American War from Sherman to McChrystal

7 September 2021

** This is the second in a series of four reviews of Samuel Moyn’s new book Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War. Each day this week one review will be published. On Friday, Moyn will respond. **


“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” stated an anonymous United States Major in February 1968 following the destruction of the Vietnamese city Bến Tre during the Tet Offensive.  Conveyed to New Zealand journalist Peter Arnett, and much misquoted since then— its source still unknown or, at least, shrouded in myth—the line has become a cultural touchstone, revived periodically by both Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and butchered anew to identify individuals who pursue their ambitions to self-destructive ends and try to fulfill long-term goals with malignant short-sightedness.


The absurdity of humanity saving itself through war has a long history, one that is endemic to war’s purpose. But Samuel Moyn’s new book Humane book goes beyond the dilemma of war as a civilizing force to argue that as war became more ethical, and thus more palatable to Americans in the twentieth—and twenty-first century, its immutable, inherent destructiveness only expanded. The result is a fascinating and necessary book. Moyn has produced a revelatory, sweeping, clear-eyed treatise on how the U.S. has “humanized” conflicts—to prohibit crimes of war rather than war itself—to the detriment of American democracy.


Humane shows how the United States ended up waging wars with boundaries on the battlefield but not the home front. Because these wars have been waged through autonomous weapons and covert operations, and because they endure—quietly, out of the public eye—they have proven impervious to democratic restraints. Rather than see the United States engaging in a perpetual war for perpetual peace, or fighting a series of “endless conflicts” since the 18th century, Moyn argues that the “forever wars” of Iraq and Afghanistan (so dubbed by their critics) derive from the ways the United States has tried to hide, even curtail, its global hegemony over the past half-century. Forever wars are normative, but novel; they are a product of our post-Vietnam, post-Cold War moment where the United States sought to rectify the atrocities of war but not prevent future conflicts.


Moyn’s history of the United States begins in Russia with Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy “fixated on corporal wrongs and physical violence” in war, his epic novel—and arguably the greatest anti-war novel—War and Peace a reflection on the horrors of the Napoleonic wars—ostensibly wars for liberation. Tolstoy’s pacifism existed at a time when the architects of modern wars, including Carl von Clausewitz, thought brutality in war made it better: it encouraged a quick, decisive peace. The growing demand for states to adhere to “rules of war” by the late nineteenth-century century was a fool’s errand for Tolstoy: they legitimized war, even encouraged it. Better to ban war altogether.


Tolstoy spurred a coterie of followers (the “Tolstoyan movement”) including peace activist Bertha von Suttner and pacifist and progressive Jane Addams. Suttner, who in 1905 became the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, participated in the Hague conventions but grew jaded with “hypocritical institutions” who professed to seek peace but in fact wanted diplomatic subterfuge—to claim the mantle of peace without demanding it. Suttner’s cause was taken up by political scientist Quincy Wright, who sought refuge within “international arbitration” to compel nations to prohibit war and punish leaders like Kaiser Wilhelm II for his role in escalating World War I. But the Great War sullied the notion that the law could liberate peace for Wright, who felt instead that it could “not greatly reduce the destructiveness of war.”


World War II then showed how “peace and brutal war went together,” according to Moyn, with no regulations on air power before or following Dresden or the firebombing of Japan. The Nuremberg trials and revived Geneva conventions—encouraged by groups like the International Committee of the Red Cross—punished Nazis’ atrocities but failed to address the criminality of war-making. And the Korean War proved the capstone to the era of brutality, with General Douglas MacArthur abusing, and outright flaunting, the weaknesses of international law when he brought allied troops across the 38th parallel, leading to an era “of endless war for decades in the global south” where the postwar “rules of peace”, Moyn writes, were relevant only to America’s enemies.


The United States did not take the laws of war seriously until the latter years of the Vietnam War. Moyn argues that Vietnam marked a profound shift in war, as the logic and legacy of Nuremberg was applied to the behavior of individual Americans and specific decisions and policies made during Vietnam, but not the overall war. Congressional figures and international lawyers’ criticism of war crimes committed in the Central Intelligence Agency’s Phoenix Program (where suspected Vietnamese communists were tortured and killed by U.S. special forces), instead of Operation Rolling Thunder or Operation Menu (the official name given to Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia), marked a conspicuous shift in how war crimes moved “from the far left to the liberal center” to ultimately define the humane contours of war post-Vietnam. America’s decimation of Vietnam received impunity through laws that protected the dignities of its victims. In other words, the crimes committed in Vietnam were deemed exceptional by the standards of the law; but that did not mean the Vietnam War was immoral. This logic, propounded by lawyers like Telford Taylor, relied on a broader premise of American exceptionalism—that the United States wages war in legal terms and will actively persecute those who fail to recognize that exceptionalism in their wartime conduct.


The interregnum between the post-Cold War and the War on Terror invigorated this premise, with the fall of communism creating “not a demand for peace but for interventionist justice” among President Bill Clinton and his administration.  After the 9/11 attacks, lawyers like John Yoo told George W. Bush that he could ignore inhumanity in war, that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, and the nascent history of humane war, did not apply to “enemy combatants.” Yoo therefore “resuscitated a type of brutal war that was beyond the pale of legality but already become obsolete”: torture and indeterminate imprisonment were fair game. Progressive lawyers like Michael Ratner tried to push back against the bipartisan consensus that would challenge Yoo’s conclusions without rejecting them. Ratner fumed about threats to civil liberties and the dangers of the imperial presidency but gave up on criminalizing aggression.


Obama was beholden to the Bush administration in ways that Obama’s supporters have overlooked, according to Moyn. The Obama administration kept the “Bush-era permission slips around going to war” and embraced a War on Terror that had “no limitations in space or time on the conduct of counterterrorism.” Obama’s intention to close Guantanamo Bay, and his critique of torture during the Bush years—“We did some things that were contrary to our values”—reflected his “desire to be good and a desire to mask evil,” as lawyers like Harold Koh provided the “‘legal-ish’” framework for Obama’s drone strikes—a framework that Donald Trump inherited and exploited when he decided to assassinate Iranian General Qasem Soleimani with a Reaper drone.


Throughout his book, Moyn alludes to a question that few historians have asked yet is omnipresent in how we think about contemporary war: When did the United States decide it could wage wars endlessly? Moyn’s answer is unsatisfying: few did, because they never considered the question. No one saw the arrival of humane war—or endless war—until it was our prevailing vision of war. (Except Tolstoy and his followers.) This is because humane war became the inevitable outcome of an unwillingness to relinquish primacy among proponents of liberal internationalism, who needed the threat and reality of war to maintain a world order determined by American hegemony, but feared the bad optics if human rights abuses were committed in the process.


Moyn has convinced this reader that humane war is a problem of liberalism, a condition of America’s better angels. Endless war, Moyn proves, is not the fault of blatant militarists, of unrepentant hawks, but well-meaning reformers whose efforts to criminalize the fighting of wars have made it difficult to end them. The rise of humane war is concurrent with the crisis of liberal internationalism after Vietnam. Humane war allowed liberal internationalism to survive and thrive when Vietnam should have been its death knell, and when the utility of America’s global hegemony briefly diminished after the Cold War.


But that makes one wonder if humane war was always there, just in different form. Moyn forces us to think of humane war in its pluralities, rather than as a singular concept. America’s way of war has always encapsulated a dreary, perfunctory paradox: the fantasy of cheap and “clean” war to salvage war’s brutality. Fear of nuclear war, thought defense intellectuals, would entail an anxious but stable “long peace” during the Cold War; Brigadier General Billy Mitchell believed air power after World War I would put a salubrious end to bloody, protracted land-based conflicts; the occupation of the Philippines after 1898 relied on Filipino “scouts” to reduce American deaths—a racist policy that stemmed from an effort to spare the lives of (white) American soldiers. War was cruel, but military officials consistently thought the brutality of war could be managed through “humane” innovations in war-making. To return to the Major’s quote from 1968—the “humanity” of killing to save war’s future victims—we can see that some version of humane war existed before it appeared in Moyn’s terms.


Moyn also faults international human rights lawyers for creating endless war. Since Nuremberg, lawyers have targeted battlefield atrocities with moralistic fervor, which then reifies the morality of war—with justice served against the vanquished, while the victors go unpunished. But how much agency do international lawyers have in American military policy? As historian Michael Klarman has revealed, the law (or in Klarman’s case, the judgments of the Supreme Court on civil rights), often codifies and reflects a pre-existing consensus on contemporary issues, rather than being an “activist” force for change.  Societal norms evolve, and the law legitimizes them. Can the same point be made for humane war?  In the case of our post-9/11 era, it could be said that unrestrained military force already had validity; the law only clarified this conclusion. International law gave credence to the parameters of war-making, fulfilled the expectations for the use of military force, but was not the determinant of how military force was used.


This is only to say that Moyn begs us to consider who else is responsible for endless war. One could also point to the culpability of America’s generals, as well as its lawyers. Civil War generals like William Tecumseh Sherman feared waging war in perpetuity—an unbridled occupation of the South during Reconstruction—but by the end of World War II, as Moyn demonstrates, Douglas MacArthur had no such reservations about the military’s ability to oversee defeat without temporal limits. We need a history that connects Sherman to MacArthur—or better yet, Sherman to Stanley McChrystal—that does not fall victim to technological determinism or to an undue focus on the proclivities of personalities in order to see why American generals, and the military overall, came to believe war could be fought beyond a presumptive peace.


It is too easy to finish Moyn’s book and become a fatalist; to resign oneself to the notion that endless war is our precedent, and therefore our future. Just like that proverbial U.S. Major’s quote, humane war has taken on a life of its own—it has assembled a coalition of supporters on the Left and the Right who rely on it and who therefore lack an alternative to it. To make matters worse, Moyn’s protagonists are often immobilized by their opponents. Those promulgating a pacifist tradition have great influence but little power; they lie at the margins—in academia, letters, and society—with their work overwhelmed by war’s humanizers. We root for overlooked figures like Suttner or Ratner only to see them languish in posterity, or worse, cave to those who ameliorate war’s evils but avoid war’s causes. The American anti-war movement never penetrates the allure and advancement of humane war, whether the “peace progressives” of the early 20th century, the anti-war movement against the Vietnam war, or the stunted activism against the Iraq war in 2003.


But those who oppose humane war should not lose hope. For Moyn’s focus on lawyers compels us to see how endless war need not be permanent. Structural forces can realign to compel new laws and new modes of thinking—if only war’s abolitionists can achieve institutional power. If not, the corollary to our humane wars, the legal basis for them, Moyn implies, will be a new Cold War with China. The laws of humane war will be reapplied to the new enemy, the “rules” of America’s War on Terror entrenched within the different logic of great power conflict. While an important book, I hope that Humane is not the past as prologue. But only time will tell.



Michael Brenes is Associate Director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy and Lecturer in History at Yale University. He is the author of For Might and Right: Cold War Defense Spending and the Remaking of American Democracy.


Image credit: Humane [cover], MacMillan (2021), Fair Use.

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