War is as old as human society. And it is usually barbaric and inhumane. The bombing of cities, the creation of concentration camps, the shooting of POWs—these kinds of horrors were common in World War II, and they are still with us. But alongside ever more destructive means of waging war, there has emerged a body of law designed to shield societies from the worst features of warfare. These codes are known as the laws of war.
Where did the laws of war come from, and do they work? Who enforces them? Have they had any impact at all on how most countries fight? In this lecture, Professor Hitchcock will survey the very idea that war could be constrained by rules. We start in the age of knights and mercenaries and carry the story up to the age of “total war” and the creation of the Geneva Conventions.
We also will take a close look at the role of the United States in shaping the laws of war, especially through the Nuremberg Trials after World War II. The United States has historically been one of the strongest advocates for strictly supporting codes of conduct in war that spare civilians. But did America stick to these rules during the Global War on Terror? The record is, to say the least, a mixed one. As the century ahead presents us with the prospect of more lethal forms of warfare, understanding the basic laws that govern war remains crucial for all of us.
Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, by Samuel Moyn
Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History, by John Fabian Witt
“A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power