The Horror and the Humanity

9 September 2021

** This is the fourth 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. **


When urged by a fellow soldier to draw comfort from ‘ideals’ amidst the chaos and inhumanity of World War II, Joseph Heller’s protagonist Yossarian scoffs. “When I look up,” he retorts, “I see people cashing in. I don’t see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy” (551). It is these—our most flimsy ideals, most humanitarian impulses, and most depraved tragedies—which concern historian and Yale Law School Professor Samuel Moyn in his latest book Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War.


With an eye to early U.S. anti-war activism, the philosophy of Leo Tolstoy, and the construction (and defiling) of international laws of war in the 20th and 21st centuries, Moyn traces a transition from both the de jure and de facto criminalization of war to the criminalization instead of wartime brutality. When faced with the destruction and depravity of war, Moyn argues, efforts to make it more humane have replaced our initial instincts to reckon outright with the horrendous enterprise. Making war less lethal paradoxically makes ending war itself less likely. In short, “we fight war crimes but have forgotten the crime of war” (10).


Moyn’s argument is bold and, on its face, compelling. It lends itself to a fairly straightforward foreign policy, and is akin to steadfastly ignoring the switch in the trolley problem: a contented moral stance, if you can keep it. But for all Moyn’s ingenuity, Humane falls short in its quest to show that America’s dreadful, perpetual wars were enabled by efforts to make them more humane. Its argument neglects discussion of the nature of ‘war’ and its alternatives; brushes past historical realities shaping the development of modern warfare, and fails to engage with moral quandaries which are worth struggling with.




Whether or not one can ever make war truly humane is for Moyn a forgone conclusion. War in its inherent essence is immoral; we can gloss over its brutality to the point of imagining a future war with zero casualties, but the true evil here is war itself, not its tactics.  I would, perhaps, be willing to grant him this point, but Moyn never really explains what he means by ‘war.’ It is a rare and commendable history of warfare that can cite Clausewitz without quoting directly his famous dictum—“war is politics by other means”—but here I found myself regretting its absence. Can we separate war, the policy choice, from war, its tactics of enforcement? What is war without violence, if not simply politics?


I push this point because it has uncomfortable implications not just for the nature of war, but for what we consider to be its alternatives. Moyn argues that war is, indeed, separable from its tactics. Even at its tamest, war provokes a relationship of dominance—and dominance, not physical cruelty (as Nietzsche claimed), is for Moyn the worst thing that we can do. War’s ‘humane’ evolution does nothing to improve its true nature. In place of its grotesque brutality, we are seeing war’s transformation into patterns of permanent control—buzzing drones over an Afghan bride, covert operations stretched across the entire globe, a ‘police-ization’ of the US military. War’s present and future may be less deadly than its past, Moyn argues, but they are still war – still a unique form of coercive control over an unconsenting population.


But is war unique in this respect? Among the policy choices we are left with—including doing nothing – is war the only one which will produce the relationship of coercive dominance Moyn soberly predicts? Perhaps in bringing war’s costs in line with those of other policies, we might think a bit more about their consequences. There is of course a large literature on the horrifying effects of economic sanctions on civilian populations. We see that many victims of our foreign policies die not from bullets or shrapnel, but as asylum-seekers in the midst of fleeing, or hungry in makeshift IDP encampments. Evidence suggests that even our food aid can increase conflict, and development loans fare no better. The powerful exercise domination over large swaths of people through more than just our ill-advised armed interventions: one might take qualm with any of these policies on the same basis.


Let us temporarily grant, however, that war is uniquely bad amongst the policy choices we might consider. Moyn has adopted a rational choice perspective in his evaluation of war’s historical trajectory. The less war costs in blood and treasure, the more we are willing to wage it; meanwhile, brutality should make war rare (27). This simplification is difficult to reconcile with the history of modern warfare, and Moyn’s historical account neglects certain turning points in the evolution of war which may prove instructive.


Most damningly, Moyn neglects any prolonged discussion of the major post-war, pre-Vietnam peace movement—namely, the anti-nuclear movement. War’s potential to annihilate vast swaths of the human race in mere minutes shook the fragile earth, and contributed enormously to the US peace movement’s shifting goals. Far from the threat of ultimate destruction prompting peace, war merely adjusted itself to new battlefields and actors—intrastate and proxy warfare abounded, the Cold War was forged in the fires of the developing world, and today’s military-industrial complex was born. It is difficult to imagine how much more violent than ‘nuclear annihilation’ war must threaten to get before this elusive ultimate peace develops—if it indeed is to stem from war’s destructive brutality.


The ‘costly wars make fewer wars’ hypothesis also finds philosophical kin in the strategic approach of America’s foes in contemporary wars. Of particular note is a strain of Salafi-jihadism, outlined in Abu Bakr Naji’s The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Islamic Nation Will Pass. The work describes stages of violent conflict between jihadists and their global enemies, including immense brutality in the interest of bringing about the ultimate peace of the worldwide caliphate. Of course, the inhumanity it advocates has not stopped war’s proliferation, and it is worth noting the infamous consequences of this approach—most notably adhered to by the Islamic State. I was disappointed that Moyn did not wrestle with these parallels; nor draw from the rich, relevant theory of many non-Western figures with something to say on the matter (Che Guavara, for example).


This brings us, at last, to Moyn’s central question: Does making war more humane make it less likely that war ends for good—is our humanitarian instinct morally misguided? Moyn draws careful parallels between the arguments against war and those against slavery. Early efforts by abolitionists, he notes, focused not so much on abolition as on mitigation of the physical cruelties of slavery—as if such a thing were possible, as if the evil of slavery did not go much deeper than that. Such an approach, Moyn contends, legitimizes and entrenches a practice of the very worst kind: the moral subjugation of a portion of humanity.


Of course, slavery did end—with a war, in fact. It left behind grave successors: legacies of structural and physical violence against Black Americans which haunt us to this day. Indeed, it is worth noting that ending the institution of slavery did not eradicate its sin, or its ability to live on in Jim Crow policies, wage slavery, and police violence. But chattel slavery as an institution did end; efforts to ‘humanize slavery’—oxymoronic on their face—did not prevent its ultimate demise. It is difficult to imagine the counterfactual, had abolitionists never pursued this (to Moyn, detrimental) approach of increasing slavery’s humanity. Perhaps the Civil War would have come earlier; maybe a war would not have been needed after all. I find in Humane no reason in particular to believe either possibility.


It is key when considering the costs and the laws of war to also consider the costs and the laws of peace. Moyn paints the moral quandary faced by the United States as a choice between “humane war… [and] a peaceful globe” (7). But let us not flatter ourselves; we should not fall into the trap of presuming that even if our intervention brings violence, our nonintervention brings peace. This is certainly not the case, as a cursory glance at the state of many civilians around the world would suggest. It is with noting that much of the political violence against civilians worldwide is perpetrated by domestic state forces. Perhaps we could concede that such repression is a fundamentally different and lesser evil – or at least, an evil beyond our ability to address despite its familiar moral subjugation. It is difficult to imagine that civilians facing targeted slaughter would agree, and indeed, Moyn quotes an irritable Tolstoy on the subject directly: “Why are a wound and death from an explosive bullet any worse than a wound caused by the simplest kind? It is incomprehensible how mentally sound adults can seriously express such strange ideas” (88). Peace is not a purely negative politics; it requires more than simply the absence of war.


Walzer said “we have learned that the hierarchy of terrorist and terrorized is the very worst kind.” (18). Perhaps this is not the case. But if, as Moyn implies, the hierarchy of dominator and dominated is the worst, it is difficult to see how we can morally ignore those we know are currently being dominated by others, in fear of being dominators ourselves. We have observed the horror of war: it is the basis of this book and countless others. We have also seen the brutality of the areas where we have not acted, or where we have acted through supposedly nonviolent means, such as economic sanctions. We have watched genocide unfold with thoughts and prayers. We have seen international law manipulated to enact further violence against innocent populations. Iris Marion Young argued that political responsibility for structural injustices fall on each person whose actions contribute to them. We might say that repression is one such structural injustice, and that our contribution comes in the form of inaction. Hannah Arendt distinguished between ‘guilt’—reserved for those who directly commit an injustice—and ‘responsibility’—applicable to all those who contribute, whether through action or inaction, to the committing of injustice. Is it enough to avoid guilt, if in doing so we shake off this responsibility?


It is no use. Neither intervention nor nonintervention make us immune to perpetuating cycles of coercive domination of the weak by the powerful. We cannot blame humane war for the patterns of subjugation in which we are complicit, and too often responsible. Perhaps we might settle for, as Judith Shklar puts it, “peace with injustice” (1145). But we should not claim it is anything less.




Our better instincts, argues Moyn, betray our better interests. The humanization of war may result in less fatal and destructive war, but at the cost of eternal warfare; the perpetuation of an ultimate sin. But can we truly expect that inhumane war would prompt a different trajectory? The ‘end of war as we know it’ has come and gone countless times; with the advent of the stirrup, the tank, the plane, the nuclear bomb, the drone. War has nonetheless remained in more or less recognizable form; invisible and visible, through bombs and blockades. And once we blunt the means of war, how do we weigh the costs of its domination against any other strategy we might pursue?


Near the end of Obama’s presidency, a high-ranking US official angrily noted to me that international laws against aggression have cost thousands more lives than they have spared. There is no reason to believe this official was right. But there is no reason to believe Humane is necessarily right, either. Moyn argues that aggression, not atrocity, is our gravest sin—and that laws against aggression, not atrocity, are those to which we are most vigorously morally bound. In doing so, he clearly concedes some benefit to setting up obstacles to waging war, the grotesque failure of humanity. Surely making war humane might be considered in the same vein: providing a knife edge, at least, on which to walk between our decent impulse to alleviate suffering, and our utmost failure to ever truly do so.



Mel Pavlik is a PhD student in Political Science at Yale University, whose research focuses on repression, political violence, and international security. She holds a Master’s in War Studies from King’s College London.


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

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