The False and Dangerous Promise of Humane Wars

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HUMANE
How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War
By Samuel Moyn

The American way of war is a paradox. Even after our retreat from Afghanistan, it is likely to remain vast, if not endless, with drone and missile strikes ranging across the longitudes, while U.S. naval and air formations dominate large swaths of the globe. Yet it is also more humane, with lawyers now indispensable to military operations and especially to targeting.

Samuel Moyn, a law and history professor at Yale, writes that “absolutely and relatively, fewer captives are mistreated and fewer civilians die — by far — than in the past.” Whereas millions were killed in Vietnam from direct U.S. military strikes or collateral damage, “only” some 200,000 died in Iraq, and mainly from civil war and disorder rather than specifically because of American military action. Moyn doesn’t celebrate such statistics. To the contrary, in “Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War,” he takes the reader on an excruciating journey, in incisive, meticulous and elegant prose, about the modern history of making war more legal, and in effect sanitizing it so that it can continue forever.

Leo Tolstoy worried, Moyn writes, that “humanitarianism could entrench war” by rendering it more palatable. In a similar vein, the Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz warned that “the fact that slaughter is a horrifying spectacle must make us take war more seriously.” The demand of pacifists and other idealists, Moyn observes, has always been “peace among states, not humanity within their wars.” Indeed, the white flag of surrender was considered by them morally superior to the flag of the Red Cross in the wards of the wounded. Yet the pacifism that arose out of the mass carnage of World War I was an accomplice to the appeasement of Hitler. It is this tension between what is just and what is prudent, between a pure humanitarianism and the very real pressures on statesmen, that helps drive Moyn’s narrative as he chronicles a host of 19th- and 20th-century conflicts, from the Ethiopian war against the Italians to the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa.

Moyn particularly concentrates on the horrendous American military spectacle of Vietnam, and the efforts of people like the former Nuremberg prosecutor Telford Taylor to label elements of that enterprise as criminal and racially motivated. As with Iraq, it seems that when a war is wrongly conceived, everything about it goes wrong, all emanating from the hubris of its conception. Though Moyn does not identify them as such, Afghanistan and Iraq were midsize wars, neither small policing actions like Grenada and Panama nor all-out cataclysms like the two world wars. They allowed, so to speak, for an army at war and a nation at the mall. And because they were incredibly bloody but did not fully engage the home front, they were wars that the United States did badly at, since military actions did not directly affect the voters.



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