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"The Verdict of Battle"

The Jacob Marschak Interdisciplinary Colloquium on Mathematics in the Behavioral Sciences at UCLA with James Q. Whitman, Ford Foundation Professor of Comparative and Foreign Law at Yale University.

Friday, February 07, 2014
1:00 PM - 2:30 PM
UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library
Conference Room 11360
Los Angeles, CA 90095



War is monstrous--a plague on mankind, an evil.  Such is the modern attitude, but it was not the attitude of our ancestors.  As late as the nineteenth century, they thought of going to war as a perfectly acceptable legal procedure.  In particular, they thought of a pitched battle as a lawful way of settling an international dispute, a kind of trial that produced a lawful verdict through a day of slaughter.

The idea seems utterly barbaric today.  Our law of war is International Humanitarian Law, dedicated to saving lives.  But our ancestors' law of war was different:  It was law of victory, dedicated to answering two coldblooded legal questions:  how do we know who won? and what rights is the victor entitled to claim?  It was devoted to subjects that seem to us savage, like the right of soldiers to strip corpses and take booty, and it was used unapologetically to reinforce the legitimacy of monarchs, even at the cost of thousands of deaths.

Barbaric indeed, from the modern point of view.  Yet the old law of victory served to keep war within limits.  It laid down ground rules, and encouraged commanders to keep their fighting within the limits of pitched battle.  Especially in the eighteenth century, the Golden Age of limited warfare, the law of victory presided over a style of civilized monarchical warfare far more contained than our wars today.

The old law of victory died in the mid-nineteenth century, when battles like Gettysburg and Sedan failed to settle their wars.  The lecture asks why the law of victory ever worked, why it stopped working, and what lessons we can still draw from it.


Sponsor(s): Burkle Center for International Relations, Jacob Marschak Interdisciplinary Colloquium on Mathematics in the Behavioral Sciences

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