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Review: The Case Against "Humane War"

Historians in the News
tags: foreign policy, war on terror, militarism, Liberal Interventionism



Daniel Bessner is the Joff Hanauer Honors Associate Professor in Western Civilization in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He is the co-host of the podcast American Prestige and the author of Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual.

In May 2013, Barack Obama delivered a speech at the National Defense University in which he defended the war on terror, then in its twelfth year. Though remembered as an antiwar candidate, Obama actually had never declared opposition to the war on terror itself. Rather, the problem, as Obama saw it, was that the United States had waged its war without regard for the law. He had taken pains to change this. As he proudly trumpeted in his speech, his administration “unequivocally banned torture, affirmed our commitment to civilian courts, worked to align our policies with the rule of law, and expanded our consultations with Congress.” The war on terror, previously tainted with the stink of illegality, had been cleansed.

The president also proudly affirmed that he was fighting the war on terror humanely. The large numbers of boots on the ground that had defined the Iraq War, and which had resulted in the deaths of untold numbers of Iraqi civilians, had been replaced with unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones. “By narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among,” Obama avowed, “we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.” Americans could rest assured that their president was defending them ethically.

In his new book, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, the Yale historian and law professor Samuel Moyn explores how American decision-makers, military officials, jurists, and activists developed what he considers a troubling obsession with “humane” war—wars in which the United States attempts to limit the suffering of troops and civilians. This focus may appear counterintuitive: If wars are fought, why not make them less destructive? But Humane makes the case that humane warfare brings its own set of hazards. The book reconstructs a centuries-old debate between those who insisted that war be fought humanely and those who were concerned that, by making combat more palatable, humane war would do little but promote endless conflict. In this way, Humane is a prehistory of our era, in which the precision drone strike has replaced massive aerial bombardment, small footprint Special Forces have replaced the ground invasion, and the United States remains entangled in wars around the world.

Moyn himself has not always identified humane war, or even war itself, as a major obstacle to peace; in the 1990s, at the beginning of his career, he was, briefly, a liberal internationalist who believed force was sometimes necessary to achieve greater ends. His argument in Humane articulates a disillusionment that many intellectuals underwent in the Obama era, as the war on terror dragged on, bringing loss of civilian life abroad and a vast surveillance apparatus at home, all under the guise of humanity. Moyn’s shift from liberal internationalist to critic of humane war reflects a broader awakening of a generation of American anti-imperialists, who have begun to question many of the premises that have guided U.S. foreign policy for decades.

Until relatively recently, debates about humane war were largely theoretical. For much of the twentieth century’s first half, the prospect of a war without brutality appeared remote. The carnage of World War I—the trenches of the Western Front, the Armenian genocide, the British blockade of the European continent—made clear to many contemporary observers that war could never be fought without enormous human cost; it could only be abolished. Peace was the goal. This was especially true in the United States, which in 1917 had broken 141 years of tradition by sending troops to fight a European war that many soon viewed as pointless and illegitimate. By 1933, “Americans could boast twelve million adherents to the peace movement and an annual combined budget of more than $1 million” for pro-peace organizations.

Read entire article at The New Republic

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