This book came highly recommended with a lot of blurbs about it making a powerful, thought-provoking argument about the nature of war and American imperialism, and the future of the planet. I wish I had read that book. Instead, I read this thing, which has no real argument that I can find and is completely and utterly lacks anything approaching the courage of any kind of conviction. It is, frankly, an abysmally cowardly book trying to pass itself off as brave, the worst kind of cowardice.
As far as I can tell, Humane’s primary argument is this: as wars have become more humane in their execution, the desire to eliminate them has essentially disappeared, especially among the populace that controls the majorly of violence in the world (i.e., Americans and their assorted allies) and this is bad because it has led to a world in which war is being replaced by something approaching an endless subjection via global policing of other nations and peoples to American will. The back half of this argument doesn’t actually appear until the last couple pages of the Epilogue, I should point out, so for the majority of the book you are left with the notion that the alleged humanity of modern war is what is driving the end of the active desire of an end to war in the Western world, with the implied argument that if we were crueler in our wars, or at least less focused on humane wars, then there would be a stronger push for peace.
Except Moyn doesn’t actually make anything resembling a case for any of this, either moral or historical. The book is a good survey, to a point, of the history of various organizations that tried to work for making more war more humane and those that tried to eliminate or outlaw it and the tension between them. In Moyn’s telling, that tension largely disappeared in the West after the Vietnam war, as the US military and its establishment critics both agreed that the lesson of Vietnam was that the war was horrific and that such violence against soldiers –on both sides – and civilians should never be allowed to take place again. This led to a gradual process by which the idea of humane war overtook the imagination of the voting public to such an extent that the Iraq war after 9/11 was unopposed except for s brief period when the torture scandals hit.
Anyone alive during that time can see the first problem with Moyn’s thesis: like the press of the time, he memory holes the largest anti-war demonstrations in the history of the world. First, the Iraq war wasn’t opposed because people didn’t approve of torture – -right from the start, it was opposed because millions and millions of us thought it was wrong. Second, Moyn breezily asserts that Bush won reelection against Kerry, even though Kerry highlighted the mistakes of the Iraq war. But he glosses over that Bush came a hair’s breadth away from losing as a wartime incumbent and likely only survived due to the fact that Kerry himself initially supported the war. Third, the idea that there was no significant peace movement is ahistorical nonsense, special pleading to make his weak case look stronger.
Moyn also doesn’t bother to define humane. Does he mean humane in terms of overall suffering? Well, we killed a heck of a lot of Afghani and Iraqis – at least 185,000 direct civilian deaths in Iraq, for example. Or does he mean just US military deaths? That last might seem more plausible, but he never even attempts to define his terms, so we really don’t know how to judge them. And he never attempts to deal with the much better control over images and media in general the US military has today than it did in Vietnam, for example. And he only mentions the effect of the repeal of the draft on US willingness to go to war briefly. In other words, major confounding factors get no or little attention in his story.
We do get a rather depressing walk through the history of violent warfare from the Franco-Prussian war to modern times. We learn about the brutality of war, first in Europe, then in what was then European and American colonial spaces, and how attempts to humanize those conflicts were routinely useless. Moyn shows how that uselessness was often seen as a feature, both by the military (a large number of naval and air force officers seemed especially bloodthirsty in Moyn’s telling. Parents, if your kids want to go to either the Air Force or Naval academies, might want to run them by a psychiatrist first.) and advocated for the elimination of war, such as Tolstoy. The more brutal the war, the less likely people would want to fight. Except that Moyn doesn’t remark upon the fact that the Franco-Prussian war did not prevent the First World War, did not prevent the Spanish il War did not prevent the Second World War. The American conquest of the West did not prevent the brutality of the Philippines ‘ insurrection, which did not prevent the brutality of the Pacific Campaign, which did not prevent the brutality of the Korean War. For someone how seems to be arguing that less humane war should lead to more peace, this seems a fairly important oversight.
Moyn does point out that the interventions in Bosnia and Rwanda were likely illegal, but he does not deny that the interventions were in response to actual genocide. And here is where Moyn’s tight-lipped refusal to state what he wants is so infuriating. Does he mean to say that genocide should be allowed since it is illegal under international law? Does he mean to say that such laws are good since the brutality of genocide will make people less likely to wage war? Does he mean to say that genocide is an acceptable by-product of keeping wars illegal since wars cause more harm long term than genocide? I have no idea because Moyn doesn’t say anything – other than the interventions were illegal in a book whose premise appears to be that more brutality is better than less.
Moyn’s refusal to deal with the hard questions like this makes the book exasperating. He rightly points out, for example, that drone strikes can take the form of a type of unaccountable global policing. But, unfortunately, he does this in the same context as noting that terrorism kills fewer people than bathtub falls. Well, yes. And industrial accidents kill fewer people than murderers, but that does not mean I don’t want a cop to stop a murderer if they find one. So, yes, the drone strike issue is a troubling one. I am actually on his side on that point. But his refusal to deal with the question of how you deal with non-state actors looking to harm civilians in a meaningful way just undercuts his point. If he is not seriously advocating for more brutal wars, if his answer is not really some version of bombing Afghanistan back to the stone age so Americans will feel bad enough about war to not ever have another one – and I hope stating the premise is enough to highlight how dumb it is — then it is not clear what point he is trying to make.
Right now, Moyn has an anodyne point that unaccountable police are bad. Well, yes, great insight. Have a cookie, take half a holiday. But if you write a book entitled Humane, and you don’t mean to make more war more brutal so that people won’t wage it, perhaps you should spend a word or two on what you actually mean.