Samuel Moyn on the US’ Attempt to Humanise its Imperial Burden

Ferenc Laczo in conversation with Samuel Moyn (Yale University) about his book “Humane. How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War”.

Ferenc Laczo: You call your new book Humane “an antiwar history of the laws of war” and state in the preface that you “set out to discover where the moral imperative of peace had come from, when my country [the United States of America] had honored it, and why it had spurned it, and how in my lifetime many became less committed to peace than to making America’s global violence less cruel, especially by newly relevant standards of the international laws of war.” You underline in the same preface that the history of expectations and rules for peace, on the one hand, and the development of rules for humane conduct within hostilities, on the other, have mostly been treated separately in scholarship. May I ask what motivated you to try and bring these two histories together? What are some of the key insights that such an integrated treatment of the pacifist cause and the agenda of humanising war allows you to develop in the book?

Samuel Moyn: This is my first attempt to write a book for a more popular audience, but this book is also oriented towards the professional historiography – I address the broader scholarship on the history of war and peace and the regulation of armed conflict. What I noticed is that there were books about the rise of the restraint of war – notably, one by my colleagues here at Yale Law School Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro called The Internationalists – that didn’t mention regulations on the conduct of hostilities once they broke out. There were also books about those regulations – again, one of my own colleagues named John Witt has written a brilliant masterpiece on the 19th-century American contribution to that subject – but once again they were taken in isolation from the other story. 

I thought it would be interesting to put them together and to do so for political reasons, reflecting on my own time. It would be not just interesting but imperative, because I really wrote the book in response to Barack Obama’s presidency when I saw that claiming to make war more humane was somehow connected to the extension in time and the expansion of space of the war itself. I wondered how the global war on terror happened. I was really amazed when I looked back at the 19th century to find that the founders of both attempts to keep war from happening or stop it once it starts, on the one hand, and the effort to make it more humane, on the other, were aware of the tensions between these two agendas.

I tried to provide a history of an open debate in the 19th century in which pacifists, and anti-war forces more generally, aim for peace and worry about humane war. 

What I try to argue is that Americans end up being in the right place at the right time to realise some of the worries about making war humane that were first propounded at the very inception of that project. 

The book is really about the cost for peace of a recently popular agenda.

Ferenc Laczo: You argue powerfully that, from the 1970s onwards, the laws of war became constraining rather than permissive and that this was just around the time when the public and professional conversation moved from concern with aggression to concern with atrocity. Increased expectations of “humanity” in warfare began to reign but that did not bring global peace, nor did it lessen global hierarchy and domination.First of all, what might account for such a sea change in the 1970s? Equally importantly, how do you view the role that international humanitarian law has played since? And last but not least, would you be willing to reflect on what has been gained and what might have been lost as a consequence of such new expectations towards humanity in warfare and the preoccupation with atrocities?

Samuel Moyn: I want to make clear that I think the cause of humane war is in itself a good and noble one.The sole question is whether those who advocate it or tolerate it incur the risk of entrenching war itself, which may happen sometimes and may not. 

I indeed tried to contend strongly that, while foreseen in the 19th century, humane war only became a real possibility in the late 20th. In part there is a negative argument about the status of the laws of war before that period when they weren’t yet known as international humanitarian law – a rebranding accomplished in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. When I look back, it’s not that there was no humane agenda in the laws of war starting in the 1860s with the first Geneva Convention, but that most of the laws of war did not reflect that agenda.

Even worse, most of the laws of war, while they did involve some constraints, also involved most license when it came to those who could be excluded from coverage altogether because they were irregular fighters – which meant mostly that they were fighting in colonial circumstances, and typically were racialised enemies for Europeans as well as for Americans fighting them. 

Finally, even to the extent that there was a little bit of humane content in the laws of war through the mid-20th century, it was generally set aside. I narrate how depressed people were about the project of humane war in the immediate aftermath of World War I. It’s not that peace seemed immediately available either, but it was such a priority at the time that the cause of humane war took a backseat. I think that was even true after World War II to a significant extent.

What was the situation in the 1960s and 1970s and what changed then? There are two connected geopolitical events, and then a third one that is probably most decisive in my account. The first two would be the decolonisation of European empires, such that first there are more states precisely peopled by those who have been the victims of the very permissive laws of war before. Now it’s not that post-colonial states don’t want to fight wars, and indeed they hew out new possibilities for thinking about the justice of emancipatory wars, as they see them. But they also act to make war more humane, because they know that great powers remain armed to the teeth compared to them and they don’t want intervention, even though it may happen and has happened in our time. 

Second and correspondingly, Western European empire is over. Protected by Americans, there is no need for Western Europeans to fight in the brutal way they have for centuries. This is very important as Western Europeans think about their own implication in the Holocaust and start to pose as the moralists of our world. That includes the embrace of human rights, but in this context the most important implication is the embrace of an ethic of humane warfare, when in fact it was Western Europeans who were the most brutal of warriors in world history.

The most decisive thing, I think, is that America had lost the Vietnam War and it was shamed by its conduct. I think that’s mainly because it lost since its conduct had been worse in previous conflicts – there were more violations of any credible standards of morality in Korea or in World War II, especially in the Pacific. However, more American citizens shame their country and their state after the Mỹ Lai massacre is revealed. The military understands that it needs to self-humanise and self-moralise. Its significant actors move in the direction of participating in the renovation of the laws of war. 

There’s a kind of perfect convergence of factors here. It leads not just to the revision in the content of the laws of war to create international humanitarian law, but in the acceptance by the superpower of its importance. Of course, the US interprets these standards in its own way, but the fact that the American military embraces humanity remains crucial.

Ferenc Laczo: You show in the book that there was a stunning coincidence during the Gulf War of 1990-91. The international NGO Human Rights Watch moved to monitor its first international conflict just when U.S. military lawyers newly inserted themselves in the process of picking targets in a humane way. Now, the second part of your book zooms in on the less atrocious US-led conflicts of recent years by which time “humane war” has emerged as a key concern. However, as you argue in the book, this has been accompanied by a bipartisan consensus in the US for ignoring legal constraints on going to war. What is more, the less atrocious but globalised conflict the US has engaged in has in fact recognised fewer limitations in space and time. The result has been a curious “humanised militarism” which has prioritised preventive forms of often deadly counterterrorism and led to what nowadays many would call endless war. May I ask how you would place the war on terror into the history you trace from the mid-19th century? What has been truly novel about it in a legal and in a very practical sense? More specifically, what does it imply that the borders between war and policing have become increasingly blurred?

Samuel Moyn: Let me approach the “1989 moment” and the Gulf War that follows, and then the post-2001 moment, by looking at the middle of the 20th century first. It is not just that the United States coming out of World War II sponsors the United Nations Charter, which prioritises peace, and that it sponsors the Nuremberg Trials which, for all its faults, is really an aggression trial given the universal emphasis on the human interest in a peaceful world. I tried to show that once we get to Vietnam we find a similar set of interests. 

When Americans begin to think about the relevance of the UN Charter, and even the Nuremberg Trials, to Vietnam, it is not principally because of atrocities Americans are alleged to have committed, but rather because they have gone to war illegally. 

Famously, Bertrand Russell has a whole inquest that is focused on aggressive war in the authentic tradition of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.

Shortly after the changes around the 1970s that we were speaking about, we get to a unipolar moment after 1989 when anti-war sentiment formulated in the UN Charter and a lot of the resistance to America’s Cold War interventions in Vietnam and so many other places are in decline. And the possibility of a moral America on the world stage, including one that may advance morality through war, comes to the fore. 

It is quite significant that in the 1990s we were not very concerned about the legality of the wars that the US starts, even though there are times, as in the Kosovo bombings, when those wars are in blatant violation of international law. However, there is much more emphasis on their conduct. It is indeed very significant in this regard that humanitarians, like Human Rights Watch, who have decided not to pronounce on the legality of going to war monitor America’s interventions carefully for whether they are compliant with the rules of conduct, such as whether bombing causes too much collateral damage. 

Even within the self-humanised military you have military lawyers, who have different standards than the humanitarians, looking for the same outcome: humane war.

That sets up the aftermath of 9/11 when America has gone to war in so many places over the past two decades. Initially, the US response is restricted to Afghanistan and Iraq and to what we might call heavy-footprint intervention that could at times be atrocious. And, of course, George W. Bush’s lawyers attempt to lift the new concern for humane war from this global war on terror, but they fail. The main causes end up being centred around the restoration of humanity to the war on terror, not on whether to have one. There is a major torture debate, for example. When Barack Obama comes into office, he promises to fight humanely, even as he is extending chronologically and expanding geographically the original territories of the war on terror with drones and special forces.

The risk of belligerency, which is what those who worried about humane war in the first place were concerned about, becomes incurred. I think it is almost inevitable that after the Cold War the US gets a kind of new imperial ethics. 

What I want to emphasise is that we should re-examine whether we accept an ethics where the result is endless war that, while being less violent and even with death and injury edited out, brings constant surveillance and increasingly non-violent forms of domination. 

I conclude that we should reject this outcome, because our ancestors had the better of the argument. We should care about domination and whether war happens, even in these new forms of less violent policing, rather than whether the conflicts are becoming humane enough to our satisfaction.

Ferenc Laczo: A remarkable aspect of your book Humane is its insistence that liberal internationalists and neoconservatives have not been all that different. You also draw striking parallels between Obama and Trump that might well surprise some of your readers. May I ask what lines of continuity you see between recent US presidents? And what do you view as specific to the presidency of Obama, whose immense talents of persuasion you clearly recognise but whose influence, as you seem to insist, might have been even less salutary because of those talents?

Samuel Moyn: To begin with the origins, we should go back to the moment after Vietnam, which involves a ferocious contest in the Democratic Party of the United States about how to respond to this catastrophe. It wasn’t just that the anti-war energy declined in general, as I discussed with you earlier, but that the anti-war faction in the Democratic Party, because of the catastrophic defeat of George McGovern [in 1972], the peace candidate, is seen to have been delegitimised. That leaves two other factions. There are those who originated as Democrats and become neoconservatives – they were followers of Henry “Scoop” Jackson who was a kind of Cold War anti-communist Democratic Senator. Then there are their rivals who stay in the Democratic Party and become so-called liberal internationalists, like Richard Holbrooke. 

What these two factions share, unlike the anti-war party that McGovern had once headed, is that they imagine a new mission for American hegemony and therefore, if necessary, for its military. They bicker with one another as the Cold War ends about what that mission is. 

The neocons talk more in terms of democracy promotion whereas the liberal internationalists talk more in terms of human rights, but these are convergent ideas and they both tend to support war after war. 

What they seem to share is the kind of imperial hegemonic posture towards the necessity of American force looking for causes.

Barack Obama comes after the neoconservative foreign policy of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Obamaalso rejects George McGovern, like all Democrats – that was the beginning of wisdom, at least until recently. Obama has to decide how to correct for neoconservative mistakes without drifting too far into a direction that relinquishes America’s beneficent role in the world, including when it comes to military force. 

I think we can now see that the continuities with Bush are more striking than the discontinuities. As we have already mentioned, while Obama humanises the war on terror, he extends and expands it, which is something we are only now beginning to reckon with. As you rightly point out, I argue in the book that for reasons we need to think about Obama appeared as more of an anti-war candidate, a peace candidate – he did not seem like McGovern, but at least in relation to Bush he did so. However, Obama may have run as an anti-war candidate but governed as an endless war president. 

Amazingly, Donald Trump can be said to have undergone the same dynamic. While Trump was a militarist in many ways, he really broke through in his contest with other Republicans for the nomination in 2016 by denouncing the Iraq War, which was not allowed in the Republican Party as late as that campaign. Donald Trump even adopted the “end endless war” hashtag. I think we are going to debate this for some decades or centuries to come, but it remains only fair to note that Donald Trump went far further than Barack Obama instruggling against other forces to withdraw troops. Barack Obama started it after his surge in Afghanistan, and in Iraq he went even further. Trump adopted that same attitude towards troops in a place like Somalia. Because he wasn’t allowed to withdraw from Afghanistan at the time, it was Biden who finished the job.

What remains to be seen is whether Biden, despite what we’re seeing in Afghanistan right now, becomes an endless war president too. 

Biden has insisted that he has to engage in counter-terrorist operations with all the unholy legal authority that presidents from Bush to Trump have arrogated, with the drones, with the missiles, with the special forces which have expanded their reach, even as troops have been pulled out by the successive presidents. The current moment is fascinating: will the dynamic breakor are we seeing a kind of purification of this humane form of war, of the policing surveillance that may turn out to be the most chilling and most durable legacy of the last few decades?

Ferenc Laczo: Let me ask an even broader question next. You write at one point that “the American-run peace that took hold in Europe after 1945 would lead the very people for whom humane war was devised—white Europeans—to stop slaughtering one another. But in those same years, Americans would commit to fighting all around the world.” There almost seems to be a kind of exchange of roles around the mid-20th century. And indeed, while Europeans appear quite prominently in the first half of the book, they practically disappear in the latter chapters although pacifism is a part of the European project’s preferred self-description today. Would you care to briefly comment on the role Europeans and US Americans respectively play in the history you study in the book? More specifically, how have histories of European imperialism and conceptions and practices of colonial war and counter-insurgency informed more recent US policies? Can we draw lines of continuity there or would that be too far-fetched in your view?

Samuel Moyn: I am by training, and in some respects by profession, a historian of Europe and I have trespassed on the history of the United States mainly as a citizen of that country. You could say I am trying to belatedly learn something about my own country’s past and not just for autobiographical reasons, but for historical ones too. It seemed to me crucial to put the recent American invention of humane war in its global setting. That meant thinking about it in relation to the trajectory of European empire as well as European reform. 

One way in which I think the historiography has been mistaken is by failing to see how fundamental Americans were to the ideas about peace that went global through European mediation. I dwell in particular on Leo Tolstoy’s cult of certain American pacifists as a conduit to the European peace movements of the later 19th and early 20th centuries. But correspondingly I don’t see any significant credit that Americans get in inventing the cause of making war more humane. That honour, dubious though it is, seems to me to fall to the Swiss and soon to lots of others with Americans joining late and not very seriously.

We really have to think about this moment in 1945, in which the European peace movements’ fondest dreams of the transatlantic peace or a “white peace”, as it was sometimes openly called, finally come true. It took two world wars and, more importantly, it takes American hegemony. At the same time, it involves America in global wars of the kind it hasn’t fought.

The US now had its own empire and was constantly intervening in Latin America and had its own pitiless counterinsurgency in the Philippines, which I narrate as part of my story about how inhumane the laws of war were and how much they were disregarded.

It is hugely significant that, even as Europeans are at peace and can present themselves as apostles of morality with their colonial violence done, Americans take up the mantle or shoulder the burden of the brutal wars of empires past. 

That is why I think this break in world history is within this long period of American responsibility. Europeans had not fought humane wars, although some of its citizens had imagined such a thing and debated whether to have it whereas Americans invented it in practice.

That creates fascinating lines of continuity and discontinuity. I think it is still deeply imperial and I think it is still deeply racialised. We still live in a world that is fundamentally divided by race and race intersects with global class due to Europeans and their American successors. 

And yet, it seems different: unlike all the great powers and imperialists of the past, there’s this remarkable move to a new form of racialised domination that is more humane for the sake of legitimation at home and abroad. 

In the end, my book wants to trace that discontinuity, which is not without its continuities in the long history of domination that Europeans exercised and racialised but that Americans have renovated and updated in morally fascinating as well as politically noxious new ways.

Ferenc Laczo: You close your book by returning to Leo Tolstoy and how he indicted the reformers who colluded with states to entrench a humane form of violence. You argue that this great critic of an originally European hope to make warfare “civilised” anticipated a key issue in our present day. Your book may indeed be read as a treatise on how unusual and how narrow the dominant conceptions and main preoccupations of our own age have been. In other words, Humane may be understood as an attempt to show how the study of the past can open horizons and contribute to critiquing the present. Would that be a fair way to describe your agenda as an intellectual historian and a scholar dealing with international humanitarian law in this book? Would you say that this new book, which is released by a non-academic publisher, aims to help rethink powerful moral perspectives and contribute to a revival of peace activism? 

Samuel Moyn: Your description is overgenerous. I cannot expect so much impact for my book and I would be thrilled to see it enter into a confluence with the much more powerful tendencies that I see, especially amongst American and global youth, to demand a more peaceful world than their parents and grandparents have given them. 

I situate myself autobiographically in between the elderly and the youth because, as a middle-aged person, I grew up at a time when we did inherit a unipolar moment at the end of history and were inducted into a militarist ideology that has been catastrophic not just for non-Americans, but for the United States itself. 

I greatly appreciate that a lot of different people have been thinking beyond those old beliefs — although those beliefs are tenacious too, as this last week of debate about what is for some the horror of America not having a role has demonstrated [the conversation took place on August 25, 2021]. I do see the purpose of intellectual life as political: to instigate debate amongst our fellow citizens locally and globally about what future to have together and to help orient those debates. In that sense, history writing has to be presentist. Now there will have to be debates about avoiding opportunism and making sure that one is not treating the past as a pack of tricks to play on the dead. 

I have in part strategically looked back at Tolstoy as a kind of moralist with whom we need to reckon. I don’t follow him slavishly and I close the book by suggesting that, even though he didn’t see the possibility of non-violent forms of domination, his criticisms and worries about humane war can help us identify this possibility nowWhat I aspire to do is to show that he actually can speak to us in his own voice from beyond his time and his grave because we actually share enough with his time and that his concerns are apt even in a radically different situation that he couldn’t have imagined. That’s true most of all when it comes to technology. Famously, in War and Peace, Tolstoy has his main character Prince Andrei look up at the sky and it becomes a symbol of justice. For us, the sky means the reverse in ways that Tolstoy couldn’t have anticipated. That’s why I begin the book with drones in the sky and emphasize the really nauseating history of air warfare, which was so brutal and became more humane with drones.

And yet, notwithstanding that difference, he is someone who can orient our thinking about domination in this realm of war and peace — and more generally too.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Vilius Kubekas and Oliver Garner.

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