Oblique intent

Why the name? Well criminal law afficionados will recognise the phrase 'oblique intent' as referring to a problem of mens rea:can a person who intends to do x (such as setting fire to a building to scare the occupants) also be said to have an intention to kill if one of the occupants dies? This is a problem that has consumed an inordinate amount of time in the appeal courts and in the legal journals, and can be taken to represent a certain kind of approach to legal theory. My approach is intended to be more oblique to this mainstream approach, and thus to raise different kinds of questions and issues. Hence the name.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

On the Verdict of Battle

I have just attended a fascinating seminar by James Whitman of Yale University based on his new book 'The Verdict of War'. The main argument of the book, briefly stated, is that up until the mid-nineteenth century war was understood as a means of settling property disputes, and battles were a form of wager, with the winner taking the spoils. The law of war, such as it was, was accordingly mainly concerned with determining the question of who had won, and trying to encourage broadly civilized conduct on the part of the combatants. And insofar as these were the ends, Whitman claims, it was broadly successful. A feature of pre-modern warfare was that battles were limited in time (no more than one day), and violence was confined to the battlefield and to uniformed participants - to the extent even that spectators would come from neighboring towns to watch. Of course, if you were a soldier it could be brutal, and it was accepted that the winners could loot the corpses on the field of battle and kill any survivors. This is then contrasted with modern warfare, where battles can go on for indeterminate periods, fatalities among non-combatants are routine, and there is no means for determining who has won other than trying to crush the enemy and secure unconditional surrender. This, controversially, is explained in terms of the collapse of monarchy and the rise of democracies and republics, where war is conducted in the name of the people - and the 'people' therefore become legitimate targets and will fight until they can fight no more.

There is a lot in this argument, and it is hard to do it justice in a short summary, but what particularly interests me is how the criminal law becomes part of this story.

According to Whitman, from the late nineteenth-century, humanitarian campaigners began to try and limit the horrors of war through the introduction of prohibitions on certain kinds of conduct - ensuring that survivors could not be killed or looted, introducing rules about the recognition of combatants and non-combatants and the limits of proper behavior in war. These kind of prohibitions now make up a substantial part of the modern law of war, as well as being linked to forms of international crime, such as crimes against humanity. While these are surely a great advance, Whitman questions the limits of the criminal law in this area. There are two aspects to this (and here the argument is my reconstruction of what I thought Whitman said, so may not be entirely accurate). First, it is not clear how useful or effective criminal law can be in a war situation, where you are dealing with scared or brutalized individuals. To be sure, these laws might provide for some limited redress afterwards, but we should be wary of claims that the law can guide conduct in war situations. Second, Whitman points out that this individualizes the law of war: it is no longer concerned with regulating conflicts between states, but with trying to determine just outcomes for individuals. The consequence of this is that the criminal law gets wrapped up in attempt to sanitize or humanize war. There are many reasons might we might want to do this - though better yet to avoid it altogether - but it is worth reflecting on whether the criminal law is an appropriate tool for for achieving these ends, or worse still, whether through this exercise we end up legitimating further violence.

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