The Problem With Making War “Humane”

The Problem With Making War “Humane”

The Problem With Making War “Humane”

A conversation with Samuel Moyn about his new book Humane, the pacifism of Leo Tolstoy, and the origins of forever war. 


Humane warfare is a paradoxical idea with a long history. Essentially, the notion speaks of the attempt to make war less lethal and more ethical for the purpose of minimizing the suffering of soldiers and civilians, a concern that, by the 19th century, had grown on account of the carnage of industrialized and mechanized warfare. Expressing this view in the early 1860s, for instance, the founders of the Red Cross struggled to make warfare less hostile even as they acknowledged its inevitability. From their efforts emerged the First Geneva Convention (1864), which established international rules of warfare for the treatment of sick and wounded soldiers. At the same time there emerged a transatlantic peace movement that sought to resist war, not by making it more humane but by outlawing it altogether. For peace activists such as Leo Tolstoy, Jane Addams, Bertha von Suttner, and others, humanizing warfare amounted essentially to legitimating and perpetuating it. They believed that criminalizing and abolishing war was the only option.

This old debate between advocates of humane warfare and its pacifist critics foregrounds the argument of Samuel Moyn’s new book, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War. Moyn, a professor at Yale Law School and a historian of human rights, seeks to explain how the United States came to embrace humane warfare, which, since the events of 9/11 have resulted in endless wars around the globe. This turn of events, Moyn shows, was far from inevitable. In between the two world wars, the peace movement in the United States swelled to 12 million adherents. Most Americans still wanted little to do with European-style power politics, as demonstrated by its strong isolationist bloc, as well as the role US leaders played in establishing the Kellogg-Briand Pact, a 1928 multilateral agreement that sought to eliminate war as an instrument of national policy. However, the advent of the Cold War led to the demise of the peace movement as the United States embraced its new role as the world’s superpower leading to brutal wars-fought in Korea and Vietnam in the attempt to contain communism.

It was not until late in the Vietnam War, argues Moyn, that US elites came to take humane warfare seriously. Allegations of war crimes after the My Lai massacre, long the parlance of the radical anti-war left, now became “respectable” as they moved to the liberal center. As a consequence, says Moyn, the 1970s witnessed lawyers and various groups concerning themselves with something called “international humanitarian law.” However, if Vietnam planted the seeds of humane warfare, the War on Terror would “perfect” it, Moyn argues. Despite the hope that the Obama administration would bring to an end George W. Bush’s global war on terror, it actually expanded it. Obama did so by making recourse to precision weaponry, a “drone empire,” and a troupe of lawyers that devised legal frameworks for targeted killings around the world. Instead of ending the war on terror, Moyn affirms, Obama not only made it morally plausible for a domestic audience, but in the process expanded the scope of US military operations. Thus, “as American wars have become more humane, they have also become endless”—just as Tolstoy and his fellow pacifists predicted.

The Nation spoke with Samuel Moyn about his new book, the pacifism of Leo Tolstoy, how the Vietnam War changed the way US elites came to think about warfare, and how humane war was perfected under the Obama administration. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: The idea that war can be humane seems rather paradoxical. What exactly do you mean by the notion of “humane warfare”?

Samuel Moyn: The phrase sounds oxymoronic—but what if, to grasp our own time, we have to start by acknowledging that war can become, if never entirely humane, then more so? And due to efforts by humanitarians outside of governments, and even by militaries serving some of them (not to mention new technological possibilities), an old dream has begun to come true in our time: more precision, more separation of combatants and civilians, less death and injury of the former, especially in evolving forms of great-power counterterrorism, and much less harm for the latter too. Our temptation is to stigmatize the remaining inhumanity that will characterize all war to the end, because the rules of war are so permissive, and because of bad apples and honest mistakes that lead to the commission of grievous crimes. And we should abhor illicit violence wherever we see it, whether it takes place on America’s global battlefield or the streets of our cities. But what if our additional and new problem is that there is less and less illicit violence in continuing or even growing regimes of control and domination, abroad and at home? This is the question that the coming of humane war poses for the future. The old dream has become a potential nightmare.

DSJ: You essentially offer a history of how the US came to humanize war. Yet your story begins not only in 19th century Europe, but with a towering literary figure: Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy, you observe, anticipated the advent of humane war in War and Peace by “highlighting the moral risk of failing to combine the desire for less brutal war with skepticism toward war itself.” You further say that Tolstoy recognized that “humanizing war could result in less humane outcomes. It could even foment more war by making it easier to start.” Can you explain Tolstoy’s reasoning here and its significance?

SM: Americans were not the first to dream the dream of humane war. Their wars—beginning with genocidal campaigns against native peoples even before there were “Americans,” and later moving abroad in a series of 20th century counterinsurgent wars—were brutal from the start, and unchecked by any direct intent to soften the blow of violence. Nor were Americans the first to raise critical questions about humane war, which I found that Tolstoy did most powerfully, even if he posed them long before the humanization of the ongoing violence he feared actually took place. Present at the creation of the originally European goal of reducing suffering in war through international law, Tolstoy worried that this goal could entrench war itself. This doesn’t inevitably happen, but I believe it has in our time. From this, I do not draw the conclusion that we should give up the noble imperative of reducing suffering in war. But I do believe Tolstoy was right that we should always consider the risks we run in doing so—just as focusing on the outrage of police killing could lead to a reduction of policing or merely to more sanitary policing. And, recognizing the risks, we should never separate our concern about the conduct of our wars from our concern to keep them from happening or to stop them once they start.

DSJ: The attention you give to Tolstoy might catch some readers off-guard as to what positive role his thought plays in your own thinking about warfare. By the end of his life, Tolstoy had founded a radical religious movement committed to an uncompromising pacifism and a rejection of the state. Indeed, many of the groups involved in the 19th century transatlantic peace movements were Christian pacifists and secular radicals. So, to clarify: Is your discussion of Tolstoy simply an attempt to articulate the origins of the idea of humane war or are you also advocating something akin to the moral vision of its early critics?

SM: Tolstoy and other Christians of his day deserve the lion’s share of the credit for introducing the possibility of interstate peace—just as Tolstoy left a crucial legacy for Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. when it comes to the principles of nonviolent resistance to political evil. I don’t personally affiliate myself with Tolstoy’s absolute prohibition of violence. But you can adopt an antiwar stance without going all the way to Tolstoy’s full-blown pacifism, and I do so mainly because all the wars my own country has fought in my lifetime have been catastrophic, never making the world better and always making it worse. (Even World War II in the Pacific was an imperial war.) Too many Americans have credulously believed in military force as an instrument of human improvement. Given the disastrous consequences, now is time for a reckoning.

DSJ: On account of the egregious violence of World War I, which proved to many that humane war was impossible, the peace movement swelled during the 1920s and ’30s. You observe that by 1933, Americans could boast 12 million adherents to the peace movement. Furthermore, US leaders were instrumental in establishing the Kellogg-Briand Pact, a 1928 multilateral agreement that sought to eliminate war as an instrument of national policy. Moreover, a strong isolationist bloc discouraged the US from entangling itself in European-style power politics. But World War II and the advent of the Cold War led the United States to embrace a new role as the world’s armed superpower, which in the process annihilated the peace movement. The United States, you say, shifted what it stood for globally “from peace to freedom.” Could you explain what you mean by this? What was the nature of this new global freedom?

SM: In spite of the violence within their own continent and hemisphere and in their nation’s early Pacific empire, Americans before World War II disagreed about what peace meant, but placed it high on the list of their geopolitical aims. In contrast, Americans after World War II moved to embrace the goal of global hegemony—conducting a nearly infinite list of global interventions—like never before. They turned from the legacy of the United Nations, which places peace uppermost in its values, pivoting to claim the idea of freedom, even at the price of unending war, considering that it trumps the value of the peace they once championed. If Americans today could boast of providing global freedom, we might consider their transformation in the middle of the 20th century more defensible or even necessary. But in our lifetimes our global mission has resulted in political instability and violent ruin in too many places.

DSJ: It’s not, however, until your chapter on the Vietnam War that you claim the United States took the laws of war seriously, which would plant the seeds for future humane warfare. In particular, you point to the year 1969, when the journalist Seymour Hersh reported on the My Lai massacre, involving a US Army company’s slaughtering of hundreds of South Vietnamese civilians. Prior to My Lai, you argue, the accusations of US war crimes were almost exclusively associated with the far left, and few in power took them seriously. However, with the shocking revelations of what had occurred at My Lai, allegations of war crimes became “respectable,” you say, and had moved to the liberal center. Can you explain what you mean by this?

SM: Vietnam is pivotal in my account because it broke the consensus of American elites about the beneficence or at least necessity of global war. But the My Lai revelations threw fuel on the fire of a massive and preexisting antiwar movement, and the noble goal of spotlighting atrocity did not court the risk—which later generations have incurred—of removing the most outrageous acts from war and entrenching it further. By contrast, the American response to the Abu Ghraib revelations in the spring of 2004 ended up removing the bug of prisoner abuse and torture from the program of endless war. The comparison with the era of the Vietnam War helps isolate how essential a new culture of dissent became and, in particular, concern about the brutal acts of our soldiers—but only if we refuse to sever them from a broader antiwar politics.

DSJ: If one has the impression that Tolstoy is the hero of your book, then on the other hand, lawyers promoting laws of human warfare are the enemy. Reading your book, one has the sense that law is where the bad conscience of empire gets lulled back into slumber. Is this assumption correct?

SM: The coming of endless and humane war has been the work of many hands. I spotlight the role of law and lawyering simply because it is a new factor amid the familiar ones that it remains critical to study—and because at first glance the goal of making war more humane under the auspices of law sounds like an indisputably valuable project. When he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 and laid out his defense of a new form of drone warfare in 2013, Barack Obama (a former law professor) explained that, while eternal war is necessary for a great power with global responsibilities, he could promise always to fight it in an ethically uplifting and morally salubrious form. The possibility that the law can legitimate, and not just constrain and prohibit, is something Obama understood from the start, even as his administration liquidated more troublesome legal constraints on going to war and staying in war. I hope that by attending as I do in the book to the fact that law usually serves domination rather than opposing it can help us approach law more critically in the future.

DSJ: More than anyone else, you claim, Barack Obama perfected humane war. He “came close,” you argue “to affirming that endless war is a metaphysical necessity.” In fact, you go so far as to say that “it would be hard to imagine an interpretation of Jesus Christ’s message more foreign to the one that had motivated the earliest peace activist in the United States and beyond” than that of Obama’s thinking on war. What merits these claims? And given them, might we say that humane war is ultimately a problem inherent to liberal internationalism, which seeks to reform warfare rather than working to establish conditions for its prevention?

SM: Martin Luther King Jr. was Leo Tolstoy’s last American heir, ringingly condemning Vietnam in the Riverside Church in April 1967. Obama feigned a different Christianity—accepting a version of the Cold War Christian sage Reinhold Niebuhr’s belief in the inevitability of sin and therefore the necessity of American war. And it was in these circumstances that Obama accepted a different legacy of religion—since the Swiss who first dreamed of humane war were Christians too. In that Christian tradition, we should prioritize the reduction of the suffering that our violence causes, as if this would exonerate us from the deeper evils of war itself. If only it were true! But in our time, it seems as if Tolstoy was right to suspect that one of the greatest forms of sin is rationalization of evil by people who most of all want to believe they are good. Humane war has been one of their favored rationalizations in recent years, distracting them from the deeper evils of war itself. Of course, I could say all of this in a more secular language, as a secular person, but it was fascinating to me how thoroughly Christianized the public debate about war has often been, even in recent centuries.

DSJ: Some have argued that what marks the presidency of Donald Trump is cruelty. But you see Trump as having taken over the humane war that Obama perfected. In what sense?

SM: American history—before, during, and after Donald Trump’s presidency—is defined by cruelty. The cruelty has been the point from the beginning, and has been declining, thanks most of all to the mobilization of its victims. But it is no contradiction to say that not all cruelty is violent, and that some of it can evolve into more humane forms. That is why so much is at stake in countering physical depredations—from chattel slavery to police violence—in ways that do not merely institutionalize less violent or nonviolent subjugation. The same is true of war, except that we accept its inevitability too routinely. Doing so, we accept more readily that a global system of less violent domination and control—through armed drones, special forces missions, and mass surveillance—is actually the best available choice. The fact that Trump largely retained the commitments to humane war we honed in the later years of George W. Bush’s and especially during Obama’s presidency shows how much staying power our compromises in this domain can have, if we do not face them down.

DSJ: You recently wrote in The Washington Post that although Biden pulled troops out of Afghanistan, “we should recognize that their departure in no way extricates America from its ongoing, metastasizing war on terrorism.” You conclude the piece by pointing out that over the last two decades the US has created an all-embracing and endless war that knows few geographical bounds, and that current events are likely to make that conflict even more permanent. Is there a way out of endless and humane war, especially given the technologies that underlie it?

SM: The fall of Afghanistan was a world-historical event, and no one should trivialize its consequences or significance. On the other hand, what if it was less like an end to American war and more like the removal of the last vestiges of its obsolete old forms, to leave its shiny new forms entrenched for good? After all, Afghanistan once involved lots of soldiers, even as it served as a laboratory for endless and more humane counterterror, with “boots on the ground” a thing of the past, but the remaining footfalls of our expanded use of special forces or the buzzing overhead of drones all the more important? For antiwar forces, the fact that Joe Biden saw his decision to pull out of Afghanistan through to the end might make for a Pyrrhic victory, if what it really means is the final uncontested emergence of the new face of war that America has invented for the global future. With “autonomous weapons systems” and robot wars coming, this is a nightmarish possibility to ponder—as the dream of humane war continues to postpone that of less control and domination.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy