Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War by Samuel Moyn

Review by Brian Tanguay

Warfare is one of the oldest practices in human history, one that creates and destroys empires, topples or installs kings and dictators, and inflicts suffering on soldiers and civilians alike. The nations of the world have gathered at conferences and signed agreements in an attempt to regulate warfare for centuries. When is a country justified in going to war? Once war starts what rules should govern its conduct in regards to civilians and prisoners? These fundamental questions lead to others, such as, how should nations or non-state actors who refuse to follow the rules of war be sanctioned, and by what body? Should civil wars be treated differently from wars fought between countries?   

In Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, Samuel Moyn, professor of history at Yale University, critically examines the centuries-long endeavor to make war more humane. To place his work in context, Moyn begins with the moral reasoning of Count Leo Tolstoy who went to war in 1851 at the age of twenty-two. Why does Tolstoy matter two decades into the twenty-first century? Moyn argues that Tolstoy’s thinking about war remains relevant because he had reservations about attempts to make war less brutal rather than focusing on skepticism of war itself. The distinction is important. The author of War and Peace not only held to an unshakeable belief that war was a moral evil, but also that making it humane increased the chances of war breaking out more often and continuing endlessly. 

“Americans have only recently come to face,” Moyn writes, “a binary choice between two forms of interminable war: intense or humane, dirty or clean.” This wasn’t always the case. In the nineteenth century, Americans were in the forefront of efforts to eliminate war. Many proponents of pacifism, (including the aforementioned Tolstoy) saw it as the natural outgrowth of following the tenets of Christianity seriously; Quakers and Mennonites, for example, had long refused to take up arms. Even as unlikely a peace advocate as the  Russian tsar, Nicholas II, called for a European peace conference in 1898. These efforts bore some fruit. In 1899, the Hague Conventions prohibited the use of soft-tipped ammunition and the exclusion of hospitals and significant cultural sites as military targets. 

Despite European and American agreements on refining the rules of war, armed conflicts continued, including World War I with its shocking carnage; in the aftermath of what came to be known as the “war to end war,” additional agreements were made to limit the use of aerial bombardment, bacteriological and gas weapons, and to provide for humane treatment of captured soldiers. The Geneva Conventions were revised and modified several times between the two world wars, finalized in 1949 and ratified by the United States in 1955. The laws of war underwent a rebranding and became known as international humanitarian law. 

As with all complex agreements, the signatories gave themselves many exceptions and loopholes. “International” wars were one thing, but when it came to civil wars, or unrest in colonial outposts against non-white adversaries, rules regarding the killing of civilians, treatment of prisoners, and torture were often blatantly ignored. Asymmetrical or counterinsurgency conflicts were treated differently, as the United States demonstrated in its decades-long operation to bring insurgents in the Philippines to heel. Moyn quotes General Jacob Smith, a veteran of America’s brutal Indian Wars, as telling the troops under his command that he wanted “all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities.” Similar sentiments were heard during the Korean War, which killed millions of civilians, and not long thereafter in Vietnam where the US forces developed free-fire and free-strike zones along with the practice of search and destroy missions. The interpretation of the rules of war was most elastic after the 9/11 attacks when the US launched the global War on Terror. Through all these periods the US reserved to itself the right to ignore whatever agreements didn’t suit its objectives. As Moyn writes of American political and military leaders: “They believed they could bask in the glow of the rule of law while liberally violating its terms.” 

Moyn’s analysis of the interplay between the rule of law and the actual conduct of war is particularly sharp. After 9/11, the US invaded two countries that hadn’t directly attacked it, and engaged in shocking abuses of actual or suspected enemy combatants. Moyn draws a remarkable contrast between public reaction to the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War and the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. My Lai galvanized an already potent domestic anti-war movement, but when the revelations about Abu Ghraib emerged in 2004, the US anti-war movement was practically non-existent. By that time, the public had reason to know from leaked documents and news reports of the false pretenses used to justify the Iraq invasion, but these revelations didn’t prevent George W. Bush from being reelected for a second term. 

American adherence to the rules of war received a makeover during the Obama Administration. Obama’s calm, reassuring rhetoric claimed the US was abiding by the highest standards and humane principles, and upholding America’s values, but as Moyn shows, the reality on the ground was largely unchanged. The wars dragged on and on with no end in sight. By the end of Obama’s second term, US Special Forces were operating in 70 percent of all the countries in the world. Our wars may have been humane, but they were also endless, just as Count Tolstoy had prophesied. Until the end of his life Tolstoy argued that the deepest evil in war is moral subjugation. In our effort to make war more humane, we may have entrenched continuing violence. Humane is a clarion call for the advocates and audiences of endless war to consider not the how of war, but the why.