The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How America makes its wars less brutal — and more frequent

Family members of Afghan civilians killed in a U.S. drone strike in Kabul stand near the wreckage on Sept. 19, a day after Washington apologized for the mistaken attack. The 10 people killed in the Aug. 29 strike included seven children. (Photo by Stringer/Shutterstock)

Have attempts to limit the way wars are waged succeeded only in making them more politically feasible? In his new book, “Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War,” Samuel Moyn, a historian and law professor at Yale, answers in the affirmative.

It is an important question given that, even after the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has come to an inglorious end, the forever war continues elsewhere. It has a low profile because it consists mainly of drone strikes and operations by Special Forces. Because these missions result in few casualties, at least on the American side, they only rarely generate headlines despite their widespread use. One recent report in the Intercept claims that these forces are deployed in 154 countries, but it is hard to know for sure since the Special Operations Command wraps its activities in secrecy.

To describe how America got into a war that is endless and everywhere, Moyn looks to the history of antiwar movements and their leaders, the better to understand the moral imperative for peace that he says America has abandoned. He begins with Leo Tolstoy, who served as a soldier in the Crimean War. That experience led Tolstoy to conclude that humanitarian efforts could make war less brutal but also more frequent. His view is reflected in “War and Peace” when one of his characters declares, “One thing I would do if I had the power” is “not take prisoners.” Tolstoy believed that if the barbarity of war was clearer, it would be less acceptable.

For the other side of the argument, Moyn turns to the contemporary political theorist Michael Walzer, who once wrote, “It is no service to the cause to ridicule the rules of war . . . as Tolstoy did.” Walzer argued that humanizing conflict made it possible to resist it and that restraining war “is the beginning of peace.”

Moyn makes clear on which side of this debate he comes down early in the book when he asserts, “Today Tolstoy is being proved right, and Walzer wrong: the humanization of America’s wars has become a part of the syndrome of their perpetuation, not a step beyond them.”

One development that was essential to this evolution of modern, interminable conflict was the creation of a legal framework that made the “war on terror” defensible. Under George W. Bush that largely consisted of government lawyers telling him what he wanted to hear — that there were basically no constraints on his power as commander in chief. The search for a legal rationale did not end with the Bush administration. Moyn is at his best when describing how the Obama administration struggled to come up with a more robust framework.

Barack Obama came to rely heavily on drones, using them far more than his predecessor or his successor did, and his administration resisted efforts to apply new laws of war to this method of killing. But as the recent drone attack on an oil tanker off the coast of Oman that killed two crew members shows, it is a technology any nation can use, and it has the advantage of some degree of deniability. With drones available to any country that wants to weaponize them, it may already be impossible to impose rules limiting their use. Ironically, this type of warfare could be made more “humane” by taking some of the human element out of the decision-making process. Artificial-intelligence algorithms aren’t bothered by combat fatigue the way human operators are.

Being a historian, Moyn spends a good deal of time describing the characters, conflicts and conventions that created the momentum for the peace movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. It is a complicated story that would benefit from fewer actors and tangents. Moyn concludes that Americans have only recently come to face a binary choice between interminable wars that are either intense and dirty or humane and clean. He finds that American influence on a third possibility — pacification — was enormous in the 20th century but has almost disappeared in the 21st. But one is left wondering just when America so enthusiastically embraced peace. When it momentarily found itself lacking an enemy to make war on? And when was such a sentiment wholeheartedly endorsed by the political leaders who decide when and where this country will fight?

Were the peace activists Moyn describes all that influential in a country with a long history of involvement in a seemingly endless series of conflicts? That record has left some historians wondering why the United States seems to nearly always be at war. Those who pushed for peace when war was called for, such as Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee, seem better remembered than those who warned about conflicts that should have been avoided.

Moyn nonetheless believes that this country has spurned the moral imperative for peace in his lifetime (he’s 49) and that many people have become less committed to peace than to making America’s global violence less cruel. It could be that nothing else was politically possible in the wake of 9/11. It is more than a bit ironic that terrorism, which has caused the deaths of a few thousand in this country, continues to drive much of our foreign and defense policies when people fiercely resist precautions to stop the coronavirus, which has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. And why aren’t pharmaceutical executives who have caused so much death and suffering from opioid overdoses sharing cells with those incarcerated at Guantánamo?

This is, nonetheless, an important book, as it points out that Americans have made a moral choice to prioritize humane war, not a peaceful globe. Moyn hopes that pondering this choice might help the United States avoid mistakes in the future. The end of the draft, the all-volunteer armed forces and weapons such as drones have made war something that affects few Americans. Only occasionally, as with the recent U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan that killed 10 innocent civilians, are we reminded of the brutality that Tolstoy thought people should never forget. That prompts the question of whether Americans today even have the capacity for such national introspection — and if they do, whether it is too late for it to make a difference.


How the
United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War

By Samuel Moyn

Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

416 pp. $30