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“In our time, we’ve privileged the cleanliness of wars over not having them” – Samuel Moyn on whether the goal of making war less brutal is helping perpetuate war itself

Professor Samuel Moyn is Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School and Professor of History at Yale University, specialising in international law, human rights, and the law of war. His new book, Humane: how the United States abandoned peace and reinvented war, explores the complexities of embracing ethical warfare, and argues that, as American wars have become more humane, they have also become endless.

Here, he speaks with Michael Spagat about his new book, and the challenges of controlling and managing the humanization of war.

Michael Spagat: Can you provide a brief overview of what the book is about?

Samuel Moyn: On one level, I’ve attempted to just tell a story about the rise of a particular moral project and legal regime now called “international humanitarian law.” Its aspiration is to reduce suffering and war by controlling how hostilities in wartime are conducted. I paired that with a parallel story about the rise and fall of the aspiration not to have war in the first place. The book covers both of those histories from an American perspective, and worries that in our time, we’ve privileged the cleanliness of wars over not having them (though they are still incredibly violent).

Meanwhile, we have let American war itself get out of hand, both in its extension in time, and its expansion in space. The question is, can the noble goal of making war less brutal help perpetuate war itself? If it can, then there is cause to rethink.

Spagat: Thanks, that’s a good overview.

Would it be fair to say that the title of your book “Humane” is not intended to imply that war, at least as practised by the contemporary U.S., really is humane in some absolute sense, but rather just more humane than it used to be?

Moyn: I would never, ever say that we’re all the way there. It is true that I am pushing back against a certain temptation to say that everything is always getting worse in every dimension. If American war is getting worse, I suggest, it is because there’s less and less constrained initiation and continuation of war. In compensation, there’s a real constraint in the conduct of hostilities. There are certainly a lot of rhetorical gestures toward the real constraint of war becoming more humanely regulated—especially in Barack Obama’s main speeches on the War on Terror. Indeed, to understand some versions of current war, we have to acknowledge that it can become more humane.

If someone’s pushback to this suggestion is that “humane war” is an oxymoron, I can sympathize. But it’s amazing then that we’ve allowed this body of law that regulates how war is fought to be branded “international humanitarian law.” And it’s amazing that we’ve put so much energy into focusing on the fine points of whether war is humane enough. Yet— if one thought that war itself can never be humane, then one would have a greater concern with the outbreak of war itself, and not the fine points of how it is fought, as Americans have done during the War on Terror, when we mainly debated whether there should be torture in the mix, or whether too many civilians have been dying under the drones. Meanwhile, there was no debate about whether, in principle, the war itself had been the atrocity.

Spagat: Going back to the beginning of your answer to that last question— one could claim that war is getting worse in the big picture but that it’s getting better in some aspects and, in particular, the U.S. is conducting it with more attention to the goal of minimising or reducing the harm to civilians. Would you agree overall with that characterization?

Moyn: I do agree. When a high state official claims that the law is being taken seriously, it’s easy to respond by saying that we shouldn’t believe the hype—that it’s a lie. A lot of people would respond by wondering how the law was interpreted, in particular, whether it was interpreted too permissively. Others would doubt how seriously it is taken in the field. The recent New York Times Pulitzer prize-winning series by Azmat Khan and others, for example, implies that the War on Terror never became humane, especially through the use of drone strikes, and I’m in complete agreement with her findings.

But then the implication of such critiques of the War on Terror is that we should just follow the law more, or we should take the law seriously. And I want to interject that taking the law seriously is something Americans have actually begun to do. In our culture, we place the Geneva Conventions, kind of obscure documents, at the very centre of how we debate the War on Terror. In the long view, the American military is trying to fight more humanely, relative to a very dark past.

I don’t say these things to celebrate progress; just the reverse; because successful humanisation can be enabling and not just constraining. And I narrate in the book how, after the ethical and optical disaster of My Lai (the Vietnam War atrocity) forces within the U.S. began to legalise the conduct of hostilities in simply unprecedented ways. As a result, you’d much rather be facing down the United States now than fifty or one hundred years ago, let alone several hundred years ago. And that’s not just because they have more precise weapons, but also because they have some aspiration to follow these laws.

So then the question is— is the foot in the door and should we just keep pushing? I’m arguing that that’s insufficient, because it seems as if they’ve already declared a lot of victory in making war humane, and the trouble is, it makes war easier to fight in some circumstances and easier to sustain endlessly.

Spagat: You just mentioned My Lai and I believe that one of the chapters in your book is entitled something like “The Vietnam Pivot”. Can you quickly give us an overview of milestones in the humanisation of war over the last couple of centuries?

Moyn: Absolutely. So I start with the middle of the 19th century, because that’s when you get the first Geneva Convention (1864). That’s when I found there was the most open debate about the moral plausibility of humanising war. And in particular, I dwell a lot on Leo Tolstoy’s anxieties about doing so, which came way too early, but prophetic by the same token.

Spagat: Way too early in the sense that nobody was interested yet?

Moyn: I don’t think there was humane enough war yet for his concerns to register. So for his anxieties to be applicable, there has to be something actually changing about war. And in spite of that earliest Geneva Convention, which protected wounded soldiers, not much does. In fact, war gets more brutal, not less, for a century. And so part of what’s at stake in the book is showing that peacemaking, and holding states to account when they broke the rules for beginning war, were at the centre of debate about international politics for the longest time. As late as the Vietnam War, after the United States escalated the conflict in the mid-1960s, the main debate is about whether to have the war and whether it’s legal in its initiation, not whether it’s too brutal.

I show that during this really long period—that’s really a century from the 1860s to the 1960s and 70s—war is not becoming more humane yet, nor does the law even call for it to do so. This applies especially when war is fought across racial and religious lines globally by empires, or by the United States in the Philippines, or at the end of World War II in Japan, or (again in the Pacific) in Korea and in Vietnam. In part for that reason is that there was more consensus among reformers that keeping war from happening or stopping it once it started was the absolute priority.

Where I see things changing is after Vietnam. My Lai was an instance of atrocity but its revelation added fuel to the fire of that aspiration to not engage in the war. And of course, the war did end and in relatively short order. After that, you get a project of humanising American war, which is really unprecedented. It really hadn’t happened before the 1970s. And it wasn’t just the military, as I discussed before, but also new humanitarians, who have nothing to say about whether wars are good or bad or legal or illegal, but do have a lot to say about whether they’re being fought legally or illegally.

I see this all coming to a head in that era of the war on terror when you get relatively more humane war, especially after Barack Obama takes charge of it—but along with little debate about whether to have it. You can make a great comparison between the My Lai and the Abu Ghraib revelations. In part this is because the same reporter, Seymour Hersh, was central to both episodes. But Abu Ghraib, in the absence of an antiwar coalition before the story of atrocity breaks, ends up having the function of removing the bug from the programme of a war that became endless. When the Vietnam War ended, the War on Terror was given a new lease on life. This illustrates what can happen when you prioritise the humanity of your wars, rather than whether to have them.

Spagat: Okay, great. You quote Michael Walzer, from his famous book, “Just and Unjust Wars.” Walzer is essentially making the point that agitation to curb the worst excesses of wars highlights these excesses and is therefore complementary to the project of ridding the world of war. I’m paraphrasing here, but you seem to agree with my paraphrase. But then you say explicitly in your book that you disagree with this idea. Can you elaborate on this disagreement a little bit more here?

Moyn: It’s a great question. I’m doubting Walzer on a narrower point. But it’s true, that you might hypothesise (many did) that making war more humane would be like a stepping stone to not having it. Walzer doesn’t exactly take that view, but he does say that Tolstoy was wrong to worry that more humane war would be harder to contain. Tolstoy was making the opposite prediction, not that humane war will be a step on the path to less war, but that it could entrench, facilitate, or legitimate war, because it’s easier to justify a war that isn’t brutal, or isn’t seen to be brutal.

And it’s there that I oppose Walzer. Of course, he hadn’t seen the War on Terror. He hadn’t seen Obama. I think we now know that Tolstoy’s anxieties have some foundation, though it took a really long time for them to become alive. But I think we now can say that there’s a genuine concern, that when you struggle to make war humane, you also court a risk. This doesn’t mean you incur it every time, but you do court a risk that you will perpetuate war.

And, to be honest, this perspective isn’t controversial in other domains. Death penalty activists, who might have trouble with the whole notion of killing people in punishment, debate whether to reduce the cruelty of the administration of the death penalty for the moment. Amazingly, they’re very open: they understand it is a risky choice. It might be justified all things considered, but it has some risks that go along with it. And the question is, when do you incur the risks? And what do you do when the risk is serious? I’m just claiming that the risk became serious with war in our time.

Spagat: Right. Lots of people in the N.G.O. world and beyond have been delighted recently by the arrival, in the final form, of something that’s called “The Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences Arising from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas.” You must be aware there’s been a long-term campaign against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. This declaration is now in its final form and is gathering state signatures. Surprisingly, it seems that the U.K. is signing up to this. I just want to ask whether, in your view, this campaign might be an example of well-intentioned but misguided activism.

Moyn: I wouldn’t say that much of the activism, including this instance, is misguided. The question is what happens when that’s all there is in the absence of any control of having wars. It’s not that I’m against making war humane. This is a noble effort. But things that are worth doing, all things being equal, look different when there are other considerations, because humane war has arisen in a world of more and more permissive great power war. The Ukraine war is an excellent new example. Vladimir Putin says in his speech (his irate rant, just before going into Ukraine), “I’m for international law, and here are all of the examples of when the West broke it to go to war.” He’s not complaining, like some N.G.O.’s, that the West is still too brutal. It’s Putin who’s complaining that the West is having illegal wars. However, two wrongs don’t make a right, and this doesn’t extenuate his illegal war.

But the question is, what are the effects — no doubt unintended, of having all of the activists and all of the media debate about whether war is and can be made more humane? Now, there is another criticism I make, which is fairly captured when you ask whether I am saying these efforts are misguided. Activists are often assuming that war is violence, and that the best thing to do is to reduce the violence piece by piece—rule this or that tactic out, rule this or that weapon out. But as I see it, you know, the rise of targeted killings and new technologies to prosecute counterterrorist operations illustrate that war is actually about domination. Sometimes some wars are about almost permanent surveillance and control of other peoples and other communities. And, amazingly, we’ve seen that you can edit the violence out of that project at least to some extent.

If domination is wrong, then it is misguided to just say that we need to make it humane. To me, that’s very sinister. It is as if, after George Floyd was killed, you concluded that we should just have more humane policing of our fellow citizens, not less policing.

The argument that it could be sinister to create humane control is fairly described as a critique of this kind of effort. But most of the time, I’d rather say that the aspiration to humanise is noble, and the risk is just that it contributes to an ecology in which we focus on one thing to the detriment of another.

Spagat: Okay. I think part of your argument as it would apply to Afghanistan and Iraq, would be that the cleaning up of how those wars were waged contributed to their prolongation once they were already started. But do you see other factors, perhaps having nothing to do with the humanity of war, that also contributed to this prolongation? Or do you see humanization as the single factor determining this result?

Moyn: Oh, not at all. Not even the most significant. I chose to write about this theme just because I thought it deserved some attention. But not because I believe there’s one factor in war and humanity is that factor. Indeed, if we were to develop a list of the reasons America’s been at war without end, the humanity of some recent forms of that war wouldn’t be just a new factor, but a minor one. There are so many other reasons, and yet, little things can make a big difference.

I think I’m interested in a community of those who were the intended and actual audience for Barack Obama’s main speeches on the War on Terror, his Nobel Peace Prize address in 2009, and his drones address at the National Defence University four years later in 2013. It’s still staggering that the main emphasis in both speeches was that Americans fight war but make it humane, unlike George W. Bush in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also unlike other powers, including our own enemies. The fact that a lot of people thought this emphasis was morally intelligible is my topic. Presidents haven’t said such things before, and I don’t think there’s been a big audience for saying it before either. It seems like a feature worth figuring out. Where did it come from? But it’s fair to say that I don’t measure how important it is relative to other factors, because I just want to say, it’s important enough to take seriously because Obama thought it was.

Spagat: Great – one final question. I saw a critique of your book recently on Twitter saying that you make “the great” the enemy of “the good.” Would you care to respond to that?

Moyn: Well, you know, I don’t think so. To repeat, I’m not saying to abandon the humanization of war, I’m saying that we have to control and manage its risks, if it turns out that they’re being incurred. It’s the kind of boring message that we could have one or two less wars, and not merely worry about whether they are all humane. It’s not at all a claim that there’s a revolution coming and reform is inadequate. It’s just to say the reform that we need should include the control of force, and not just its humanisation once unleashed.