptable, and highly desirable, legal procedure. In the Middle Ages, pitched battles were regarded as “judgments of God,” lawful ways of calling upon the Almighty to decide an international dispute. In the eighteenth century, they were regarded as settlement procedures, fought under a “tacit contract of chance.” Eighteenth-century battles were a kind of lawful wager, by which the warring sovereigns agreed to allow their conflict to be settled by the “chance of arms.”
To modern lawyers, such attitudes seem incomprehensible and repellant. We cannot accept the idea that international disputes could be resolved by deliberately staging a mass killing on a battlefield. The modern law of war is humanitarian law. It is founded on the proposition that war is a curse, and that conflicts should be resolved through peaceful means, with war used only as a desperate last resort.
Yet the paradox is that our ancestors succeeded in fighting wars that were far less devastating than ours, at least some of the time. The eighteenth century in particular enjoyed remarkable success in limiting the horror of war to contained pitched battles. Even in the mid-nineteenth century it was still possible to contain the killing within a single field of battle. Solferino, the battle that horrified Henri Dunant, was just such battle. In a single day of concentrated killing, June 24, 1859, Solferino resolved its war, producing a momentous historic verdict, the unification of Italy.
As America painfully disengages from two long and uncontainable wars, it is worth turning back to the past. How did classic contained warfare work? The answer has nothing to do with the modern conception of the law of war. There was a law of war in the eighteenth century, but it was not humanitarian law. It was largely law of victory, dedicated to answering two legal questions, both often quite tricky: How do we determine who won?, and What rights does the victor enjoy? Wars were not fought for high humanitarian ideals, or for great causes like democracy. They were fought to gain property: territory for rulers, and booty for ordinary soldiers. They were cynical wars, wars that staged large-scale killing on the battlefield so that the victors could reap profits.
But the fact is that they were much more limited wars than the wars of our age of high idealism. Combatants who are in the cynical business of claiming property recognize when the moment arrives to cut their losses. By contrast, there is no easy way to end wars whose goal is to bring democracy to all the world. As for the idea that a war could be used as a legal procedure: The modern nations formally rejected the recourse to war as a means of resolving disputes in the 1920s. Yet legal procedures are by their nature orderly and rule-bound.
There is no chance that we can revive the battle warfare of the past. Within a few years after Solferino, the possibility of settling wars through contained pitched battle had already vanished. The turning point came with the American Civil War, which degenerated into guerrilla warfare and Sherman’s March to the Sea. By the time of World War I, it had become technologically impossible to stage pitched battles at all. Nevertheless there are things we can learn by contemplating the spirit of the pre-modern law of war. The truth is that our modern humanitarian law has not brought us civilized warfare. The proposition that wars should only be fought for the highest of ideals is not a formula for containing the killing. Fighting cynical wars for gain—for territory, for oil—sounds reprehensible, but the cynical wars of the past were often limited wars.
Understanding the wars of the past is not going to teach us how to bring peace to the world today. But it may do something healthy if it shakes our faith in some of our modern ideals.