Dissolving the Dream of Peace

6 September 2021

Humane by Samuel Moyn - FSG (2021)** This is the first 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. **


To write compellingly about the history of international law for a general audience is no mean feat, but Sam Moyn, describing himself as an old dog having to learn new tricks (383), has pulled it off. After transforming historical debates over human rights in a provocative series of books, he has turned his attention to the often paradoxical relationship between law and war, with a particular focus on the United States. The result is impressive. Humane makes a powerful argument about the transformation of war across the twentieth century and into the present.


The book ranges widely, weaving together illuminating portraits of notable individuals – a mix of eccentrics, misfits and establishment figures including Tolstoy and Bertha von Suttner, through Jean Pictet, Quincy Wright, Telford Taylor, and Richard Falk, to Michael Ratner, Harold Koh and Jack Goldsmith—with analytical discussion of geopolitics and legal debate. At its heart lies a convincing line of argument: recent efforts to humanize war by reducing its lethality have come at the expense of normalizing violence. Whereas the ambition of the nineteenth century peace movements and their successors was to outlaw war—or at the very least to establish forms of legal arbitration or international institutions to radically limit its occurrence—recent decades have been dominated by efforts to regulate the conduct of war. The dream of peace has all but dissolved. “We had made a moral choice to prioritize humane war, not a peaceful globe” (7).


Moyn traces this remarkable change principally to the closing years of the Vietnam War, and the public and political recoil against the atrocities committed by American soldiers, symbolized by the massacre at My Lai. Along the way he discusses many other important issues, including the racialized character of much “peace” discourse, the entanglement of international law and colonialism (91-115), and the often forgotten horrors of the Korean War—indeed for Moyn, it is Korea, rather than Vietnam, that represents the apogee of the unregulated American way of war. It was the “most brutal war of the twentieth century, measured by the intensity of violence and per capita civilian death.” Four million people, half of them civilians, were killed in the space of three years (155). Vietnam was “the pivot,” triggering a series of changes, including the adoption of the “epoch-making” 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions (201), though it was only during the post-Cold War years that “humane warfare” emerged in its current recognizable form. It can be seen today in the American obsession with “clinical” special forces missions and drone strikes, the phalanx of lawyers involved in the planning of operations, and dreams of fully-automated killing. Potentially endless violence has been ushered in under the guise of legal regulation. “In our time, swords have not been beaten into ploughshares. They have been melted down for drones” (4).


Here I’d like to mention three things I took from reading the book. Two of them relate to what might be called popular jurisprudence—the multifarious ways that legal norms and principles are disseminated, invoked, reinforced and contested, outside the formal structures of the legal system. The third is about the future.


My first observation concerns the role of word and image in shaping moral sensibilities and informing legal change. The theme recurs throughout the text. For example, Moyn emphasizes the significance of Tolstoy’s fictional work in propagating his ideas about peace, and he rightly draws attention to the extraordinary success of von Suttner’s novel, Die Waffen Nieder! (1889), translated into English as Lay Down Your Arms! (1893). Prior to the First World War, he suggests, “no document of Western civilization did more to turn what had been a crackpot and marginal call for an end to endless war into a mainstream cause” (52). When discussing Vietnam, Moyn touches occasionally on the affective power of images, such as the horrific 1972 photograph of an injured young Vietnamese girl, Kim Phúc, fleeing a napalm attack (169). Perhaps one reason why Korea remains the forgotten war in the West is the relative lack of visual imagery that emerged to record its deathscapes. Later, Moyn draws attention to the impact of the Abu Ghraib torture photographs, and notes how the US military became so concerned about the representation of torture in the popular TV show 24 that a General was dispatched to Hollywood to remonstrate with the producers (257).


The British novelist J. G. Ballard claimed hyperbolically that constant mediated exposure to violence during the 1960s—from the assassinations of JFK and MLK to the killing fields of the Congo and Vietnam—lead to the “death of affect,” a dulling of empathy among the affluent populations of the Euro-American world. Moyn hints at something otherwise: that media coverage, circulating through new global communications networks, changed public attitudes to the conduct of war, and helped motivate policy and legal initiatives. Implicit in Moyn’s analysis is a story about how the image—whether still or moving—supplanted (without fully replacing) the word as the privileged medium of persuasion.


A second theme concerns the role of just war thinking in the pattern of legal change that Moyn charts. While ethical arguments are not the same as legal doctrine, the two discourses intersected, even converged, during the twentieth century. Following the Second World War there was a burst of academic and public discussion in the United States (and elsewhere) about the just war, shaped initially by theologians and church leaders, but later on by those working with a secularised version of the tradition. It morphed from a casuistical mode of reasoning to a repertoire of principles enshrined or discussed in terms of rights and laws, a transition that Nick Rengger described aptly as the ‘legalization’ of the just war. The initial focus of debate, in the 1940s through to the early 1960s, was on the ethical implications of nuclear weapons—the new human capacity for species-destruction offered a fundamental challenge to traditional forms of thinking about conflict. Later, in the context of the war in Vietnam, the debate shifted to a wider set of questions about both the jus ad bellum and the jus in bello. As such, it encompassed both strands of Moyn’s paradoxical story. The just war tradition makes a couple of passing appearances in Humane. In his chapter on World War II, for example, Moyn mentions Bishop George Bell, who drew on just war thinking to publicly criticize the area of bombing of German cities. But Michael Walzer appears mainly as a critic of Tolstoy rather than an important contributor to debates over the legitimacy of war. His 1977 volume Just and Unjust Wars (1977) is the classic statement of secularized just war thinking (with each new edition, it also serves as an index of the increasingly permissive attitude to military intervention, especially in the name of “humanitarianism,” that Moyn charts in legal terms). It shaped academic debate on the subject and was adopted as a pillar of ethics teaching in military academies around the Western world. Moyn contends that the “self-humanization of the [American] military under law” (207) was arguably the most important post-Vietnam factor in the emergence of humane war. I would add just war pedagogy to the mix. A combination of legal reasoning and (legalized) ethical instruction helped reshape the ethos. The two cohered neatly, with just war theory providing a shape-shifting set of principles for justifying war and for regulating its conduct. In accepting the legitimacy of conflict under certain circumstances it assumed what the traditional advocates of peace denied.


A final brief question. I finished the book wondering where Moyn thinks we should go from here. Is there a simple binary choice between supporting the “humanization” of war and efforts to create a peaceful world, or are there better alternatives, whether legal or political?



Duncan Bell is a Professor of Political Thought and International Relations in POLIS and a Fellow of Christ’s College at the University of Cambridge, “that most secluded grove of academe” (161).


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

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