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The Verdict of Battle: The Law of Victory and the Making of Modern War, by James Q. Whitman

Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2012. Pp. xii, 324. Notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 0674067142.

The idea of battle in the eighteenth century, the era of  "limited" or "cabinet" warfare, and its influence on history, and why its passing led to the age of "unbridled force." 

Prof. Whitman (Yale) argues that in the eighteenth century a battle – "a day of staged slaughter" – was "seen as a legitimate means of settling political disputes."  He opens with a look at why battles mattered, then discusses why states accepted the "wager of battle," which were relatively rare, but as a result more likely to be "decisive."  Whitman examines what constituted the legitimate rewards and penalties for winning or losing, the state monopolization of organized violence, and the nature of the "rules" that limited war.  His final chapter lays out why this almost stylized concept of war, which did not wholly die out until the mid-nineteenth century, came to an end, leading to wars of annihilation, in part inspired by the notion that, despite the rise of mass armies and industrial production, "decisive battle" was still possible; consider the war of 1914-1918, for example.  Whitman concludes by observing that while there was – perhaps is – great nostalgia for the era of the limited war, it was a phenomenon linked to the nature of the political and social institutions of its times, which are long passed, and that the world needs better ways to determine victory and defeat in the event wars do occur.  

This is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking book, well worth a read by anyone interested in the concept of war.

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Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   


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