“The Dismal History of the Laws of War”

Pancho Villa received a copy of the laws of land warfare from an American general stationed just across the U.S. border. […] The Hague Conference of 1907 from which the rules in part derived was still fresh. The First World War had not yet broken out. [The] rules completely confounded the Mexican revolutionary general.

Villa “spent hours poring over it.” The Hague rules “interested and amused him hugely.” But then he turned sour. “What is this Hague Conference?” Villa asked. “Was there a representative of Mexico there?” Villa wanted to know. […]

Ultimately Villa concluded that it seemed “a funny thing” to make laws for war. “If you and I are having a fight in a cantina,” he told Reed, “we are not going to pull a little book out of our pockets and read over the rules.”

From “The Dismal History of the Laws of War” (pdf), in the UC Irvine Law Review.

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3 responses to ““The Dismal History of the Laws of War”

  1. There is some irony in a discussion of the history of the laws of war that never mentions the Peace of Westphalia, ending such wars as the thirty years war and the hundred years war, and allowing the state to become the institution it is today. The author seems to be having some fun at the expense of the concept, and as imperfect and confusing as it may be, it is certainly better than marauding armies of mercenaries foraging on their way to the next fight.

    Also, it is interesting that the author would consider it the history of the laws of war in American history. I’m not sure you can successfully divorce one state from another in the history of western civilization in a discussion that starts with the Peace of Westphalia.

    • you can’t say that the Pancho Villa quote isn’t money.

      he had an essay in the Times a couple days ago, too. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/11/opinion/the-legal-fog-between-war-and-peace.html

      both of these threw me a little when i first read them–my reaction was similar to yours, i read the NYT essay first, and i thought it was odd he never tied the “collapse” he describes to the erosion of sovereignty–but the more i think about it, the more i realize they’re valid ways to discuss the topic. he’s not getting at Law of War from the political science perspective we’re used to (states have a monopoly on force –> post-Westphalia, states mutually acknowledge each other’s sovereignty –> war is governed by these ideas about sovereignty –> etc.), he’s getting at it from a legal perspective (the law of war has been interpreted like this _____, the interpretation breaks down here _____.)

      is it ironic to omit Westphalia if he sets out saying he’s going to talk about the place of the law of war in American history? that’s kind of like saying my book on Bailey isn’t good because it doesn’t talk about the history of all dogs. i don’t think he’s saying it’s without value, i think he’s trying to tease out some of the “imperfect and confusing”.

  2. The Pancho Villa quote is money; indisputable.
    It’s a solid piece on the Law of War, but:
    1. He intimates that the concept of law in war is sort of silly, while not acknowledging the origin of the concept – never ending war. It’s sort of disingenuous.
    2. I get your point about Bailey, but I maintain it’s ironic because he pokes fun at the concept. A cursory, “Peace of Westphalia, blah blah, here is this funny quote from a Mexican bandit. Ain’t law of war a funny thing?” would have been netter style.

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