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.


THE U.S. defeat in Afghanistan concentrates the mind wonderfully, as the saying goes. For that country has been one of the central theaters in which the humane war Moyn finds so threatening has played out. Early in the book, Moyn even set out a kind of parable of the terrors of humane war in which he contrasts a peaceful wedding in New Canaan, Connecticut, with a wedding in Kandahar whose attendees are cut to pieces in a drone strike. But while there will undoubtedly be more drone strikes in Afghanistan, and in Iraq, and in a number of the other battle spaces of the Long War, the wars of choice in which the paradigm of humane war has dominated, and whose future so alarms Moyn, are unlikely to increase. And there will be no further open-ended wars of choice, with both drones and democracy-building, not least because the American people will not put up with them.

Another way to put this is that the endless war Moyn so fears wasn’t endless at all, it was just very, very long. This is not to say the future is brighter than Moyn thinks it is; Quite the reverse, it is likely to be darker. Moyn would have done well to look more closely at what is happening inside the U.S. military, most notably at what the senior leadership of the U.S. Navy is focused on. For them, interstate warfare is back, and counterinsurgency is, to borrow a line from Leonard Cohen, a shining artifact of the past. Instead, these blue water admirals are focused on the Taiwan Strait and on war with North Korea. In their eyes, rightly in my view, the Middle East has become a sideshow. This does not mean the U.S. military will repudiate its acceptance of a more humane interpretation of what is permissible in war. Nor does, again, it mean the drone strikes will end, or counterterrorism will become irrelevant to military and civilian planners. But while Moyn has been looking in the rearview mirror rather than ahead through the windshield, the military center of gravity has shifted to Asia. And there, it is not his sanitized war that is on the horizon; To the contrary, it is war in all its traditional brutality and inhumanity that looms ahead of us.


David Rieff is the author of At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention; The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice and Money in the Twenty-First Century; and, most recently, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies.

Image: Reuters.