Duped by Morality

8 September 2021

** This is the third 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. **


Samuel Moyn’s Humane offers an indictment of efforts to sanitize or humanize war, tracking how such efforts have ultimately enabled apparently endless and profoundly asymmetrical forms of warfare. Moyn argues that contemporary American wars, in addition to being seemingly endless, are marked by deeply unequal stakes and results. The book stands as a history of humanitarianism as applied to war, drawing together contemporary critical scholarship on the history of humanitarianism as well as of human rights. Its focus is on the interrelationship between US wars, anti-war movements, and the rise of so-called international humanitarian law. It offers a critique of contemporary warfare, a history of the wars that the US has instigated since the early 1990s, and a history of anti-war politics. In the final chapters, Moyn focuses on the US military’s involvements after September 11, 2001, including the US war in Iraq, the “torture debate,” and the rise of drone warfare, and tracks how claims of humanitarian concern and legal limitation were deployed both for and against war. The book carries an additional indictment, then, not only of US war-making, but of the failures of recent anti-war movements. As Moyn shows, humanitarianism at war, while perhaps once a language of critique, has become instead a language of power. More than co-optation, that change reflects the limits of the project of humanizing war itself.


Much like Moyn’s earlier book The Last Utopia, Humane tells a long history in order to argue for a short one. The first chapter opens with Tolstoy and the siege of Sevastopol in the Crimean War as a way to think about nineteenth-century anti-war sentiment. With this opening, Tolstoy is presented as an alternative to Henri Dunant at the Battle of Solferino as the usual starting point for the genealogy of humanitarianism and war (Dunant appears a bit later in the first chapter). Yet while Tolstoy remains a persistent foil, the book’s historical focus is very much on wars involving the US, starting from colonization and wars of native dispossession and continuing through the US Civil War, the Philippine-American War, both World Wars, and the US wars in Korea and Vietnam. This longer story is prelude to the “humane war” of the title; that itself, he argues, began only in the 1990s. The prologue opens semi-autobiographically, and a touch confessionally, with Moyn as an intern in the Clinton White House during the NATO bombings of Kosovo (which Noam Chomsky denounced at the time as the appearance of a “new military humanism”). This particular version of war, Moyn claims, reached its apogee (at least so far) under Obama, though has continued since. Earlier moments, particularly the Nuremberg trials, are not truly part of this history, Moyn asserts: they involved opposition to war itself, in part through a focus on aggression as a crime.


As in both The Last Utopia and Not Enough, Moyn tracks the narrowing of political imagination, and the failure to dream bigger or to demand more. Moyn regularly returns to Tolstoy throughout the book as a reminder of how much more there is to demand: an end to war itself. At the same time, Tolstoy’s inclusion, while conceptually clarifying, is something of an aberration. As in his previous books, Moyn is primarily interested in a hegemonic discourse and less interested in radical alternatives unrealized in their time. In places, this can make the argument seem too easy: that the dominant discourse was insufficiently radical may simply be true by definition. That one single organization, or even movement, confined itself to demanding one thing, rather than everything, can also feel unsurprising. Moyn anticipates these concerns in places—and yet ultimately, for him, they are beside the point. As in earlier work, his concern is with paths taken, not those that weren’t. To point to past radical thinkers who attempted to move things in another direction is, in a sense, only to prove his point. This is ultimately the strength of the book: a condemnation, delivered via genealogy, of dominant ways of thinking in our present.


In addition to the echoes of Moyn’s books on human rights, we might also see echoes of his first book, on Emmanuel Levinas. Memorably, Levinas opens his book Totality and Infinity with a question: are we not duped by morality? Does morality, in other words, demand nonviolence—and is it thus ultimately for losers, constituting in effect a form of unilateral disarmament? Levinas’s answer, across that book and the following volume, Otherwise than Being, is an argument for morality – as he puts it, “ethics is an optics,” a way of seeing and being in relation to “the other.” To act ethically, to avoid violence, is not to be duped; it is the only viable way of being, and opposed to war altogether. In Origins of the Other, Moyn argues for reading Levinas’s concept of the other as a product of interwar intellectual foment. Notably for present purposes, the interest in Levinas and “the other” was part of a late-1990s to early-aughts “ethical turn” in academic philosophy that tracks, in many ways, with the story Moyn is telling here. And yet what Moyn raises in Humane is an even scarier way of understanding what it would mean to answer Levinas’s question in the affirmative. Moyn argues we have all been duped by morality: not into the morality of nonviolence but into endless, supposedly moral, violence. Yet here ethics are for winners, and an optics in a much more banal sense: good public relations.


In this sense, in Humane, Moyn is reframing debates about pacifism, intervention, and nonviolence more widely. Those debates have largely focused on a dilemma: how to respond to the suffering of strangers elsewhere, and a sense of responsibility to act, in a manner simultaneously responsive to an ethic of nonviolence. This is an old dilemma; Kant’s image of the endless peace of the graveyard offers an early touchstone. But the historical conjuncture which is Moyn’s focus in Humane was one in which it felt particularly urgent: the end of the Clinton era and the attacks of September 11, 2001. As Moyn argues, the reconfiguration of Holocaust memorialization in the previous decades contributed to this. Looking a bit more widely, so did the debates about intervention and the viability of apolitical humanitarianism during conflicts in newly independent states in the 1960s forward. Here, the Biafra crisis and the pursuant formation of Médecins sans Frontières, breaking off from the International Committee for the Red Cross Dunant had founded, are often taken as a key turning point. The centrality of this framing—the urgency of action and the challenges posed by that responsibility – was perhaps best exemplified in the US popular press by the success of Samantha Powers’ A Problem from Hell, which Moyn discusses, and in the UN’s endorsement of a “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, which gets glancing reference in Humane in contrast to its (likely disproportionate) prominence in the critical literature.


Moyn’s book does not explicitly argue against this frame. In moments he historicizes it, but for the most part he simply refuses it. He never spells out explicitly why, but we do get some implicit clues. What seems most important is that the question of responsibility is never asked from a position of neutrality, but instead in a world characterized by deep inequality. The opening and the very end of the book provide a frame for the argument, one focused on inequality and hierarchy. If there is any lesson to the history of humanitarianism, it is the impossibility of the dream of neutrality—and yet the persistence of that dream all the same. But the US military is not, to say the least, a neutral force. The power imbalance between those in a position to decide to intervene and those living with the effects of the endless wars that result are stark, and the ability of ‘humane’ war to lessen the impact on the former only works to prolong the conflict.


In this sense, Moyn is proposing new terms for what we might consider a stale debate. This is hardly surprising: Moyn’s books have consistently worked to open conversations rather than close them. Humane may well do the same. It offers an account of what that new military humanism of the 1990s has wrought, focusing on the perverse consequences of the idea of humane war without relying on the terms or evaluative frameworks that have characterized many conversations, academic and otherwise, about that period. It is also an early entry in what we might expect to become a larger field, providing a history of US military action in the early twenty-first century.


As a history of the wars of the last two decades, Humane offers an account of the perils of a political agenda focused on making war more humane, for which the current US administration would seem to be the primary intended audience. But the book speaks not only to the most powerful: it also offers thoughts about the politics of opposing war, and how those of us against war might frame our demands. To this end, in addition to its focus on the Obama Administration’s actions, the book offers an account of the last two decades of the US anti-war movement as well. In particular, Moyn condemns the anti-war left’s focus on legality and on the “torture debate,” as though these were adequate terms on which to oppose war itself. He contrasts opposition to the war in Iraq with opposition to the US war in Vietnam, arguing that the earlier anti-war movement considered issues of torture and lawlessness while also opposing the war itself. With this description – which, I would argue, is a bit distorted—Moyn largely reduces the conversation about the Iraq war to the debates about law and torture. This focus helps sharpen Moyn’s intervention, particularly as it concerns legal restraints on war, and the refusal to focus on the war in Iraq as a singular frame also helps extend his analysis into the present, considering drone fighting and the emphasis on humane fighting more widely (including, in the epilogue, the objections to the Trump Administration’s assassination of General Qassim Suleimani which focused on the attack’s legality). It also means he captures something all too familiar about the limits on political imagination and vocabularies of protest against warfare since 2001. Yet also, as a result, he misses or downplays moments when arguments against endless war were made explicitly, and pointedly. Looking back to those moments, more than mere historical corrective, might in fact tell us even more about the nature of the project to humanize war, and just how much of a juggernaut it presents.


Moyn blames the anti-war movement for, in effect, not being anti-war enough, and so for falling in line too easily, after 2008, with Obama’s shift to “humane” war as a way out (Medea Benjamin is referenced as a notable exception). But, especially before 2008, there were real, meaningful efforts to denounce the war on terms of which Moyn (and Tolstoy) might approve. Those efforts did not succeed only because of limits on political imagination or because of the anti-war movement’s own susceptibility to arguments for humane war: they were actively defeated. That defeat had already happened before 2008, in part because the Bush Administration itself switched to arguing for the war in terms of its humaneness. But, I would suggest, the fact that the war was contested on actively anti-war grounds does not detract from Moyn’s point—rather, it suggests that the challenge is even more extensive than he tells us.


In fairness, some of the big moments in the pre-2008 opposition to the war do get mentioned in Humane: the massive February 15, 2003, demonstrations against the invasion and the lack of an exit strategy; Cindy Sheehan’s protest, camping out in Texas to demand an explanation of what her son was fighting for; the retired generals who spoke against the war and the quagmire it represented.  Moyn is right that those arguments were both vindicated and neutralized by Obama’s electoral victories. But their neutralization began a bit before Obama—and here, credit goes to the Bush Administration, and also, perhaps especially, to General David Petraeus.


Petraeus gets only glancing mention in the book. But his testimony on September 10, 2007, and its role in the broader debate about the “surge” was a critical moment in recasting the war as a humanitarian one. Moyn summarizes Petraeus’s approach as a “hearts and minds” focus. This was certainly part of it, and central to how Petraeus made his reputation in counterinsurgency. But his testimony argued for responsibility: for continuing a “surge” in forces in the short term in order to secure existing successes, protect the Iraqi population from extremists, and allow Iraqi police and military forces time to develop. Then, he asserted, US presence could responsibly be drawn down. As a reminder of what a successful argument this was, remember the backlash against an advertisement by MoveOn that questioned his testimony. Petraeus offered a technocratic emphasis on responsible management as well as a moral appeal. The “you break it, you buy it” line, initially sounded as a cautionary note by Thomas Friedman and Colin Powell, now functioned to enlist humanitarian concern as a justification for not only war’s continuation, but its short-term escalation—all in the name of responsibility and common sense.


In this sense, the problem for the anti-war side was not its sole focus on law and the humanization of war. Instead, it was the difficulty of responding effectively to the wider co-optation and channelling of humanitarian concern into an outright justification for war. Moyn’s critique of the legally-bounded humanitarian war that Obama championed is a compelling one. But the phenomenon Moyn describes—the trap of humane war as endless war—might be even more far-reaching and more intractable than he portrays.



Emma Mackinnon is a lecturer in the history of political thought at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Emmanuel College.


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

Tags: , ,

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *