SWJ Book Review – Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War
By Dylan W. Nigh
Samuel Moyn. Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2021. [ISBN: 978-1-83-976619-0, Paperback, 400 pages]
As the United States military enters a new period of change following its withdraw from Afghanistan, numerous works have been published that attempt to grapple with the path that led to our involvement in so-called “forever wars”, with one such work being Moyn’s Humane. While many of these take the obvious route of inducing schadenfreude through a lightning round review of the policy foibles of the last 20 years, Humane instead takes a broader approach, reviewing how events and developments over the last century and a half led to the current geopolitical situation. Moyn’s main argument throughout the book is that attempts to make war more humane have inadvertently overshadowed pacification efforts and led to a placid acceptance of continuous conflict. Moyn makes excellent use of his experience as a professor of both history and jurisprudence, weaving together a narrative of major events in military history and the developments in the laws of war that they produced. This narrative unfolds over two parts and eight chapters, with the first part focusing on the history of brutalism that led to the creation of organizations like the Red Cross, and the second part focusing on the repercussions of the shift toward “humane” warfare from Vietnam to the post-9/11 world.
Following a brief prologue that manages to review the current state of sanitized warfare and present the author’s views on the subject, the book starts with one of the catalysts of the modern antiwar movement; the involvement of the author Leo Tolstoy in the Crimean War of 1854. This conflict not only shaped Tolstoy’s aversion to war, but also led others to begin the fight to regulate the brutality of war; something Tolstoy believed helped make it so rare. The book follows these two movements, the antiwar movement and the push for the humanization of warfare, as the prior is slowly eclipsed by the latter, which many nations find to be a more convenient alternative. This trend continues over the decades, even as peacemakers like Bertha von Suttner attempt to shift the focus onto the inherent moral failing of war. Such attempts, though honorable, are shown to be ultimately pointless in the face of the growing popularity of international humanitarian law (IHL), where arbitration surrounding the minutia of conflicts replaces arguments against their very existence. Moyn closes out part one with an example of this trend in the form of America’s brutal air war, covering the initial attempts to ban aerial bombing, the firebombing of Japanese civilian populations, and the destruction of Dresden.
The second half of the book begins by highlighting the pivot in international opinion surrounding the nature of warfare that came with the changing reaction to the Vietnam War. Vietnam marked the first conflict where the US was held, and attempted to hold itself, to the international legal standard of warfare it had helped to create. Events like the My Lai Massacre helped revitalize the antiwar movement, but simultaneously shifted the conversation away from the validity of the conflict toward the specific topic of war crimes. This transition, more than any other event discussed in the book, highlights a central argument of Moyn’s; attempts at decreasing violence in war only serve to make it more palatable and engrained, when the actual goal should be to decrease the domination that war often produces. This argument is only made more robust in the post-9/11 climate, where Moyn maps out how politicians and lawyers utilized international law to placate the public, sanitize the image of modern conflicts in the Middle East, and turn the US military into an international policing force.
It is important to note what this book is not; it is not a call to return to the brutality of past wars, nor is it a purely pacifist work. What it is, is an efficient and novel look at the history of the humanization of war, and a call for readers to think long and hard about the consequences of such a trend. Moyn wastes no time in highlighting how an all-volunteer force, the use of drones and special forces, and the dismissal of aggression as the ultimate war crime have kept the true nature of warfare out of the minds of the public. By moralizing war and disconnecting it from the everyday lives of Americans, those in power have been given carte blanche to initiate and continue conflicts with little reprisal. Therefore, the aim of this book is ultimately to motivate the reader to reengage with the underlying nature of warfare, and to decide for themselves which is worse, violence or domination.