The Dismal History of the Laws of War

John F. Witt, Yale Law School


For the past five years I have been working on a book about the laws of war
in American history, and in particular on a book that tries to make sense of the
seminal order issued by Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the American Civil War,
General Orders Number 100. What’s startling and exciting about General Orders
100 is that it formed the source for much of the international law of war of the
subsequent half century and more, influencing military manuals, expert
commissions, and multilateral treaties around the world.
But I have a confession to make. For all the excitement inherent in the
subject, lately I’ve come to feel that the field of the history of the laws of war
inspires dismay. I find myself thinking, as the great Civil War historian James
Randall did in 1950, that “to read ‘the laws and customs of war’ is a disheartening