Warhorse Simulations home page WARHORSE

ACTS | Empire | Epic of the Peloponnesian War | Free Stuff | Friends

Other historical book reviews and research papers are also available on our site.

Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 351


Review:                  Geoffrey Best, Humanity in Warfare.  Columbia University Press, 1980.

Geoffrey Best's book covers "humanity in warfare" from the eighteenth century through the twentieth.  What Best means by this is given in the first sentence: "if there are to be wars, and so long as wars go on, it is certainly better for the warring parties, and probably better for mankind at large, that the persons fighting should observe some prohibitions and restraints on how they do it." (1-2)  Best carefully limits himself to jus in bello, that is, the law governing war-fighting, as opposed to jus ad bellum, "the law governing going to war in the first place." (8)  This is a sensible restriction in scope, as it allow him to avoid the issue of "just war" in all its incarnations, and also because his "limited" topic is so vast that he is able to only hit the high spots in this 300+ page book.

Best begins with what he calls the Later Englightenment consensus that limitations on the conduct of war were in the general interests of humankind, and that laws of war have to be confined to jus in bello if they are to operate at all--i.e. they cannot apply only to that side which has 'God on its side.'  Best shares this view, and it informs his interpretation of the whole subsequent history of the law of war.  The Enlightenment thinkers were not all in agreement about how this limitation should be applied, however, and Best does a particularly good job in arguing that Rousseau's view was particularly wrong-headed.  Rousseau held the view that war should be stricly between soldiers, and that civilians should be completely exempted from the effects of war.  In contrast to this, the comparatively "realist" Vattel sounded like a counterpart to Clausewitz: in theory, the entire population of an enemy state were 'enemies,' but in practice is was entirely possible and proper to distinguish between legitimate targets of military action and those that were not connected to military operations.

Rousseau's strict separation between soldiers fighting for the interests of the state, and civilians going about their private business unconnected with war made some sense applied to the wars of the eighteenth century, but became very problematic when the French Revolution inaugurated the age of total war.  The rest of the book is essentially a history of attempts to reconcile the generally held belief that limits on war are a good thing in principle, with the increasingly unlimited scope of war, whether in the definition of combatants or the destructive power of weapons.  Steps to limit war met with problems at every turn.  In the late nineteenth century, Best coins the term "War Movement" for the amorphous but widespread belief that war could be a positive good, and that attempts to limit it were denying its very nature.  In the twentieth century, the law of war met with new indiscriminate means of war such as the submarine and aerial bombardment.  Still, as Best argues convincingly, in general, limits on war are in the best interests of states as well as humanity, and each halting step in that direction represents a growing acceptance of this.

Best is able to make his case so well largely because of his style of argumentation.  He does not preach or moralize, and he is eminently sympathetic to the military and political realities that often lead to breaches of the laws of war.  His treatment of British area bombing in World War II is a case in point.  Although he regrets that the doctrine of area bombing became so ascendant in the 1930s that it prevented real consideration of precision bombing, he does not condemn it categorically as inhuman because it deliberately targets civilians.  Instead, he simply exposes the failure of its own doctrine: that area bombing was a decisive weapons because it targeted the enemy's willpower directly, shortening the war and thus indirectly saving lives.  Best also does not expect the British to have acted with prescient knowledge or heroic restraint; he accepts that one of the main justifications for the start of area bombing was that it was the only means available to hit back at the Germans.  This reasonableness makes his final condemnation all the more telling:  after 1944, when the means for precision bombing were available, and the information that area bombing was a relative failure was also available, the continuation of area bombing was military unjustifiable and was simply an exercise in vengeance.

Best's last section, on the years since World War II, is understandably the weakest, as he himself admits.  The question he poses, which remains unanswered, is whether the laws of war, based on a common European tradition of culture and religion, can survive the transition to a world which is no longer dominated by Europeans.  In any case, this is a powerful book, which manages to make a powerful moral argument without being moralistic.  Best repeatedly points out the need for further research on this topic, for which his book should serve as both an example and a stimulus.

Copyright © 1998 Warhorse Simulations