How Humane Wars are Inhumane

How Humane Wars are Inhumane

Samuel Moyn’s Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War argues that efforts to make war more ethical have failed.


If Moyn insists that Tolstoy was the “greatest critic of the original hope to make warfare civilized,” he is also at pains to point out that these efforts largely failed. Indeed, much of the first section of Humane, which, again, is starkly titled “Brutality,” is in part a detailed and authoritative account of how various European and latterly American activists tried in the nineteenth and first part of the twentieth centuries to humanize war. Moyn also focuses a good deal of attention both on the Red Cross movement and on its founder, Henri Dunant, whose repeated public and private assertions that his ultimate goal was not regulating war but rather opening the road to world peace, Moyn is not willing to take at face value. But regardless of whether he is correct in his assessment of Dunant, Moyn is on firm ground when he argues that at least part of the reason European powers were so willing to accept the Red Cross Movement in particular, and the subsequent international legal covenants and conventions that codified the laws of war, was their fear that the growing brutality of war would threaten its very legitimacy. But for the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century antiwar activists in Europe and the United States whose struggles Moyn narrates with verve and (obvious) sympathy, it was simply morally unconscionable to “humanize an institution they could and should have eradicated.”

FOR ALL my criticism of Humane, and I do think it the worst book by a brilliant mind I have read in a decade, Moyn has performed a great historical service in bringing to life opponents of the movement to “humanize” war. One of the most notable of these was the doughty Austrian peace campaigner, Bertha von Suttner, whose pamphlet “Lay Down Your Arms” Tolstoy hoped would prefigure the abolition of war as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had prefigured the abolition of slavery. For Moyn, Suttner is a key figure because, he argues, “[she] and her fellow peace activists ushered in a new moral order in which politicians would at least have to pay lip service to the idea of peace, even as they wage war.” On that Moyn seems on very solid ground. But then he goes further by making an argument that is at least highly debatable, but which Moyn takes as fact, and on which the argument of Humane rests: Suttner and her fellow peace activists, he states, “were the true seers of our world today, one in which war is deemed immoral and illegal, with infuriating but narrowing exceptions.”


Moyn is both a historian and a professor of law, and I can only assume that what he is alluding to here with such absolute certainty is the fact that, indeed, from the United Nations Charter forward, the developments in international humanitarian law have made many if not most wars illegal. But as Moyn himself chronicles in Humane, this hardly seems to have prevented all the wars that have occurred between the time Suttner won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905 and the 1970s with the advent of the doctrine of humane war. Indeed, Moyn’s evocations of the horrors of genocidal imperial conquest, colonial wars, the rise of indiscriminate saturation bombing (first tried out, as Moyn rightly underscores, in colonial wars such as the British in Iraq and the Italians in Ethiopia) are simultaneously anguishing to read and utterly convincing. Surely, Moyn the historian is on to something Moyn the legal scholar is not. Unfortunately, it is Moyn the utopian who animates Humane. At times, Moyn seems to be aware of this. At the end of the section on Tolstoy with which Moyn begins the book, he quotes from Just and Unjust Wars by the political theorist Michael Walzer to the effect that the humanizing of the rules of war is the first step toward peace. To which Moyn replies, “Sometimes, sometimes not.” He is not wrong to do so; He is mistaken, however, in not seeming to have taken on board that the same thing can be said of Humane.

The subtitle of Humane is “How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War.” And Moyn’s thesis depends on whether or not he is justified in claiming that the United States was ever committed to peace in the sense of seeking to end war itself. Yes, the heroes of his book—Moyn includes a beautiful quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. decrying the continued existence of war—believed that war not only should but could be annulled. And, again, if all Moyn means to argue is that the direction of international humanitarian law was not toward humanizing war, but making more and more types of war illegal, then yes, the United States abandoned the commitments to this aspect of international law that it had made since the end of World War II and, after 9/11, chose to fight a large number of wars, including, obviously, Afghanistan and Iraq. But on Moyn’s own account of America’s wars after the Vietnam War ended, above all in Central America, there was never a peace for the United States to abandon even if this meant Washington would have to defy the relevant corpus of international law. Moyn is correct when he shows in great and penetrating detail how, post-Vietnam, the military was increasingly interested in the concept and modalities of “humane” war. But that is common knowledge and, in anatomizing it, Moyn is largely telling us, at least those of us with even a passing familiarity of military affairs, nothing that we don’t already in know, at least in outline.

In any case, for one of the best-known contemporary critics of utopia, this is, well, awfully utopian. This would have been fine had Moyn applied the same probing lens to his own utopian hopes as he does to dismantling those of those who believe that there is about as much chance of abolishing war as there is of achieving personal immortality. Interestingly, a profound and unapologetic utopianism marks the work of a number of the most interesting contemporary scholars writing about war and atrocity. A. Dirk Moses’ fascinating study, The Problem of Genocide: Permanent Security and the Language of Oppression is, like Humane, a work of impeccable scholarship. But in his conclusion, Moses calls for the wholesale revaluation of international law that, among other things, would bar states from “attempt[ing] to dominate regions.” And Moyn seems genuinely to think that if humane war can be revealed as an existential danger to world peace, then what will follow will be the perpetual peace the United States supposedly abandoned.

Nowhere in Humane does Moyn make clear on what empirical grounds he bases this prediction, for surely some are required when one is making the case for why “humane war” is unacceptable. If it is just that Moyn hopes for this, he should have said so; After all, hope is a metaphysical category and both should not and cannot be falsified in the same sense that optimism, which is an empirical one, can be. Or if his argument is, finally, another expression of the old Kantian claim that what ought to be can be made to be, he should have declared that straightforwardly. In Just and Unjust Wars, Walzer speculated that it was not the regulation of war but rather ungoverned violence that would make criticism of war all but impossible—a line that Moyn himself cites in Humane, but never addresses satisfactorily. And yet surely a return to less humane war is far more likely than war’s abolition, no evidence that the world stands at the threshold of Immanuel Kant’s vision of Perpetual Peace. To the contrary, after decades of decline, the number of wars and their lethality have both begun to increase. And given the existential crisis that anthropogenic climate change is going to produce in the poor world, the most rational expectation is that the number of wars will continue its ascent.

Moyn’s horror at the realities of drone warfare is not misplaced. And his apprehensions about autonomous weapons systems may also be justified. But the final sentences of Humane that insist, “Perhaps the best way to think about ‘violence’ is metaphorically, occurring when ‘those in high places vaunt their power’ even when they inflict no pain,” and that, “brought to its logical conclusion, humane war may become increasingly safe for all concerned—which is also what makes it objectionable.” This brought back to me the memory of a particular day I spent in besieged Sarajevo in the late winter of 1992. I was walking down a residential street where the buildings were high enough so that one was safe from the snipers on the hills above us. But tall buildings cannot protect you from a mortar shell, and a block ahead of me, I heard one explode. The people around me and I threw ourselves to the ground, hiding behind car axles—said to afford the most protection—while we waited to see if a second shell would fall. After ten minutes, it was clear the danger had passed and several of us ran up to the site of the explosion. And there was the body of a teenager that had, quite literally, been blown to bits. Well, I picked up some of those bits, including a nose, and along with others put them in a plastic bag that a neighbor had brought down from his apartment. So, no, sorry, the best way to think about violence is not metaphorically, not then, not now, not ever.