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The Verdict of Battle

I have just started reading James Whitman’s The Verdict of Battle [1], which is a study of the law of war and the history of battle warfare in the eighteenth century. David Bell has reviewed the book here [2]. I expect that I’ll have more to say about the book as I make my way through it, but for now I will just present a passage for your consideration. Here Whitman describes the change from the confined battle warfare of the eighteenth century to more expansive, less controlled forms of warfare:

Once new republican forms began to shoulder monarchy off the stage, once war cease to be a means of the acquisition of (dynastic) property and became a means of spreading new forms of government through the world [bold mine-DL], war exploded beyond the confines of the classic battlefield. Once war-making ceased to be a symbolic expression of settled sovereign legitimacy and became instead a means of contesting legitimacy, it spiraled out of control.

At the same time, ominously, the historic understanding of battle as a “tacit contract of chance” vanished. Eighteenth-century law treated battles as wagers, which meant that commanders and lawyers alike accepted the proposition that great questions of state could be decided, in some measure, by chance or Fortune. This willingness to accept decision by chance broke down dramatically in the nineteenth century. Battle ceased to be the kind of legal wager eighteenth-century Europeans had conceived it to be. Instead observers began to think of battle increasingly in millenarian terms, as a way of making history. Battle became the subject of a kind of Great Event theory of history, close in spirit to the Great Man theories that also swept European culture in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Instead of serving as a procedure to settle conflicts between dynastic monarchs, it began to represent something much grander and much more dangerous: the verdict of history [bold mine-DL]. War ceased to belong to the realm of Fortune and entered the perilous realm of Destiny. (p. 22-23)

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15 Comments To "The Verdict of Battle"

#1 Comment By Mightypeon On March 7, 2013 @ 4:00 pm

Those regulated wars of the 18th/19th century were a fairly short time window, generally speaking.
To an extent, war was “somewhat tamed”, particularly by being monopolized by some very well defined interest groups.

In todays age, war is no longer monopolized, as such agreements on how it is to be waged will rapidly break down.
This is further reinforced by the USAs behaviour, if the strongest nation breaks the laws of war, those that deem itself threatenend by it will pay scant regard to laws themselfs.

#2 Comment By CharleyCarp On March 7, 2013 @ 5:03 pm

I haven’t read the book. It strikes me, though, that wars like the American Revolution as fought in SC or NJ, or the American Civil War as fought in Missouri might look decidedly “modern.” North American engagements in the Seven Years War as well.

I’m not sure ‘legal wager’ can meaningfully be applied to the 17th century wars in North America, or the Thirty Years War, for that matter.

In sum, it’s been an ugly hell for a long long time.

#3 Comment By Frank OConnor On March 7, 2013 @ 5:37 pm

Along similar themes, I would highly recommend to you Rene Girard’s “Battling to the End,” his consideration of Clauswitz’s appreciation of how after Napoleon, universal conscription replaced wars between monarchies and turned them into wars of populations, where politics control of wlost control of war, and ideology and technology, in their mimetic force, lead to the increasing violence of war until we have now reached the point of no return, where we either reject violence altogther or destroy the planet in order to save it.

#4 Comment By Ron Beasley On March 7, 2013 @ 5:50 pm

I think Mightypeon is largely correct.

This is further reinforced by the USAs behaviour, if the strongest nation breaks the laws of war, those that deem itself threatenend by it will pay scant regard to laws themselfs.

Yes, of course water boarding suddenly became OK in spite of the fact we had tried and convicted Japanese for water baording after WWII. And we can’t forget the “preventative war” thing.

#5 Comment By JKK On March 7, 2013 @ 6:30 pm

To follow up on Mightypeon’s point–the set stage pieces of the 18th century should be seen in the larger historical context–rather than as defining of some longer historical epoch of warfare. The wars of the 17th century, for example, are chock full of utopian horror (30 years war in Germany that reduced its population by 1/3 to 1/2) and long-drawn out highly-religiously tinged battles between Louis XIV and just about everyone else.

In response–according to the military history stuff I studied–the powers in the 18th century were happy to be a bit more restrained–but the period was also characterized by a kind of balance because the instability of the 17th century had been settled.

Then the American–but much more the French Revolution–went and changed everything. Warfare in the late 18th and early 19th centuries (Napoleonic wars) became totalizing affairs again–but instead of religion driving them–it was nationalism–and the destruction of many elements of the feudal order.

This “spreading new forms of government”–that is true–but it’s more like it was the spreading of new forms of thought (namely the importance of the individual, the understanding of the nation, the ridiculousness of the divine right of kings..)–and those new means of thought tended to imply new kinds of governance.

Thus–this wasn’t like trying to spread democracy–it was more like trying to spread capitalism into socialist regimes and having that new idea really not work with centralized authoritarian regimes so well.. (Yes–China–but they have some big issues coming their way.. ).

Anyway.. just some food for thought..

#6 Comment By bayesian On March 7, 2013 @ 8:03 pm

I’m not sure I buy the thesis. I’m not actually sure I know what the thesis is, though I did read the review.

One thing that is odd is that based on the review, the book focusses very much on the mid-18th C , particularly in Central Europe.

I’d be inclined to push the starting point of the period of extreme limitation to the immediate post-Westphalian period – for example, I don’t think that the Franco-Dutch War and its contemporaneous conflicts was notably more brutal or less regulated than the War of Austrian Succession.

But one look at for example the Italian Wars (France versus Hapsburgs with the constantly shifting set of Italian alliances) that a “procedure to settle conflicts between dynastic monarchs” could be quite brutal and destructive. I would look more to technological and organizational effects (e.g. full time standing armies with solid states behind them were regularly paid and didn’t for the most part loot and burn – one of the major sources of destruction in both the Italian Wars and the 30 Years’ War).

Similarly, the destruction of WWI on at least the Western front, Italian front, and AFAIK the British-Ottoman conflicts were not that much more “gloves off” than say the Seven Years War (eastern front and Balkans were rather different) – the greater destruction was more a side effect of a unique combination of technological features along with (supporting your thesis here, I suppose) the greater difficulty of the mass democracies in recognizing a stalemate and accepting peace status quo ante.

#7 Comment By Steve Sailer On March 7, 2013 @ 11:49 pm

The War Nerd argued that Gettysburg was the high point of war for the human race, and I’m inclined to agree. After that, the North looked for lower risk ways to win the war (e.g., Sherman’s March to the Sea).

#8 Comment By JJM On March 8, 2013 @ 12:54 am

As a counterpoint, the Thirty Years’ War fits the supposed later description, while taking place in the 15th C.

#9 Comment By Mightypeon On March 8, 2013 @ 5:20 am

Concerning spreading new gouverment forms:

Feudal expansion into the east, from Charlemange Saxon Wars to the Baltic Crusades, did replace somewhat democratic (not exactly, but a Pomorian chief had few rights outside of war, and some measure of legal equality was a lot more widespread) structures with things that were a lot more authoritarian. It was also bloody and vicious as hell, especially the Baltic crusade.
They also tried to conquer fairly “non-authoritarian” Novgorod, which however was organized enough to resist.

In most of these wars, betrayal by local chiefs (who stood to gain much under a “feudal system”, collecting taxes outside of wars? Hell yes!) was important. On the occassions were such betrayals basically didnt happen (Lithuania, Novgorod), the Crusaders got their rear end handed to them.

From what I understand as the Chinese equvalent of dynastic warfare, mass murder happened (of PoWs etc.) but was seen as exceptional, although during dynasty conflict the defeated dynasty was usually vanquished with extreme prejudice. The common people were usually spared such vanquishings (the victors want something to rule over after all).
On contrast the Taiping (led by a Christian convert who regarded himself as the little brother of Jesus) revolution was extraordinarily bloody and vicious.

#10 Comment By Anderson On March 8, 2013 @ 8:24 am

Interesting stuff. Made me pull down from the shelf Russell Weigley’s “The Age of Battles,” covering roughly the same period. I’d be curious what if anything Whitman has to say about it. Weigley:

“the age of battles nevertheless proved to be an age of prolonged, indecisive wars, wars sufficiently interminable that again and again the toll in lives, not to mention the cost in material resources, rose grotesquely out of proportion to anything their authors could hope to gain from them.”

In short, the “decisive battle” was like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. So the idea that battles could resolve issues is dubious.

Nor, having read the TNR review, is Silesia such a good example. What was the Seven Years War about, if not Austria’s effort to undo the “verdict” of the War of the Austrian Sucession? Maria Theresa didn’t exactly reconcile herself to Frederick’s victory in 1740.

#11 Comment By Barry On March 8, 2013 @ 8:33 am

“Those regulated wars of the 18th/19th century were a fairly short time window, generally speaking.
To an extent, war was “somewhat tamed”, particularly by being monopolized by some very well defined interest groups.”

Seconding this – the previous century had the Thirty Years’ War, whose main characteristics included *not* accepting the results of single battles or even campaigns.

The end of the 1700’s was the era of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars.

#12 Comment By Anderson On March 8, 2013 @ 10:47 am

“After that, the North looked for lower risk ways to win the war (e.g., Sherman’s March to the Sea).”

What exactly was “low risk” about Cold Harbor?

Calling Gettysburg the high point of war is bizarre. Lee’s utter lack of tactics, let alone fighting a battle he should’ve avoided on that ground … I mean, seriously?

#13 Comment By Melvin Backstrom On March 8, 2013 @ 8:36 pm

JJM: “As a counterpoint, the Thirty Years’ War fits the supposed later description, while taking place in the 15th C.”

Uh, no it did not. 1618 (the year of the defenestration of Prague that set it off) to 1648 (the year of the Peace of Westphalia) is most definitely in the 17th century.

#14 Comment By Mightypeon On March 9, 2013 @ 9:23 am

Concerning the US civil war (the concurent Chinese civil war happening at the same time was actually a fair bit more devastating) I was somewhat befuddled by Confederate leadership in general.
1: In stark contrast to the US independence war, the Confederates did not have advocarys for their cause in place in European capitals. When they finally decided to send out somone, “Trent affair”, these people didnt go very far. This was, in my eyes, a clear case for focussing too much on domestic vs. interantional considerations.
2: On their declaration of independence, the Confederates made explicit notion of slavery. This propably got them some more “domestic” support within their local electorate, but rendered any prospect of UK or French intervention even more distant. Again, the confederacy focussed too much on domestic issues at let international advantadges flounder.
3: Politicians that later turned out to be confederate iirc argued strongly in favor of wars of aggression against Mexico or Spain. I believe that, if things went truely south for the north, calling in either of this nations could have been a possible choice of action for Lincoln. One more case in which the confederacy focusedd on domestic brownie points at the expense of international options.

I somewhat wonder to which amount these decisions were based of the prevailing narrative concerning the independence war, which propably magnified the “plucky balls of the colonials” at the expense of the propably very very significant French intervention.

If I look at Holywood etc. today, from series to the West Wing to that “US Sub nukes Pakistan out of the blue series”, the rest of the world is given incredibly scant regard.

I do think that this “America first stuff” will, in the long term, strongly and significantly erode your ability to predict the actions of other actors. It will also greatly increase the propability of totally misunderstanding actions of others, and may very well led to cataclysmically bad decisions based on a warped perception of reality.

#15 Comment By John On March 12, 2013 @ 1:05 am

Mightypeon –

Firstly, Mason and Slidell did get to Europe because Lincoln backed down during the Trent Affair. It didn’t do them much good. Napoleon III was sympathetic, but wouldn’t act without the British. And while Russell was also somewhat sympathetic, Palmerston’s position throughout was pretty clearly that he would only intervene if it was clear the Confederates could win without British help anyway. The problem wasn’t that the Confederates didn’t try to get outside help, it was that there wasn’t any outside help to be had.

Secondly, if the Confederacy wasn’t about slavery, why secede in the first place? And the reason for the unpopularity of the Confederacy with the British working classes wasn’t that they declared their support of slavery – it was because they did support slavery, whatever they might say about it. The basic problem here isn’t that the Confederacy didn’t follow through on opportunities – they simply did not have any real opportunities for foreign support. The British seemed sympathetic because they were, but they weren’t going to lift a finger to help the CSA – among other things, they were terrified that Canada was indefensible.

Thirdly, Mexico, which was in the middle of its own Civil War, and Spain, which was a nullity in European politics for almost the whole of the nineteenth century, were not in any sense realistic threats to the Confederacy.