Samuel Moyn Responds

10 September 2021

** This response from Samuel Moyn completes the Tocqueville 21 forum on his new book Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War. Four reviews of Humane, by Duncan Bell, Michael Brenes, Emma Mackinnon, and Mel Pavlik, were published earlier this week. **


I am exceptionally grateful to Duncan Bell, Michael Brenes, Emma Mackinnon, and Mel Pavlik for taking their valuable time to read and respond to Humane, and equally to Chris Schaefer and Tocqueville 21 for hosting this exchange. It is a genuine privilege to receive such astute and compelling (and quick!) feedback, and my primary reaction is to thank everyone for my good fortune in getting more than I deserve. As I find not just an excellent summary of my book in the essays, especially in Brenes’s intervention, but also convincing thinking throughout on which I could not improve, I will devote my response here to the more critical remarks and questions.


Let’s start with Pavlik’s reflection on the ethics of war and justice, if only because it is the most critical. The truth is that, despite its critical tone, her intervention strikes me as utterly persuasive from top to bottom—with the minor exception of her attribution to my book of the dubious frameworks she goes on to critically overturn.


While Leo Tolstoy (or more exactly, one of his characters) and others suggest that keeping war brutal will lessen its incidence or shorten its length, I reject that claim in favor of his later reflections on the more plausible risks that humanizing war can incur. From Tolstoy, I have learned, not to repudiate humane war, but to control the risk its promoters court or embrace of entrenching war itself.


Pavlik believes the abolition of chattel slavery was not postponed by the vast “amelioration” or humanization attempt that dominated legal reform for a century—the insistence on kinder and gentler ownership and subjugation. “Victories over brutality,” wrote the great African-American historian Winthrop Jordan, “left the real enemy more entrenched than ever. As slavery became less brutal there was less reason why it should be abolished.” It is a matter of speculation, and perhaps Jordan is wrong and Pavlik right. But even if so, I offer lots of reasons for believing an ethics of humanizing war has played in our time the role Jordan suspected it did in the past. In any event, far from assuming as a foregone conclusion that it is impossible to humanize war, my thesis is the opposite: we have seen it done. And that process in recent American wars has only helped to legitimate their endlessness. As Brenes observes, of course, even if correct, my argument merely singles out one new factor in the legitimation of war, something which American wars have hardly lacked in the past.


But granting that the humanization of war abets it in some circumstances—ours at least—what are the better alternatives? Pavlik has discovered that peace is not the same as justice, and therefore calling for the one hardly provides the other. And I accept that undeniable insight. But it is perfectly compatible to add that the humanization of recent American wars has failed to promote justice overall. I am, just as Pavlik recommends, in favor of struggling with all imaginable moral quandaries. In the book, however, I have a narrower ambition: I have merely selected one such quandary for attention, abstaining from an abstract but comprehensive ethics of war in order to examine some concrete recent wars in which humanization—with many other factors in the mix to be sure—has played a nefarious role. As a historian, I am narrating when and how this has occurred. As Mackinnon observes, it has never been my game to do more than focus locally on what went wrong, leaving how it might globally go right lurking on the margins of the analysis. There is, however, always a price to pay for doing one thing and not another, and if that is the thesis of my book, it is one that certainly applies to its own choices.


Duncan Bell asks precisely about contribution of one comprehensive theory of war—Michael Walzer’s famed Just and Unjust Wars (1977)—in the coming of humane war. I honestly think it has been overstated, and therefore I have omitted it altogether. I vividly recall the meme in the 1990s and 2000s that Walzer’s book single-handedly revived ethical discussion of war after centuries of neglect and, taught at West Point among other places, provided a bracing example of how philosophy can transform public affairs. From my perspective as a historian, this narrative was most revealing in highlighting the professional failings of Anglo-American philosophy. Its worst effect was to consign the continuous massive discourse about the ethics of war that I try to reconstitute in my book to irrelevance. As with the influence of John Rawls, the fact that social justice began to be discussed in a certain way at certain Atlantic universities is first and foremost a commentary about them. The same is true of Walzer and war. The impact of Walzer’s book beyond narrow precincts is worth examining, but I think we can now see that the self-moralization of the American military after Vietnam primarily concerned the conduct of hostilities rather than their initiation or continuation. The American military got sucked into many an immoral quagmire in spite of Walzer’s book, even if military practices were humanized along the way.


Brenes suggests that the law was less a lead than a lag variable in determining the outcome. I am sure he is right. Bell’s call to sift word and image also rightly looks beyond law for a cultural explanation of how humane war became credible. In one chapter that mentions memorialization of war and gestures to the pivotal role of Holocaust consciousness in particular, I emphasize that it was precisely for cultural reasons—not legally driven ones—that “cruelty” became “the worst thing we do” in war. All I mean to suggest in singling law out for attention is that it became discursively significant in the process as never before. As a result, it also became central to the legitimation of war in ways that matter for the future of our politics. As in the previous case of ameliorating slavery, reformers occupied common terrain with the military in bickering about whether war was humane enough according to applicable legal standards. Their concern was not the existence of the institution. Enough of the public audience bought the assurances of politicians like Barack Obama that the legal propriety of American wars—at least when it came to conducting hostilities—indefinitely guaranteed their moral propriety. As I observe, this occurred in spite of other applicable legal standards on beginning and continuing hostilities that dropped from mainstream public discussion in the process.


Just as Pavlik emphasizes my omission of movements against nuclear war, Mackinnon’s beautifully honed intervention demands more fairness to anti-war energy, which, she insists, rose and fell in response to the Iraq war. That is an entirely fair point. I probably did minimize its impact in order to underline the resulting connection between humane war under Obama and the years of strife he inherited from the prior president. In my emphasis on unintended consequences of focus—stigmatizing torture even when it was sometimes meant to undermine the legitimacy of war rather than relegitimate it—I could have done much more justice to the difficult setting and worthwhile strategies of antiwar activists at a very different moment in the history of American war than our own. Still, if we do not take the time to ponder the paradox that an ethics of humanization can both make war more difficult and give it a new lease on life, then our future political discussions will lack a proper accounting of the true opportunities and risks.


In closing, it is worth zooming out. Pavlik is absolutely right to invoke Carl von Clausewitz (or Michel Foucault). War is equivalent to politics and vice versa. But from that observation, I conclude that an analysis of cross-border state force, while surely one valuable topic to single out for attention, could have ramifications for other debates. For example, when they advocate for less racialized police killing, should Americans demand more humane policing—or less policing? As Pavlik suggests, such ethical quandaries, to be answered fully, require a far broader and more serious ethical framework than the one I employ in the book. But it seems of value, on my lesser quest, to point out that the humanization option is entirely compatible with entrenched domination if we are not careful. This is also my answer to Bell’s request for my own political recommendations for the future. In the face of deterritorialized brutal force, we should make sure to keep the focus on the brutality but also on the force. This effort will require more coalitions and more grassroots action, but united action against both will be necessary if America is to unwind its global war on terror and embark on fewer misbegotten wars.



Samuel Moyn is Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence and Professor of History at Yale University.


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

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1 Comment

  • Keith Haysom says:

    Having just completed Moyn’s book, and then read all of these commentaries, I can say that this was a rich discussion in which everyone makes valuable points, Moyn included.

    However, I remain troubled by one aspect of the book which none of the commenters touched upon: in what sense is the Obama-era “humane war” actually humane?

    So, lawyers are present, but Moyn himself shows that their activities are legalish, rather than truly constrained by any meaningful external legal process. He also shows that the US military, for all of its supposed “moralization”, is fully prepared to roll back it’s legalish self-constraint if it serves strategic purposes (the basic not-withstanding clause that is the entire idea of “proportionality”).

    So, there is a real attempt to make use of precise targetting technology and to minimize civilian casualties, but again many mistakes will be made and there is a substantial death toll for non-combatants in this new “humane” warfare. OTOH, comparing the death toll from Obama’s drone war with that from “Rolling Thunder” may make the former appear indisputably better.

    But: a) as Moyn himself argues, the toll of drone warfare exceeds that of casualties (the exact numbers of which will always be in dispute), and includes the constant terror of “death from the sky”;
    b) the greater ease with which one initiates a drone strike vs a bombing run will mean that, however more “humane” the former is on a per-incident basis, it’s greater use will begin to erode it’s moral superiority in death tolls;
    c) the extra-battlefield nature of both the drone strike and the drone piloting will further lead to any meaningful distinction between either civilian and military or war and peace, which is presumably Moyn’s point vis-a-vis the prospect of endless warfare, but which he doesn’t seem to connect to the continued reality (and possibly greater danger) of a “collateral damage” that is just the cost of doing business in the new reality of deterritorialized warfare;
    d) the entire focus on the new targetted warfare vs the old indiscriminate warfare seems not only take at face value the claims by militaries and technologists alike to have devised some mysterious means by which to distinguish between combatant and non-combatant in the asymmetric, irregular wars of the future-present, but to accept that because in some respects the present techniques and technology are more humane than in the past, that one can simple bestow them with the qualifier of “humane”, full stop, when at best we are talking about a relative and not a categorial change.

    Certainly to speak of the new ” humanitarian war” (this is my reformulation, to avoid the presumptive conclusion built into Moyn’s formulation) as “non-violent”, as Moyn does on several occasions, is entirely ludicrous. He can’t possibly mean it, for if he did then his thesis about the paradox of humane, but endless, war, would present itself as the scenario for a sci-fi dystopia where peace reigned under a sky of preemptive viper drones (Minority Report meets the Winter Soldier). And even this would strain credulity about the meaning of “non-violent”.

    But in any event, Moyn’s book is good enough not to indulge in such sophomoric speculation. He knows that major conflicts will continue to fester in the colonial space of the “Global South”, even if with less clearly defined (or reported) body-counts.
    So why muddy the waters with undeserved affirmations of the new “humanity” (let alone the supposed “non-violence”) of the American war machine?

    War is necessarily violent. War is necessarily about the organization of death and destruction for the purposes of defeating an adversary. Otherwise, decisions about who is to allowed to govern what territories under what terms could be determined by a gentlemanly game of “capture the flag”, or lasertag. But no involuntary regime change (for e.g.) will ever occur except on pains that the regime in question will be forceably destroyed by unlawful means (whatever the supposed “laws of war” say), destruction that will inevitably radiate outwards from the regime to include it’s soldiers, it’s agents, it’s infrastructures, it’s people.

    Any form of warfare that is truly “humanized” will therefore be abandoned or transformed by technological/strategic/tactical innovations into something that is once again capable of organizing death and destruction, which is to say, inhumanity. So “humane” war is indeed a contradiction in terms, that gives you both an endless war, and the endless horrors of war.

    This should be Moyn’s conclusion, since it makes sense of the reasons why he is so (justly) adamant that we need to prevent war, not just regulate it’s conduct. But he consistently renders his own thesis inconsistent by accepting at face value the claim that Obama actually achieved some form of humane war, without the scare quotes that I have been using here. But in fact, the object of Moyn’s critique is at best “humaner” war, or better, “humane-ish” war. The distinction is critical, it seems to me.

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