Michael Bryant had some interesting things to say last week about our chances of re-imposing any kinds of limits on what is acceptable in warfare...
As we approach the issue of Russian liability for war crimes in Ukraine, it may be premature to wring our hands in dejection. We are creatures capable of bestial cruelty but also with the capacity to set aside our worst tendencies as we reach toward justice. We’ve done it before in Geneva, Nuremberg, Tokyo and The Hague; we can do it again. Let Vladimir Putin beware.
One of the first and most lastingly significant things any student of the Middle Ages learns is how the crusades began as an attempt by the then most effective supra-national authority (the Papacy) to externalise Europe's growing violence problem.
This had begun with an initiative known as the 'Peace and Truce of God' which aimed to limit the numbers of days in the calendar when the murdering and raping of peasants might be satisfactorily offset by a few Hail Mary's and the endowment of a monastery.
Yet the headache was apparently not going away. The various Norman conquests (England, Sicily etc.) had revealed an unfortunate asymmetry in any confrontation between the pedestrian and the equestrian classes. The chosen solution was to harness this in some form of far-fetched geopolitcal adventure.
That subsequent attempt to ban crossbows domestically in 1139 as WMDs was always doomed — and as for the 'laws of chivalry', they were significantlt a lot more hypothetical than the more recent Geneva conventions.
Today, as we pull down the statues of slavers, we continue to venerate the names of war leaders who consciously slaughtered the defenceless — Augustus, Charlemagne, even England's own Henry V.
The Spaniards who arrived on these shores some 500 years after the appearance of mounted knights were similarly under the impression that they were about tbe business of God, amidst a quest for spices that came with the possibility of outflanking an Islamic foe which had recently acquitted itself rather better in the near east — and yet, as is always the case with Western wars, it is not at all hard to ascribe a more materialistic, if not outright larcenous motivation to the exercise.
Here in Guatemala they came across an ethnic group who, in their heyday, had organised...regularised warfare along the lines of the major European soccer leagues. Each 'season' even featured high profile derby matches like Caracol vs Tikal. The objective was clear – the acquisition of cqptives so that, outside any formal exchanges, the bloodletting could be conducted in a more domestic setting, whilst everyone looked forward to the next fixture.
Maybe we westerners have something to learn from this. Our wars have always tended to be either about conquest or errrrr....