Trying to Set Legal Rules for Brutal War

Jennifer Schuessler in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_02 Oct. 16 13.28In 1754 George Washington, then an officer in the Virginia militia, found himself hotly debating charges that he had committed what today we would call a war crime.

During a campaign against the French in the Ohio Valley, Washington was said to have stood by while his troops killed a captive ambassador, leading a French official to declare, in the outcry that followed, “There is nothing more unworthy and lower, and even blacker, than the sentiments and the way of thinking of this Washington.”

The story is the opening anecdote in “Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History,” John Fabian Witt’s sweeping history of American engagement with the idea that the brutality of war should be constrained by humanitarian rules. But if the French outrage calls to mind international reaction to the wartime behavior of a more recent president named George, Mr. Witt hardly aims to give aid and comfort to contemporary partisans.

The book is “an equal opportunity offender,” Mr. Witt, 40, said during a recent interview in his Yale office here, where he is a professor in the law school and the history department.

In “Lincoln’s Code” he argues against two competing and, in his view, equally false notions: on the left, the idea that George W. Bush’s war on terror represented a radical break with the American past; and on the right, the idea that Americans started caring about the laws of war only when pointy-headed Europeans forced them to.

But the respectful reviews that the book is already drawing from neoconservatives andhuman-rights advocates alike suggest that we may have reached, if not a truce, at least an easing of the past decade’s intense partisan wrangling over the conduct of the war on terror.

More here.