behind the lines I: the laws of war (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 14)

While we’ve spent some time talking about international law as it applies to the rights of neutral states, today we tackle a different aspect of the laws of war: limitations on violence during wartime. Where the Treaty of London guaranteeing Belgian neutrality and the Hague Convention spelling out the rights of neutrals more broadly are designed to govern the relationships between belligerents and non-belligerents, we’re concerned today with laws that apply to the states doing the fighting—that is, laws that apply to the actual belligerents.

We’ve spent some time talking about and establishing patterns of variation across theaters, belligerents, and (potential) victims in the treatment of civilians—particularly the Eastern Front and Belgium thus far—but to explain why some belligerents honor the laws of war while others don’t, and even to explain why the same belligerents honor the law in some cases and not others, we need two things: a theory of war-fighting and a theory of the laws of war. (Without either, of course, we’d be more than a little lost in explaining the puzzle.) In that sense, today is about developing a theory largely devoid of the rich historical detail we’ve been immersed in for the last few lectures, in large part because (as you could probably sense from the lecture on bargaining and war) we’re graduating to more sophisticated theoretical constructs as the class goes on.

Using Morrow’s theory of the law of war as our starting point, we build intuition over how ratification serves as a public signal that coordinates expectations over (a) what constitutes and violation and (b) what the likely response is to violations. In the case of civilian and POW treatment, where we’ll focus today, laws are enforced by threats of reciprocity: abuse my soldiers/civilians, and I’ll do the same to yours. Tracking the credibility of threats of reciprocity over time and space—that is, whether on the offensive or defensive, on foreign or home soil, or fighting one belligerent as opposed to another—we can generate some expectations over when and where the battlefield will be more or less restrained…expectations that we can then evaluate against the historical record as we encounter it moving forward.

Giving away too much at this point isn’t pedagogically brilliant (this will go live right before class starts), but I will say this: all the major belligerents had, by the war, ratified the relevant treaties limiting violence in war. However, we do see interesting variation in (a) which belligerents can and can’t threaten reciprocity, (b) which belligerents are viewed as likely to be restrained ex ante, (c) the political institutions of the belligerents, and (d) the outcome variable: the scale of civilian atrocities (worst in the East, not as bad in the West). All of this information should, in a few weeks’ time, lead us to answers to some pressing questions. Why was the Eastern Front so much worse on civilians than the Western Front (especially puzzling with Germany involved on both fronts)? Why did German treatment of civilians improve markedly as the army moved from Belgium into France? And…what kept violations from spiraling as far and as extensively as they ultimately would on the same ground in the Second World War?

Should be fun. (The learning, of course. Not the stories of atrocities.)


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