Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War

  • By Samuel Moyn
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 416 pp.
  • Reviewed by William Rice
  • September 28, 2021

Ideological purity hamstrings this otherwise insightful reflection on the sins of battle.

Stubbornly holding principle above practical goals like diminishing death and suffering, Samuel Moyn argues in Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War that by making war less gory we’ve invited its proliferation and perpetuation.

He makes a well-researched, sincere, and often enlightening case for why the perfect (in this case, eliminating war altogether) should, in fact, be the enemy of the good (making war more humane), but his perfectionist polemic in the end fails. The human inclination to try to make bad things even a little bit better is just too strong.

Moyn believes that efforts to make war less horrific — through the taking of prisoners, tending to the wounded, outlawing of certain weapons, and careful targeting of missile strikes — make us too comfortable with what will always be an abomination: armed aggression. He hints toward the end of the book that even if war became entirely bloodless, it would still be an unacceptable display of control by one group over another. What he never explains is how less humane, more brutal war has ever led to its extinction or ever would.

As he traces the history of armed conflict from Napoleon to napalm and on up to our current remote-monitored and often remote-contested terrorist battlefields, Moyn offers important insights into war and its hoped-for reform. He celebrates the efficacy of 19th-century international arbitration in fending off scores of potential state clashes; shows how broad the streak of “pacifist Christianity” was in American political life prior to World War II and how it only completely disappeared with Vietnam critic George McGovern’s landslide presidential loss in 1972; and explains what a fundamental change in human thinking was represented by the international pursuit of peace in reaction to the carnage of World War I.

The book traces the parallel but often intersecting struggles over the past 200 years of pacifists trying to end war and humanizers trying to make it less awful. Moyn focuses on certain key actors like Leo Tolstoy, who, after gaining fame as a novelist, became one of the world’s leading pacifists; humanizer and early Red Cross leader Gustave Moynier, who, despite his credentials, had a checkered moral history; and the American Quincy Wright, who, from the First World War through Vietnam, advocated for a global federation that would finally achieve world peace.

Many books can be boiled down to a simple idea. But this one seems especially susceptible to such severe abridgement, perhaps because its thesis is so raw and startling. Every few pages seems to provide some variation on this sample:

“Advocates of peace…worried from time to time that humanizing warfare would rule out its elimination.”

It’s unclear whether Moyn is a pure pacifist, opposed to war in all circumstances, or merely opposed to wars that violate domestic or international law. At times, he uses the legalistic argument to indirectly support the ideal of peace. If that’s his game, it’s ironically similar to what he complains humanizers are doing: trying indirectly — and therefore ineffectively — to end war by ending war abuses.

Moyn’s absolutist argument is reminiscent of healthcare perfectionism. In 2009, I helped organize public support for proposed healthcare reform. At every meeting, there were always reluctant participants dissatisfied that the plan under debate was not Medicare for All or some other more radical change. These dissenters usually appeared well off and well insured, whereas poorer attendees without insurance were eager for any incremental improvement to the system.

Like the healthcare purists and other liberal absolutists, Moyn is more than disappointed by Barack Obama; he apparently feels betrayed. Despite offering several examples of how the always punctilious Obama warned during his first campaign that he was not a pacifist and would not end war if elected — only that he would avoid unnecessary conflicts and end wartime abuses — Moyn still claims the 44th president charmed his way into office by purposelessly letting a war-averse electorate believe he was their champion.

Moyn is a generally effective writer, but his sentences are often dense. And the convoluted nature of his premise sometimes leads to convoluted prose: “The objection that ‘technical discussions on questions of the law of war, seem wholly futile when we hope to abolish war,’ Quincy acknowledged, struck him powerfully”; “It was the initial rationale for what became a spree of humane killing on which the sun might never set in space or end in time”; and “After 1945, he was only half-satisfied that his search for the conditions of durable peace had ended.”

Absolutists serve a useful purpose in anchoring the ends of the philosophical spectrum. Pragmatists are well advised to check their moral compasses from time to time against the straight, simple passages of these purists. But because their strict, abstract views on human conduct don’t comport with the ways real people live, learn, and change, purists cannot be our guides.

William Rice is a writer for political and policy advocacy organizations.

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