Samuel Moyn’s Humane – Full Forum

15 September 2021

** Last week, Tocqueville 21 published a book forum consisting of four reviews of Samuel Moyn’s new book Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War followed by a response from Moyn. We have now compiled the entire forum as a PDF. **


In the aftermath of the United States military’s chaotic withdrawal after a twenty-year occupation of Afghanistan, few deny that America’s approach to the world is in serious need of re-evaluation. Ideally, such a re-evaluation should not be limited to an analysis of these recent events. Rather, a longer and larger historical perspective is needed regarding not just the tactical issues of the Afghanistan withdrawal but the broader question of how the world’s most powerful nation wages war and pursues peace. Few public intellectuals could be better suited to provide this kind of perspective than Samuel Moyn.


Currently the Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale University, Moyn has acquired a well-deserved reputation as one of American liberalism’s most trenchant internal critics. Perhaps most significantly, his influential series of academic works on the intellectual history of human rights have called into question the shibboleths of twenty-first century democracy and international law. By offering critical genealogies of concepts that have become foundational to global political discourse, Moyn’s historical investigations have served to undermine conventional narratives, exposing both the contingency and the inadequacies of contemporary political visions. In more recent years, Moyn has turned his attention to America’s foreign and military policy, offering public criticism of the “forever wars” prosecuted by successive presidential administrations. As a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute, he has established himself as an important voice within the nascent “restraint coalition.”


In Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, Moyn brings together the threads of his public and academic work to make an argument for the origins of America’s endless wars. At once a work of intellectual history and a commentary on our present moment, Humane chronicles the emergence of the “humane warfare” supposedly practiced by the United States. The question Moyn asks is an important—if counterintuitive—one: have efforts to make warfare more “humane” come at the cost of normalizing it? If so, have liberal efforts to restrain violence missed the point, wrongly prioritizing ethical war over genuine and enduring peace?


Moyn’s narrative covers a century-and-a-half of theorizing, policy-making, and activism, ranging from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace to George W. Bush’s “War on Terror.” The book is global in scope, and as in Moyn’s previous works, international law plays a central role. Appearing in print on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, Humane is a timely and provocative intervention. For those within the academy, it offers a challenging new interpretation of the history of thinking about war. For those outside of it, it forces a reckoning with how we confront war’s horrors.


In this Tocqueville21 book forum, four reviewers offer their perspective on Humane and on the questions it raises. All hail it as a vital historical and political contribution, but each approaches it from a different angle.


Duncan Bell and Emma Mackinnon, both historians of political thought at the University of Cambridge, focus primarily on Moyn’s re-narration of the intellectual history of warfare. In his review, Bell emphasises Moyn’s history of “popular jurisprudence,” and what his narrative can tell us about how words, images, and doctrines have shaped moral sensibilities. Mackinnon contextualises Humane within Moyn’s wider oeuvre, before going on to explore its account of the anti-war movement over the past two decades. She finishes by considering its implications for contemporary anti-war activists. Bell ends his review with this same question, asking where Moyn thinks activists should go from here.


Michael Brenes, a historian of foreign policy, and Mel Pavlik, a political scientist, both at Yale, similarly center this question in their commentaries. In his review, Brenes draws out the political stakes of Moyn’s account, focusing on how Moyn shows that “humane war is a problem of liberalism.” For Brenes, Humane successfully demonstrates how responsibility for legitimizing endless war lies with “well-intentioned reformers” and practitioners of international human rights law. However, where Brenes declares himself convinced by Moyn’s argument, Pavlik offers a more critical assessment. If the essence of war is, as Moyn appears to argue, domination rather than violence, what is it then, Pavlik asks, that makes war unique as an evil? And why is it aggression, rather than atrocity, that we should see as the gravest sin?


Finally, in a generous response, Moyn takes up the questions posed to him by the reviewers and concludes with a restatement of his central argument: that as we seek to unwind the “deterritorialized brutal force” of America’s war on terror, it is force itself, as well as brutality, that we must combat.


As Mackinnon comments in her review, “Moyn’s books have consistently worked to open conversations rather than close them.” Humane is no exception, and Tocqueville21 is proud to provide a forum for some of those conversations here.


Review 1. Duncan Bell — Dissolving the Dream of Peace

Review 2. Michael Brenes — American War from Sherman to McChrystal

Review 3. Emma Mackinnon — Duped by Morality

Review 4. Mel Pavlik — The Horror and the Humanity

Response by Samuel Moyn


Download the full Forum (PDF)


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 *