Michael Bryant’s book is both less and more ambitious than its title. He’s writing less of a history of war crimes than he is...

Michael Bryant’s book is both less and more ambitious than its title. He’s writing less of a history of war crimes than he is a history of the idea and concept of war crimes. He’s most interested in what people have considered a breach of the norms of warfare and how this concept has changed over time.

The triumph of A World History of War Crimes: From Antiquity to the Present (Bloomsbury, 2016) is it’s reminder that, while expectations about how soldiers (and others) would act during warfare are not new at all, the notion of war crimes is actually quite recent. Bryant argues that ideas about the proper conduct of war go back to the ancient Near East. But these ideas were rarely based on the dignity of human person. Instead they derived from religion or from the shape of the political institutions in society. It was only in the 18th and 19th century, in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, that norms about conduct during warfare began to be based on the idea that mistreating civilians or wounded soldiers was a crime. And even then, these notions were activated through bilateral or multilateral treaties–implying that the recognition of human dignity had very real limits.

It’s an audacious task to attempt to survey the history of war crimes, especially a global history. Meant as a textbook, Bryant inevitably privileges European history. But it’s a thoughtful, well-written, provocative survey, exactly what we hope for in a textbook.


Kelly McFall is Associate Professor of History at Newman University in Wichita, Kansas, where he directs the Honors Program. He is particularly interested in the question of how to teach about the history of genocides and mass atrocities and has written a module in the Reacting to the Past series about the UN debate over whether to intervene in Rwanda in 1994.

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial