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"Humanising War, Obscuring Peace": A Conversation with Samuel Moyn

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Artwork by Joanna Borkowska

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 3 ("The New Basics: Person").

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In his 2021 book, Humane:How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, Yale historian and legal scholar Samuel Moyn examines the nature of the West’s relationship to war, charting an intellectual history of Western-led war starting with Leo Tolstoy and guiding the reader through how his ideas and those of humanitarians, pacifists, and war advocates, have come to shape and influence the realities of war today and the international laws which sustain them. Showing how the conversation around peace has shifted away from a focus on the abolition of war and critiquing war’s initiation, Moyn contends that war has been subject to a process of humanisation which, in turn, has made war more permanent and perpetual. For Moyn, humanisation is an imperative shaped by intense, sustained pressure from diverse communities of humanitarians, activists, and armed forces which had an eye on the acceptability of violence for different audiences, resulting in choices taken sometimes for the sake of ethics, sometimes to appeal to the sensibilities of the general public, and often for both reasons. This position stands in contrast to the hopes and expectations of an emerging international order in the post-war period that would be defined by its remembrance of the crimes of aggression which were so vehemently condemned at Nuremberg. The hope at that time was that states would become subject to international laws targeting this original crime, rather than simply legislating against particular crimes committed during war. Instead, Moyn contends that international law has served to legitimize war as this perpetual and humanized phenomenon.

Jonathan Farrell (JF): What has it been like for you to examine the history of, in particular, American-led war, through the lens of humanisation? It is clear that just war theories, particularly those of Thomas Aquinas, have very much shaped and oriented the philosophical conversation around war and peace toward trying to establish its moral limits, such as by determining the moral boundaries for certain conduct in war. What are the merits of your intellectual historical approach to examining war and why did you feel it was necessary to tell a different story?

Samuel Moyn (SM): It’s a great question. There are so many assumptions built in to how I proceeded, and they are all controversial. I was oriented by a couple of considerations. One is simply that there is a standard history of the rise of international treaties around war. My chronology in Humane tracks this conventional story and then tries to up-end its content. Second is that there is another conventional story which does not follow the historical pattern of the development of formal instruments of treaty law. And that is the moral discourse about war which you get from Augustine and Aquinas through to Michael Walzer and Jeff McMahan. I think at least some of that history is mythical. But, even when it’s not, I think if we are interested in law, we should attend first and foremost to what the state does with ambient moral discourse because state actions could be distant from, or central to, such discourse. So, I am interested in examining those actors who receive some sort of access to state power, from Henry Dunant, founder of the International Red Cross who received the first Nobel Peace Prize and was invited to Geneva in the 1860s to form a treaty, through to the 1970s when the most recent renovations to the Geneva Convention were made. I then track a vein of scepticism throughout such developments on purely moral grounds at which point I part from the conventional philosophical story. I’m interested in a risk that some – arguably peripheral – malcontents have highlighted, namely that the philosophical traditions honoured by the mainstream have failed to expose this pattern of war’s humanisation through the law. So, for that reason, Tolstoy, and others, become central to my counter-narrative of the history of treaty law.

JF: One thing in common I noticed between thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas, and those you mention in Humane is that their religious identities are deeply formative of their engagement with activism around war, whether to abolish it or humanize it. This thread of a particularly Christian religiosity appears to guide much of the historical human rights discourse in the West, as is the subject of your 2015 book Christian Human Rights. In relation to Tolstoy in particular, it is clear that his engagement with the story of human rights is accelerated by his religious conversion in later years. However, instead of grounding his understanding of human rights within a religious framework that would very easily justify accepting war being a permanent feature of an inherently “fallen” moral universe, Tolstoy is different. You write that Tolstoy “offered the most eloquent and thought-provoking reservations ever levelled against the attempt to ‘humanize’ war, highlighting the moral risk of failing to combine the desire for less brutal war with scepticism toward war itself – since war routinely makes the world worse, no matter how humanely fought, and almost never better”. What is the story behind Tolstoy’s theorising about the humanisation of war?

SM: First, the inclusion of the religious emphasis of historical figures is probably what makes the book different, or even idiosyncratic, in departing from a traditional disciplinary, philosophical framework. It seems undeniable, from a historical perspective, that the central debates over warfare in the nineteenth century, and even with Barack Obama in the twenty-first, have been about the meaning of Christianity. Indeed, the debate between the Swiss and Tolstoy over humane warfare was focused around Christianity and its meaning for Christian reformers. The Swiss humanitarian Henry Dunant, for example, who was both founder of the Red Cross and a pious Calvinist, believed that organised relief and legal reforms enacted by Christian virtue and humanitarian compassion in response to the horrors of war in the context of European Colonialism would serve to “advance God’s reign on earth.” This would be achieved through state connivance in general and military consent in particular. Tolstoy, on the other hand, highlighted the moral risk of failing to combine the desire for less brutal war with scepticism toward war itself – since war routinely makes the world worse, no matter how humanely fought, and almost never better. Whether humanizing warfare in fact enabled reformers to tolerate enduring unconscionable evils was central in this regard. And so, I think historians have to be faithful to the evidence.

The central debates over warfare in the nineteenth century, and even with Barack Obama in the twenty-first, have been about the meaning of Christianity.

In fact, one trouble I have with a lot of retrospective philosophical stories of the debates about war and peace is that they often overlooked the religious frameworks that were central to the history of philosophy itself until very recently. In fact, I am most interested in the figures I discuss in the book who had the role of priest and prophet, rather than the role of a philosopher. So, with Tolstoy I try to help extricate what I think are his lasting arguments from his own kind of Christian stance and rhetorical style. An example of this is that as an apostle of non-resistance, and in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, he gives up any kind of consequentialism in ethics. But I try to argue that he hones accounts of the risks of making war humane that involve empirical conjectures about the kind of outcomes which might accrue if humanization was to be attempted.

For example, his main argument about war centres on an analogy with the slaughter of non-human animals. He argued how the amelioration of the slaughter of animals enabled its consumers to devour animals in the full assurance that they were doing something right. Tolstoy was interested in the meaning of when societies took modest acts that allowed their members to think they were good people whilst humanizing a systemic evil that was central to their way of life. These arguments appear in War and Peace before he has converted, although he recapitulates it after the fact too. So, even if we’re not Christians, it is important to consider what we can harvest from his arguments, conceptually and philosophically.

JF: One of the most revealing ideas that I understood you extricated from Tolstoy was how there is a shared normative landscape that grounds both the humanizers and abolitionists of war…

SM: From one perspective you can try to emphasise the proximity of these figures or the philosophical and conceptual distance between them. And although Tolstoy is not a consequentialist in his ultimate stance, he makes claims which I attempt to reconstruct as bearing on the risks of an entrenchment and perpetuation of war itself in the act of humanising it. For example, Prince Andrei in War and Peace is very clear that the normative criterion is suffering, and we see this for the humanisers too. I use the analogies Tolstoy offers on the humanisation of slavery and non-human animal slaughter to look at this question of how the risk of humanisation is incurred. For example, the long-time leader of the Swiss Red Cross, Gustave Moynier, says things like, “Humanising will pacify”, and conjectures that by humanising war, death and terror will somehow be reduced. Indeed, later on Michael Walzer surmised in Just and Unjust Wars that humanizing conflict makes possible further resistance to it; the restraint of war through the humanizing of its rules was viewed as the beginning of peace precisely because ungoverned violence might leave no one left to criticize it.

So, my basic aim is to draw attention to the fact that both sides seem to be talking about the reduction of suffering and how to achieve it. In a sense, both sides have a petty disagreement about what will or won’t contribute to that normative aim in the aggregate – although, it is the latter approach of the humanisers which I find to be less plausible in light of subsequent history.

At the end of the book, I suggest that it may be possible to re-read Tolstoy as a kind of “small-r” republican who was concerned less about the reduction of suffering than about freedom from domination, and this would make him very different than his opposite numbers. But I do think that we would need to reconstruct his arguments with a view to how they were not just different, but also similar to his contemporary proponents for the humanisation of war.

JF: I thought the parallel drawn between the humanisers of war and those who attempted to ameliorate slavery was a powerful one. The argument of those who attempt to moderate the horrors of slavery is that even though, morally speaking, it falls short of the more just outcome of its total abolition, it did in fact accelerate this end. By humanising the victims of slavery and advocating on their behalf as humans it arguably enables a human rights discourse to emerge where previously it had been categorically excluded by the assertion of slaves as mere “chattel”. You make the point that slavery and war are not necessarily comparative analogies when it comes to making sense of the humanisation argument. What do you think is the key differences between the phenomenon of war and that of the institution of slavery that makes applying the humanization argument to it less intuitively plausible?

SM: In starting with the humanisation of slavery, I cite a very famous historian who said that making slavery more humane entrenched the practice and made it harder to challenge. Now, I also cite Moynier whose theory is in line with the one you outlined which is that humanising a practice is to recognise your opponent, your “chattel”, as human. This is like a foot in the door and allows other reforms to follow. Whether these kinds of relations obtained such outcomes is an empirical question. So, to change the analogy, consider the argument that by making the death penalty more humane it is made harder to challenge. It could in fact make it easier to challenge as the first step on the road to its abolition or it could simply have a neutralising effect. As your question suggests, however, it depends on a lot of other factors. What I most care about is that Tolstoy seems right that entrenchment of the injustice could occur. To return to war, it could in fact facilitate and legitimate even more war, even if it turns out to be more humane. And I believe that is what we have lived through in our day. But, if that is true, then it follows that, at least so far, Moynier and the humanizers are wrong.

Just like it turns out that we didn’t have to have slavery, so too, I believe, it turns out that we do not have to have every war.

Now, why is it that there seems to be a difference between chattel slavery and, let’s say, inter-state war? Well, I think the most popular answer is that slavery is eliminable, but war is not. One of my responses to this is that it is never all or nothing. The question is not whether war as such is eliminable, because of course slavery isn’t over in our world. It’s whether this or that war has to happen or is perpetuated once it has begun. So, as you are suggesting, I think it is probably more credible to say that the biggest difference is that slavery is entirely under a state governmental authority, whereas a war of the kinds I’m talking about concern clashes of states without anything above them. And that is why a big part of the book does turn out to be about what we can do. Can we create a peaceful structure in a world of states? Notwithstanding the big differences between slavery and war as phenomena, I am unrepentant that the slavery analogy is very valuable. Because just like it turns out that we didn’t have to have slavery, so too, I believe, it turns out that we do not have to have every war. And this means that the entrenchment factor of humanizing war is one we should be very worried about.

JF: Your point about how slavery has not in fact ended highlights a really important point. In the same way that the injustice of slavery has evolved alongside the conditions of our modern, globalised society, so too has war. Until Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, it was almost as if Western states had been lulled into a false sense of moral victory regarding European peace and the progress made since WW2 in re-wiring state consciousness and behaviour to always prefer non-aggression and peace over war. Ironically, it appears that this moral high ground in one sense may even have set the stage for the humanisation of war, and we see this particularly in light of the United States’ War on Terror which you trace, in some sense, as the inevitable inheritor of this historical humanization project.

One of the key historical moments for both international law and politics that you place great emphasis on in Humane is the Nuremberg Trial. Nuremberg reminds the international community that it is imperative to learn the lessons of the past about the evils of war, both its initiation and consequences. However, as you point out, this legacy has not been entirely honoured, as evidenced by a contemporary pattern of states only condemning war retrospectively, criticising its atrocities when it is already too late.

What do you think explains this apparently pervasive moral forgetfulness among states and their leaders that the key crime of any war is the fact that it is initiated in the first place? Would it be too crude to suggest, thinking about the Vietnam and Korean Wars, that it is the same old story of state interests burying the moral question out of site? The evidence for how the American military during these wars of brutality had become enamoured with humanisation and the law for the very reason that it facilitates its perpetuation and therefore the industrial military complex it depends upon, is extremely damning. Has humanisation simply become a tool for political leaders to accrue political capital amongst state actors to justify alternative forms of brutality? It seems also to have been used as a tool to placate emerging humanitarian voices within civil society by raising the defence that the evils of war have been effectively compromised by new technology. What is going on here?

SM: It’s a fantastic question because it really gets to the heart, not just of the book, but of the current interest in stigmatising Vladimir Putin’s aggression, which, of course, I support. The main story I tell is that the end of World War Two is about pax Americana, which, it turns out, is not peace but, put in racial terms, a transatlantic white peace that peace movements really did, in the main, want. This kind of peace entailed, somewhat paradoxically, America committing to a global war that continues until this day. This American commitment was brutal at first, and was only later sought to be humanised. Nonetheless, I do think that the end of World War Two is an interesting moment, both normatively and rhetorically, because peace is consecrated as the default, and this enables states and international institutions to say that they want to hold aggressors to account in the international system. Sadly, even in the UN Charter some states can veto ever being branded aggressors themselves. So, it’s not perfect. And at Nuremberg in 1945 and into 1946, the American prosecutor and Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson is very explicit that the end of WW2 cannot simply mean victor’s justice in the sense of only holding the Nazis to account for aggression. Victors’ justice should not, in other words, prevent other powers, such as the Americans, British, and Soviets from being held to account for similar charges – which, tragically, is exactly what has occurred.

I want to insist that something big happens normatively at Nuremberg, but the baseline for it being achieved practically is that great powers have to stick with it. And with no requirement, politically, to do so, it is no wonder they don’t. What interests me is why reformers accepted this result. As I narrate, a lot of people took their attention away from aggression and war-making to concern themselves with the conduct of war. And there are a host of reasons mentioned why that may have happened. I think one disturbing reason for this is philosophical cosmopolitanism, which rises along with human rights. Its problem, as I see it, is that it romances certain forms of war as worth pursuing even when, formally, they are illegal. But there is another thing going on, which is that the prohibition of aggression was initially about states agreeing not to allow circumstances which would entail their own mutual destruction, whereas as time passes, we find more concern with the death of different actors: individuals, innocent people, those not complicit in the international order as states. So, there is a push to make this new cosmopolitanism about the protection of human beings, not states. And as noble as that aspiration is, I think it ends up licensing more war because the theoretical boundaries set by the pact of non-aggression between states no longer apply.

JF: It’s a fascinating topic because the logic behind philosophical cosmopolitanism, and the desire to respond to the economic interconnectedness that has become our global reality, is to expand the sphere of human ethical responsibility beyond state and national boundaries. Indeed, its advocates do so for the noble cause of seeking to combat the nationalism and racism which so consume nations that believe the primary and most meaningful way to define responsibility towards others is through the institution of borders. And indeed, it is jealousy for such control over one’s borders which has shaped so much of the twentieth century experience of war...

SM: Exactly. I agree with that. It is philosophically uplifting, but politically naive. It has associated the United States or the West generally with a moral project which it has in fact proved incapable of advancing, as demonstrated by the many humanitarian interventions that have made the world worse. It is also possible to argue that these actors were never interested in doing so in the first place. In that sense, philosophical cosmopolitans may have been the useful idiots of American empire. They forgave its crimes and they looked past its own transgressions.

Philosophical cosmopolitans may have been the useful idiots of American empire. They forgave its crimes and they looked past its own transgressions.

And above all, one powerful rationale for the focus on the prohibition of interstate aggression is the range of consequences including, but not limited to, the brutalities of war that almost inescapably follow when cross-border war breaks out. And that is why I find it very revealing that there is so much interest, suddenly, in Russian aggression. Does this contemporary moment anticipate a more general concern with aggression as the gateway crime to atrocity? Or is it simply another example of looking past Western imperialism and scapegoating Russian imperialism as if it is the sole source of aggressive war in our world?

JF: Let’s talk about Russia and Putin. You recently delivered the Annual Peace Lecture hosted by the Philosophy Department at Kings College London. There you spoke about how Putin’s invasion of Ukraine opens up the possibility of re-centring international discourse on wars of aggression. However, particularly at the start of the invasion, much of the narrative seemed to labour the stereotype of Russia succumbing to a “traditional” war of aggression because it was a backward-looking country, always one step behind the West. Western media have made much of reports that the Russian army didn’t have enough fuel; they don’t have enough food; the troops they sent in were young, poorly equipped, and unprofessional. It is remarkable that instead of redirecting focus solely on the crime of Putin’s aggression, its condemnation has been filtered through a narrative that reemphasises prejudicial distinctions between a “progressive” West and a “backward” Russia.

SM: The discussion around this war has been rife with double standards and outright hypocrisy – and not just from leaders who support our own aggressive wars and then want to set up new Nuremberg scenarios for Putin. Though two wrongs do not make a right, it is dangerously inconsistent to only recognise wrongs when your enemies perpetrate them. But the problem goes beyond the ordinary political hypocrisy of our leaders, which, in a sense, is part of their professional activity. As you say, the public discourse has been haunted by various distinctions. For example, Putin invaded a democracy, which the West has not, as if international law provided any less protection to non-democratic states (which of course it doesn’t). Another interesting feature of the debate has been about the return of wars of conquest. Now, it is only fair to note that Putin did engage in a land grab of Crimea in 2014. But if Putin’s goal in Ukraine, at least originally, was regime change, then there are several examples of those that the West has conducted.

I don’t in the least want to provide apologetics for Putin, because the invasion of Ukraine is a brazen act of aggression, and, predictably, horrors are following. But the civilian casualty rates [as of 24.3.22] were estimated to be around a thousand. It will no doubt be much higher by the time this conversation is published. But even if it were ten thousand civilians dead, that would pale in comparison to the two hundred thousand dead from the Iraq war. The timeline is different, and maybe Putin will get there, but the public discourse has been attributing to Putin a bunch of atavisms of conquest and brutal war to establish a kind of different category for this than the position the West has occupied time and time again. And doing that, as you suggest, is partly distraction, but also a way of legitimating our wars. And what was sad most of all is that we have been on the brink of rethinking our posture of late. Hopefully this moment is the beginning of looking in the mirror and confronting our own mistakes.

JF: This reminds me of the start of the war on terror where states utilised a loophole within international law to justify attacks on non-state actors, redefining the enemy so that international law couldn’t be said to apply – or at least not in the same way. And scarily with Russia, the temptation to want to re-categorise Putin in the same way that Bush, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, divided the world between “evil” and “good” is once again having a big impact on people’s moral stances. Even some left-wing Democrats in the United States are, in some circles, coming out now in support of increasing funding for the U.S. armed forces even though it is larger than the next twenty nations put together. It seems to be little consolation that the wars that people now anticipate are, in one sense, more humane when the rhetoric of the most powerful world leaders perpetuate the very distinctions which have laid the foundation for historical aggression to be justified on different normative grounds.

SM: I like your point. It adds to the list another distinction people make which is that the West merely pursues non-state actors, while it is Putin that does something “old-school”, which is to go to war against another state. Now, of course, that’s not fair. The Iraq war is just one prominent example of a war which involved violations of sovereignty in going after non-state actors. Or there is the pursuit of ISIS across the Syrian border, without Syrian consent, or supporting rebels against the Libyan state. This rhetoric will set back peace. Even Keir Starmer said that advocates of peace – and these are his words – actively give support to authoritarian leaders who directly threaten democracies. And he’s on the left, in whatever sense.

JF: On the question about international law, you write at the end of Humane: “Our task is to aim for a law that not only tolerates less pain, but also promotes more freedom.” Now, to British ears, that rhetoric is what we have come to associate with American wars, and indeed, much terror and aggression on its part. You are clearly not advocating for more war. But is international law even capable of achieving the aims that you hope it might? It is an oft-repeated maxim that we fail to learn from history. It seems that one of the lessons may be (and hopefully I’m wrong on this) that international law simply cannot serve those ethical aims we so often espouse. Do we not at some point simply have to give up the prospect of any international jurisdiction, like the United Nations, having any substantial power to prevent wars of aggression as fundamental first-order crimes?

SM: Let me answer the second question first. I mean to be ambivalent in the book, and I start with Tolstoy because he is very sceptical of reformist tools, including international law. Across his career he indicts the prospect of peace arising through state agreement. But even as I focus on the paradoxes of peace such as the global violence that has occurred under American auspices, and even as I focus on the paradoxes of a humanisation of war that perpetuates it, I wonder if we shouldn’t keep trying with the reformist tools we have available in the absence of better solutions. I think law has a role, without forgetting how it contributes to domination.

I think we must rescue freedom, and the invocation of humanity to that end, from those who pursue war and slavery in its name.

My principle trouble with political actors is that any care for universal principles or ideals of peace remains hostage to their rhetoric and oftentimes hypocritical practices which only strengthen their domination over others. I’m trying to take a very different view from, say, Carl Schmitt who famously declared that the invocation of humanity as a concept is only a useful ideological instrument of imperialist expansion. Rather, I think we must rescue freedom, and the invocation of humanity to that end, from those who pursue war and slavery in its name. And that is, of course, a tall order. But even if one were to reject the means of law, this should not mean a denial of the goal of freedom. And so, while it is just true that in the Cold War and war on terror, freedom was a buzzword that legitimated war, this does not mean that freedom as a concept cannot be saved from its abuse, instrumentalization, and betrayal by state actors.

JF: Your book ends with this call to reclaim freedom, but it also warns about the increasing prevalence of American war conducted by drones and “light footprint” Special Forces. For my generation, this is the most memorable aspect America’s redefinition of War, exemplified by Obama’s celebratory press conference when Osama Bin Laden had been taken out by U.S Navy Seals. What Humane really highlighted for me is how this declaration of victory over America’s chief enemy at that time is an example of the normalisation and celebration of a new way of conducting humane war.

The essential ethical issue involved in this abstraction of war away from traditional human conflict is the temptation to eradicate humanity altogether from the conduct of war. It allows for there to be no relation of ethical subjectivity between a soldier and their victim, who is transformed into a simple target on a monitor. Isn’t the danger therefore that even the humanisation of war is soon going to become a thing of the past? Have we not entered a completely different phase of the redefinition of war?

SM: This is an interesting question because what I fear about the future of war is that it remains humane – and, crucially, defined not by violence but by the domination of humans over other humans. And in that sense, I think it is misleading to say that war is about dehumanisation, even when it is fought at a distance, so antiseptically and surgically.

I sense that humanisation is the problem as much as the solution because it masks efforts at domination.

There is more than a hint of Michel Foucault at the end of my book in that I sense that humanisation is the problem as much as the solution because it masks efforts at domination. The reason for this is not because human progress or improvement is a lie but because there is no single arc to the moral universe that guarantees that progress comes without regress on other fronts. Now, it could be possible to hypothesise another future of warfare where it is dehumanised in the sense that there are no soldiers on one side and human targets are edited out on the other. That goes beyond the future I depict at the end of the book, where there are autonomous weapons systems which still at least involve humans on one side: the receiving end. But what I would query is this: even in such a dystopia or state of dehumanised war as you are implying, would it not still be defined by the control and domination of some humans by others as the ultimate space for war? If that’s true, as I think it is, then I think it would be naive to claim that humans have been dropped from war. There is something about hierarchy amongst humanity which continues to still be the highest prize of war-making, and of politics in general. War continues to be about human projects to advance human ends, which has typically meant the subordination of certain enemies.

Samuel Moyn is the Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School, focusing his research on international law, human rights, the law of war, and legal thought in both historical and current perspectives. He is also Professor of History at Yale University. He has written several books in the fields of European intellectual history and human rights, including Christian Human Rights (2015) based on Mellon Distinguished Lectures at the University of Pennsylvania in autumn 2014 and Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (2018). His latest book is Humane: How the United States Abandoned peace and Reinvented War (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2021). Twitter: @samuelmoyn

Jonathan Farrell is a freelance researcher, with broad interests in the history and heritage of Hong Kong and comparative philosophy. He has an MA in Philosophy from King's College, London.


From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 3 ("The New Basics: Person").

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