Academic journal article Military Review

Lincoln's Code: The Laws of War in American History

Academic journal article Military Review

Lincoln's Code: The Laws of War in American History

Article excerpt

LINCOLN'S CODE: The Laws of War in American History John Fabian Witt, Free Press, New York, 2013, 512 pages


While visiting the former Confederate Richmond following its seizure by Union forces, President Lincoln counseled operational commander Gen. Weitzel: "If I were you, I'd let 'em up easy" Along with political intuition and foresight for life after war, Lincoln articulated an ethic about the use of force--he focused on the ends. Ethical norms later took shape in the Hague and Geneva conventions. For anyone invoking these conventions or the laws of war, Lincoln's Code is highly recommended.

John Fabian Witt, Yale historian and law professor, presents an account of U.S. moral and legal perspectives during the Civil War. Heroes in Witt's account are Lincoln and Francis Lieber--one a great president; the other, a barely known, itinerate academic. Lieber, after being requested by Secretary of War Stanton and Henry Halleck, Stanton's general-in-chief, produced a code of 157 epigrammatic articles linking conduct (ways) with the aims of war (ends).

Lieber's Code is "a working document for the soldier and layman, not a treatise for the lawyer or statesman" Issued by Lincoln as General Order 100 before the spring 1863 fighting season, it was not moral philosophy in a vacuum. These were lessons learned during conflict: "Laws of war typically come in the dismayed aftershock of conflict, not in the impassioned heat of battle"

General Order 100 established four red lines--prohibiting assassination, use of poison, torture, and perfidy in violation of truce or treaty. It sharply distinguished combatants and noncombatants. Lieber passionately contended the aim, the ends, and the purpose of war form the final measure of ethical conduct. …

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