Slouching Toward Humanity
Historian Samuel Moyn contends that efforts to conduct war humanely have only perpetuated it. But the solution must lie in politics, not a sacrifice of human rights.
September 16, 2021
Sep 16, 2021
17 Min read time
Historian Samuel Moyn contends that efforts to conduct war humanely have only perpetuated it. But the solution must lie in politics, not a sacrifice of human rights.
Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (cloth)
Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize during his first year in the White House, but he also became the first U.S. president to be at war during the entirety of his two terms in office. The irony of this contrast has often been noted. To historian and legal scholar Samuel Moyn, it represents more than a case of poor judgment by the Nobel committee—or, as others might see it, an example of how the toxic politics surrounding terrorism can blunt the best of intentions.
According to Moyn, the impulse to curb the brutality of war can perversely undermine efforts to rein in war itself.
In his new book, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, Moyn argues that Obama lent his aura of reflective moral leadership to a form of displacement activity. Obama set U.S. militarism on a more principled footing, but the attention that his administration devoted to fighting according to unprecedently humane standards had the effect of legitimizing his pursuit of an indefinite military campaign against terrorist groups around the world. In this way, Moyn suggests, Obama represented the culmination of a long-gestating dynamic whereby the impulse to curb the brutality of war can perversely undermine efforts to rein in war itself.
In a series of books on the history of human rights, Moyn has established himself as a leading contemporary analyst of the ambiguities and illusions that have accumulated around the dominant idealistic movement of recent decades. The central theme throughout all his major books has been the opportunity costs that he believes are incurred when the cause of idealistic social improvement is conceptualized in essentially apolitical ways. His historical overview of human rights, The Last Utopia (2010), argued that they only gained force as an internationalist movement after other, more explicitly political movements such as anticolonialism and communism had lost their appeal. In Not Enough (2018), Moyn argued that the growing prominence of social and economic rights in recent decades had sat all too comfortably with rising inequality that they did not fundamentally address.
Now, with Humane, Moyn critiques the way that a focus on the politically neutral framework of international humanitarian law has, in his view, crowded out attention to more apparently political questions about the launching or perpetuation of war. The book offers what he describes as “an antiwar history of the laws of armed conflict in the American experience.” Moyn charts the intertwined histories over the last two centuries of efforts to impose constraints on the conduct of hostilities and fluctuating attempts to curtail states’ resort to force, both through legal restrictions on aggressive war and campaigns against specific conflicts. The result is a powerful and thought-provoking work that captures an essential aspect of the United States’ extensive military engagement in today’s world and raises important questions about the form of mobilization that will be needed to scale it back. At the same time, Moyn’s suggestion that growing attention to the way war is fought has led Americans to lose sight of questions about its justification fails to provide a convincing explanation for evolving public views about the United States’ use of force in recent decades.
• • •
Humane is vividly written, using a series of individual portraits to dramatize the historical currents it charts. Moyn’s point of departure is Leo Tolstoy, an unsurpassed chronicler of war who became a messianic pacifist and a fervent critic of attempts to make war more bearable by limiting its cruelty. Tolstoy compared the regulation of war to the regulation of slavery or the humanization of the slaughter of animals. (He had also become, by the later part of his life, a committed vegetarian.) Moyn does not endorse Tolstoy’s uncompromising pacifism; he suggests that war is sometimes, if rarely, justified. Nevertheless, he credits Tolstoy with greater prescience than contemporaries such as Henry Dunant, cofounder of the Red Cross, who hoped that regulating the conduct of hostilities would lead to growing opposition to militarism.
From the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, campaigns to regulate the resort to force and to limit the brutality of war both advanced, if somewhat fitfully. Activists from the Austrian aristocrat Bertha von Suttner to the idealistic American lawyer Quincy Wright led calls for an end to war through laws that would ban the use of force to settle international disputes. Their hopes seemed to come good with the signing of the United Nations Charter in 1945, but Moyn argues that the revolutionary impact of prohibiting aggressive war was undercut by the role given to the Security Council in enforcing it, which exempted the United States and other great powers from meaningful oversight. Meanwhile, states agreed a series of treaties culminating in the 1949 Geneva Conventions that governed how wars could be fought. As Moyn shows, however, their impact was limited both by the scope they allowed for the widespread killing of civilians, including through aerial bombing, and the fact that they were deemed not to apply in colonial and counterinsurgent campaigns. The U.S. tradition of no-holds-barred violence against Native Americans was later exported through its global wars, especially in Asia.
The suggestion that growing attention to the way war is fought has led Americans to lose sight of questions about its justification fails to explain evolving public views about the use of force.
Starting from the 1970s, a series of changes in law and U.S. military practice meant that the ideal of humane war no longer seemed out of reach. During the Vietnam War, former Nuremberg prosecutor Telford Taylor had reached a wide audience with his focused critique of U.S. war crimes, which, in Moyn’s words, “separated concern with the inhumanity of the Vietnam War from any case for its illegality.” After the war, a reaction against the shame of the conflict led the U.S. military to embrace a new commitment to fighting in line with legal standards. At the same time, those standards were evolving: the Additional Protocols of 1977 marked a step-change in the law, in particular by prohibiting attacks that caused disproportionate harm to civilians (the United States has not ratified the Additional Protocols but accepts their targeting rules as customary law). From this moment, lawyers became an integral part of U.S. military operations, enforcing a set of rules that had been transformed by what the legal scholar Theodor Meron called “the humanization of humanitarian law.”
Following the end of the Cold War, American views on the use of force also changed. Once again it became possible for many people to believe that the U.S. military could be sent into action abroad for moral purposes. As Moyn puts it, “the witch’s brew of humane war” depended not only on a preliminary but real commitment to humanity in warfare but also required war itself “to be rehabilitated after Vietnam as legitimate or even progressive.” Instead of opening the way to a turn away from militarism, the period after the Cold War saw the United States go to war more frequently, often justifying its actions as supporting international order or fulfilling humanitarian goals. Moyn points out that more than 80 percent of American interventions abroad in the period since 1946 occurred after 1989, from Somalia and Kosovo to Iraq and Libya.
The U.S. war on terror launched after the September 11 attacks in 2001 might be thought to disrupt this narrative of the humanization and normalization of war. After all, American forces flouted any plausible interpretation of the laws of war by holding terrorist suspects incommunicado in black sites and repeatedly torturing them. But, as Moyn shows, these brutal excesses had already been reined in by U.S. courts and official pushback before George W. Bush left the White House, and Obama completed the process of bringing the conduct of hostilities back within the laws of armed conflict.
At the same time, though, Obama presided over the entrenchment of the legal framework for an indefinite war and expanded its scope across a wide arc of countries. He signed an executive order banning torture on his first full day in office, but the administration claimed the right to use the traditional powers of a country at war—the targeting and detention of alleged enemy fighters—even in this new and unfamiliar context. Obama stands as the counterpoint to Tolstoy in the structure of Moyn’s argument, realizing Tolstoy’s prophetic fears by convincing the American public that endless and humane war was morally wholesome. The fact that Trump largely preserved the legal framework governing U.S. counterterror war, despite his frequent rhetorical embrace of tougher measures, showed the stability of the bargain that Obama had bequeathed him.
• • •
Moyn does not condemn the goal of making war more humane; it is precisely because it is always good to reduce the brutality of conflict, he argues, that we should also be alert to the costs that limiting that brutality involves. But the book seems to propose a link between the humanization of war and a growing U.S. tolerance of militarism that it never clearly defines or proves to exist. Moyn does persuasively demonstrate how an expansive record of U.S. military action in recent decades coincided with increasing concern about the conduct of hostilities, but he doesn’t establish that the second trend made people more willing to accept the first.
Humane seems to propose a link between the humanization of war and a growing U.S. tolerance of militarism that it never clearly defines or proves to exist.
It is true that the embrace of international humanitarian law by the U.S. military after Vietnam was a precondition for the kind of principled warfare that presidents such as George Bush and Bill Clinton claimed to wage, but political and public discussion about the rationale for these conflicts followed its own logic. There were other, independent historical currents behind Americans’ willingness to support a militarily-enforced new world order and humanitarian interventions that might be seen as “illegal but legitimate,” in the words of the independent commission on Kosovo. These developments (some of which Moyn acknowledges) included the ending of the draft, the low death toll of the campaigns among American servicemembers, a conception of the United States as the world’s indispensable nation, and heightened attention to global atrocities.
Although Moyn claims that the example of the Iraq war launched by President Bush in 2003 supports his case, his own account of the conflict’s political legacy shows a rather different picture. The beginning of the war was marked by protest marches in the United States as well as much larger ones in other countries. The revelations of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. guards at Abu Ghraib ignited a debate on America’s shocking use of torture, as Moyn says, but this did not preempt public concern about the Iraq war more generally. On the contrary, the unpopularity of the conflict, promoted on the back of false claims about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, continued to increase. Moyn acknowledges that public opposition to the war—he describes it as a “growing popular rage”—contributed to Obama’s nomination and election as president in 2008. Antiwar feeling also led Americans to back moves by Trump and Biden to end the war in Afghanistan. These conflicts may not have galvanized protest movements to rival those produced by the war in Vietnam, but the fact that the antiwar cause shaped the results of presidential elections in 2008 and 2016 shows that it had hardly been erased from the public sphere.
Moyn’s account of humane conflict is most effective as a description of a particular subset of American war, the sprawling global campaign against a nebulous collection of loosely connected armed groups that has been carried out largely through drone strikes and Special Forces missions. This is the form of war that Obama both sanitized and formalized, and this explains why Obama occupies such a prominent place in Humane’s conceptual framework. Even as Biden claims to be striking a blow against the “forever war” by pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, it seems likely that America’s global military counterterror posture will continue, although the degree to which the Biden administration will actually use force is currently being debated.
While Moyn would not deny that the level of American violence matters, he suggests that this is not the only—perhaps, not even the greatest—problem with the forever war. Many people who have been skeptical about the beneficial impact of international humanitarian law have been concerned with the amount of death and destruction that it continues to permit. Even under the revisions agreed in 1977, civilians may lawfully be killed within the scope of what is deemed to be proportionate harm, and enemy fighters are broadly seen as fair game. The urban bombing carried out during the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria was massively destructive and generated far too little official or public concern, as the former Obama officials Robert Malley and Stephen Pomper conceded in a thoughtful after-the-fact reflection. Moyn agrees that “for all its appeal and importance, the idea of more humane war can obscure the residual violence that it still involves.” But at times, he suggests that the deepest risk of American counterterror war is the regime of global control that it seems to portend. The ultimate stakes of regulating conflict, Moyn writes, “ought to be a world freer from domination.
Moyn persuasively illustrates the way that the war on terror seemed to dissolve the distinction between war and peace, with drone strikes taking place away from recognized battlefields and suspects from around the world—not just those captured in traditional military engagements—detained as enemy fighters. This grey-area conflict has been characterized by a distinctive combination of legal process and unbounded reach, but that doesn’t mean that efforts to increase legal oversight helped prolong the war. Moyn offers various formulations to describe the connection between the humanization and entrenchment of conflict, but at times he appears to make this stronger claim. It is true that critics of the war on terror who called for greater restrictions on the conduct of hostilities helped render it, in some sense, less illegitimate. But this is different from saying, as Moyn does, that “their approach helped lead to its continuation”—which implies the war would have been more likely to end had they acted differently. This suggestion, applied in particular to the late human rights campaigner Michael Ratner in an adapted excerpt from the book that was published in the New York Review of Books, has provoked furious pushback. Beyond raising the possibility that Ratner and others may have pursued a misguided strategy, Moyn does not give any indication that an alternative path to end the war lay open.
The primary focus of efforts to rein in the expansive ambitions of U.S. militarism should be domestic politics, not international law.
Nevertheless, Moyn’s analysis of the U.S. war on terror does capture one important aspect of the public debate that surrounded it. Not only did Obama lend his considerable moral authority to cleaning up the war rather than ending it, but there was little debate about the legal justification for the use of force against al-Qaeda and “associated forces” (as government lawyers phrased it). More than this, the legal question of whether and how far the United States and its allies should be fighting armed groups around the world was subsumed into the more technical question of whether the United States was in fact in an armed conflict to which international humanitarian law applied.
Moyn downplays the considerable attention that human rights activists and other critics gave to drone strikes, but they tended to argue that these attacks fell outside the boundaries of any armed conflict—turning the debate over America’s use of force into a specialist discussion about how armed conflict should be defined, neglecting normative questions about the justification for the resort to force in the first place.
The problem is that it was never clear how the legality and justification of the overall campaign against al-Qaeda and other groups should be assessed. The UN Charter prohibits the use of force against other states without their consent, but the most controversial drone strikes took place in countries like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, where governments had given at least some form of agreement to U.S. action. Moyn rightly observes that Obama’s speech at the National Defence University in 2013 made a superbly perceptive case against the dangers of endless war, yet Obama also claimed in this speech that U.S. targeted killing was lawful, just, and effective; in this way, he undercut his own call for restraint. I have argued elsewhere that we need a new way of thinking about the legal justification for the use of force against non-state groups and suggested that we should look for it in the individual-centred law of human rights. In his book, Moyn describes this approach as ambitious but risky because it concedes that the United States could strike on those occasions when the demanding standards of human rights are met. This criticism follows logically from his view that the U.S. regime of militarized global oversight is the ultimate evil of the war on terror, but he does not offer any alternative suggestion of how international law might constrain it.
In any case, the primary focus of efforts to rein in the expansive ambitions of U.S. militarism should not be international law but domestic politics—a claim with which Moyn would surely agree. The law that Congress passed in September 2001 authorizing the use of force against all those involved in planning or aiding the 9/11 attacks remains the foundation for U.S. military counterterror deployments around the world. If it was repealed or revised to make it much narrower and time-limited, the endless global war would come to a halt. Shifting our attention back from law to politics also brings us to what, in the end, emerges as the most significant takeaway from Humane as well as Moyn’s earlier books: it is concerned not so much with the regimes of international humanitarian law or human rights, but with the use that political movements make of them.
• • •
Moyn is careful throughout his writing to avoid denying the value of human rights and humanitarian law in themselves. While he asks rhetorically in Humane whether the humanization of endless war makes it better or worse, he also says that reform to lessen the brutality of conflict “is always a good thing.” Similarly, in Not Enough, he argues that the credibility of human rights has been threatened by its peaceable companionship with neoliberalism, but he acknowledges that “the stigmatization of states and communities that fail to protect basic values is . . . an indubitable contribution” and ends by suggesting that the fight against inequality is not for human rights to take up. This nuanced positioning means that the real force of his argument, despite what the framing of his books seems to suggest, does not attach to these movements themselves but to those political programs that have devolved the entire burden of their normative agenda onto them.
There is no contradiction in a progressive project that attacks inequality while remaining profoundly committed to human rights.
In the last few decades, some of the most prominent political currents in the United States—neoliberalism, neoconservatism, and liberal internationalism—have largely embraced human rights while remaining unconcerned about inequality and committed to fighting humanely while adopting an expansive vision of the use of American force overseas. But there are no necessary trade-offs involved in these ideological combinations. There is no contradiction or even inherent tension in imagining a progressive project that attacks inequality while remaining profoundly committed to human rights, or a political program that that radically aims to scale back the use of force overseas while enforcing the strictest standards on how U.S. forces fight.
Indeed, there are signs that such movements are already emerging. Recent years have seen a marked renewal of attention to inequality among Democrats that has led even a centrist president like Joe Biden to take on an ambitious economic agenda, and the growth of a strong progressive movement that fundamentally questions U.S. militarism. Moyn’s historical writing has made its own contribution to the changing intellectual climate that has led to these developments, and it is plausible to believe that a more skeptical and wary approach to the use of military force overseas by the United States will prevail in the years ahead.
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September 16, 2021
17 Min read time