2
The Laws of War from Early
Modern Times to the
Second World War

An Essay on the Essentials

No one can tell how war began among men but there is evidence of it from earliest times; evidence not just in the form of weapons meant for fighting and of human remains broken by weapons, which cannot of themselves signify anything as serious as war, but of fighting by organized groups for collective purposes. Protection or seizure of territory and/or property is the most likely purpose, but it is not difficult to suppose that the causes may also have included affronted pride and honour, shortage of women and other essential breeding stock, or simply the indulgence of the lust, greed, and megalomania of despotic rulers.

States have been known throughout history to engage in armed hostilities for such base purposes; but so also, and more frequently, have gangs of bandits, outlaws, freebooters, and criminals, who for that matter are well capable of fighting for horses, women, and territory too. The distinctions between States and other collectivities, between public war and other forms of armed conflict, are in many respects crucial, and the critical reader may be assured that they will be properly observed when the context so requires. In one respect, however, the distinction is immaterial. All collectivities, whatever their political character and whether they have any political character or not, generate their own codes of conflict behaviour. What at some levels are the rules of chivalry between knights, the mutual respect of gentlemen, and fair play among sportsmen, at other levels are honour among thieves and the rules of vendetta. The codes which become the social ethics and laws of States (and from thence, ultimately, the public law of inter-State relations) find their largest practical significance in historical and political terms, but their working can never be properly understood without bearing in mind the wide spread of their social and psychological roots.

From the times of the earliest oral and written testimony there is evidence that those who planned and conducted public war could admire and recommend practices designed to control its course and moderate its

-14-

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