The Laws of War: From the Middle Ages to Today

University of Virginia

William I. Hitchcock is the James Madison Professor of History in the Department of History at the University of Virginia. He studied at Kenyon College and Yale University, and has written numerous books, including The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe, which won the 2009 George Louis Beer Prize from the American Historical Association and was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. His latest book is the New York Times bestseller Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s.



War is as old as human society. And it is usually barbaric and inhumane. The bombing of cities, the creation of concentration camps, the shooting of POWs—these kinds of horrors were common in World War II, and they are still with us. But alongside ever more destructive means of waging war, there has emerged a body of law designed to shield societies from the worst features of warfare. These codes are known as the laws of war.

Where did the laws of war come from, and do they work? Who enforces them? Have they had any impact at all on how most countries fight? In this lecture, Professor Hitchcock will survey the very idea that war could be constrained by rules. We start in the age of knights and mercenaries and carry the story up to the age of “total war” and the creation of the Geneva Conventions.

We also will take a close look at the role of the United States in shaping the laws of war, especially through the Nuremberg Trials after World War II. The United States has historically been one of the strongest advocates for strictly supporting codes of conduct in war that spare civilians. But did America stick to these rules during the Global War on Terror? The record is, to say the least, a mixed one. As the century ahead presents us with the prospect of more lethal forms of warfare, understanding the basic laws that govern war remains crucial for all of us.


Recommended Reading:

Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, by Samuel Moyn

Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History, by John Fabian Witt

“A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power




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Marc Tanenbaum

The Laws of War

This is a wonderful review and history of the Laws of War from the Middle Ages to the present with specific reference to war in Ukraine and the Russians.

2 years ago
Juanita Sevilla

The Laws of War: From the Middle Ages to Today

Excellent and clear description of things that are not usually something I have been very aware of in a particular manner.
It is such a hard topic and I felt that it was given with such compassion and understanding of humanity and its persistent use of warfare.

thank you

2 years ago
Derek Weselake

Good Talk

I wish humanity would just solve all their conflicts with a game of Quake or Unreal Tournament.

2 years ago
Linda Blincow

Laws of War

Excellent class. One of the top 3 classes I have viewed. Professor’s delivery was outstanding. Very informative, well presented and very challenging to my understanding of human values sensibilities. Topic was something I knew little about but will have a better context, language and fluency now.

2 years ago
Lynne Seeley

Best history lesson I ever had

The current war in Ukraine has prompted me to want to learn more about wars and the history of human conflict. Laws of war seems like a contradiction, but now I get it. This course was the best history lesson I’ve ever had. I would take any history class from Mr. Hitchcock – an excellent history professor!

2 years ago
Greg Paskal

An excellent and timely discussion

Thank you for such a timely talk on war and the rules of war. Very well done and informative.

2 years ago
Maggie Olmstead

Timely, Informative, thoughtful

Thank you for an excellent lecture. I especially liked the part that pointed out how international low protects American interests and American citizens.

2 years ago
Joy Morros

Wonderful presentation. Thank you..

2 years ago
kevin fox

2023 Relevant, informative & entertaining

56 minute factual history and 2 minutes of “softly” presented opinion wrt Guantanamo Bay and the 2004 Supreme Court ruling (that frankly made me “mist up” and feel shame for myself for my opinion at the time. (I’ve read one of the three litigants is currently an Uber driver in France and another is a furnace repairman in England… ), and 2 minutes of a very 2023 relevant insight that “if only” putin (lower case “p” intentional) shared… …

11 months ago
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