The Laws of War: A Scrap of Paper?

Law and War

edited by Austin Sarat, Lawrence Douglas, and Martha Merrill Umphrey

Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2014. xi + 235 pp.

A Scrap of Paper: Breaking and Making International Law during the Great War

Isabel V. Hull

In September 2011, a squadron of American Predator drones took off from an airfield in Saudi Arabia. While flying across the Yemenite border, they spotted their main target: Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born member, according to U.S. officials, of Al Qaeda. Within minutes, an operator had fired a Hellfire missile, eliminating the suspected terrorist. The killing of al-Awlaki immediately resulted in a major public debate, particularly in the United States. To the surprise of the three editors of a newly published legal volume titled Law and War, both critics and supporters of drone warfare made strong appeals to the laws of war, nowadays called “international humanitarian law” or “law of armed conflict.” Rather than critically assessing the effectiveness of or the military necessity of these targeted strikes, they typically questioned only the juridical arguments for or against their use (1–3).

For the editors of Law and War, this use of legalism as a political strategy reveals “a great deal” about the way in which America, and the West at large, currently thinks about waging war. In contrast with the Cold War, when the debate was largely split between realists and legalists, both sides now invoke the law as they dispute issues of war and legal interpretation: what the law demands, and possibly allows, under certain conditions of war, such as the potential killing of suspected extremists such as al-Awlaki—”Law has become a crucial element in that thinking” (3). Historically, it seems debatable, however, whether the claim of the novelty of the importance of law can entirely hold: in A Scrap of Paper, the American historian (and German expert) Isabel Hull problematizes precisely this question of the way in which international law affects wartime decision making. In providing insights into the legal debates surrounding the Great War, she uncovers a critical episode that tells us how law already played a “central”—but largely forgotten—role during the catastrophic years of 1914–18.

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