‘The Question Not Being Discussed Is Whether the War Is Just or Necessary’
In a new book, a Yale historian argues that Washington is setting a dangerous international precedent for permanent war.
SEPTEMBER 24, 2021
“War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it,” Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman wrote in 1864 in the midst of the U.S. Civil War. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee remarked two years earlier, “It is well that war is so terrible. Otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” Yet more than 150 years later, the United States has done both: refined war and even grown somewhat fond of it—or at least is not minding it as much.
So argues the Yale University historian Samuel Moyn in his powerful new book, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War. In an era of seemingly permanent “over the horizon” warfare—with the often innocent victims of drone strikes around the world rarely acknowledged—Americans have tried to refine war to the point that they’ve stopped debating, for the most part, whether it should even be fought. After a century that yielded the most terrible wars ever waged, and then a decade when the Geneva Conventions and laws of war were intensely debated by the United States following the 2003 Iraq invasion, a zoomed-out perspective on war itself has all but disappeared from the public forum. “The gore and mortality of America’s initial modes of intervention after September 11 have, to a remarkable extent, been removed, like bugs that programmers delete,” Moyn writes. “We fight war crimes but have forgotten the crime of war.”
And today, Moyn says, with the withdrawal from Afghanistan and traditional combat zones, the United States is embarking on a fresh phase that could set a dangerous new precedent for the world, one that China and other powers may decide to invoke against their own perceived enemies, possibly including political dissidents. It amounts to the “normalization” of a new kind of quiet, unaccountable war deemed by its authors to be “humane” and therefore acceptable. “At some point,” Moyn writes, “today’s deterritorialized and endless war may mutate into an unprecedented new system: rule and surveillance by one or several powers across an astonishingly large arc of the world’s surface, patrolled by armed drones or paid visits by the Special Forces acting as quasi-permanent military police.”
I spoke to Moyn recently about drone attacks, the implications of President Joe Biden’s touting of the United States’ over-the-horizon capability, and whether Leo Tolstoy was right about war. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Foreign Policy: You say there were two “wars against terror,” the first one conducted in combat zones like Afghanistan and Iraq over the past 20 years and now the second one involving over-the-horizon strikes and special operations. What does your book say about where we are right now in this ongoing conflict?
Samuel Moyn: We’ve just seen the end of the first war on terror, with the Afghanistan withdrawal, but the truth is it’s been dying for more than a decade. I focused on the way that the new form of the war on terror—with armed drones, standoff missiles, and the expansion of special forces—was affected by the way our public debate made that earlier form of the war illegitimate. The first war on terror was attacked as a failure: Afghanistan went south, Iraq went south, but there was also brutality. And instead of a big debate about whether to continue the war on terror, we had one about whether to make it “humane” and torture-free. Then Barack Obama came into office and, in a genius move, promised to place the war on terror under law and to make it humane. I think it’s crucial for a lot of audiences that this new form, which seems the endless part, has been made more humane—though, of course, it is still unconscionably violent, especially for victims. And the question not being discussed is whether the war is just or necessary.
FP: Say you’re a senior advisor to the Biden administration, and they’re asking your advice about how to conduct what remains of the forever war after Afghanistan, including how to conduct over-the-horizon strikes. What do you tell them?
SM: I would shut it down. And I would advise Biden to rely on Congress to authorize powers that earlier presidents have accreted in the war on terror. We can interdict threats without endless war—and we have created more terrorists over the last 20 years than we have stopped. If another AUMF [Authorization for Use of Military Force] is required when another terrorist event happens, it is a good thing to put the onus on Congress to provide it. If the president must act in defense of the safety of the nation in the meantime, there would be less abuse, and the war wouldn’t get out of hand due to the carte blanche authorities he has. And wouldn’t it be better to conform with international rules that constrain targeted killings—and then to do them only if you absolutely have to—because we want a world where other states do not institutionalize a sustainable war on terror of their own?
FP: You start out your book by quoting Tolstoy in War and Peace as saying the best way of ridding ourselves of war is to make it even less humane. Is that true, or is it better to ameliorate war because it’s always going to be with us?
SM: It’s a totally fair question. I ran across the fact that Tolstoy was present at the creation, if you will, of the first attempt to use international law to make war humane, the first Geneva Convention of 1864. Tolstoy was disregarded for a long time as a critic of humane war, but I thought that maybe he had Obama’s number, so I resolved to look into it.
I had the aspiration as a historian to start at the beginning of this long debate because getting back to the origins can help us gain our own critical distance on what we’re doing now. Of course, I reject Tolstoy’s view that the world would be a better place if war were left brutal. We can think of so many wars since he lived that were brutal but long. But in some of his later writings, Tolstoy added that more humane war brings the risks of perpetuation that we must control. Instead, we allowed Obama’s rhetoric to convince us that the sole alternative to brutal war is not less war but more humane war. If we aren’t careful, it’s not just that others will continue to die or live under the fear of drones and special operations missions but that we become a kind of endless war nation.
FP: We know that the Biden administration had been engaged in a major review of these policies, with the president pledging to end the “forever wars” and to make counterterrorism more a matter of policing. But now, post-Afghanistan, Biden is out there touting America’s over-the-horizon capability, and he authorized a strike in Kabul, allegedly against the Islamic State branch there, that reportedly killed an innocent aid worker and his family. Are we not having the debate we should be having?
SM: Our withdrawal from Afghanistan intensifies the expectation of more over-the-horizon activity. In theory, Afghanistan will have to be taken outside the area of active hostilities, which should place more controls on drones and special forces. Remember that Obama imposed rules that said if there’s any risk at all of civilian casualties, then drones can’t strike in areas outside active hostilities. Not that the government held to that rule, but the fact that he made the promise—one that former President Donald Trump himself kept—proves that someone thinks that making war as humane as possible can help it seem more legitimate to enough people. I think it would be a big deal to return to the transparency and controls on targeted killings that Obama imposed. But even then, if that’s where the Biden administration review leads, we won’t have addressed the idea whether to engage in targeted killings in the first place, though they were once considered noxious.
I mention in the book that then-President George W. Bush denounced Israel for conducting targeted killings not long before 9/11. Now America has normalized them, and if we normalize them forever, well, China has been building drones, too. So we’re setting precedents in which international law is much more permissive than before. Of course we have to defend ourselves, but will we regret the way we have done so? What is the price?
FP: You go into detail about how much agonizing Obama did over this issue, and it really is one of the tragedies of his administration that at the beginning he did want to legitimize the war under international law, then end it, but he failed to do either—especially after the rise of the Islamic State—and instead he became a major user of drone strikes. Ultimately, Obama institutionalized the war he wanted to end. What does that tell you?
SM: Our politicians are caught in a dilemma. Our three presidents starting with Obama have won by opposing war selectively—Obama against Hillary Clinton, Trump against all the Republicans and then possibly again against Hillary Clinton. Biden opposed the “forever war” rhetorically. But these presidents also fear the electoral consequences of another domestic tragedy like 9/11, which started us on this trajectory. The Democrats have always had bad memories of [their 1972 “peace” candidate] George McGovern and know the rabble-rousing of the Republicans can damage them. And what I loved about Obama is he talked about this dilemma publicly and wrestled with it. He observed that endless wars will degrade America and lead to unexpected consequences, even as fewer people die in terrorist attacks than do slipping in their bathtubs, let alone in car accidents every day. So Obama incarnated this dilemma brilliantly. The Biden team is caught in the same dilemma, too.
FP: So are we kidding ourselves in thinking we can humanize war?
SM: War is hell by definition—but it is also more humane than ever. The fundamental argument of the book is we need new controls on force in the world and in U.S. law. That’s because the basic problem has not been American brutality but American war. How do we reactivate the American conscience of 1973, when after the Vietnam catastrophe Congress reasserted itself briefly and passed the War Powers Resolution (which later got shredded, including under Obama in the Libyan intervention)? How do we think more about internalizing international law, not just to make our wars cleaner but also to keep us from going to war by mistake?
FP: How did you come to write this book?
SM: I served in the White House as a lowly intern. [Now Secretary of State] Antony Blinken was my boss during the Kosovo bombing in 1999. I also took the laws of war class when I was a student at Harvard Law School. But it was really about the experience of living through the war on terror and seeing that Obama didn’t end it but, as you say, institutionalized it. That led me to wonder: Is this war harder to end precisely because we’ve made it humane instead? I wanted to explore the different positions and the debate about making war humane because Obama brought something long foreseen into reality—not perfectly humane war but more humane than under Bush, let alone Vietnam, Korea, World War II, the Philippines, and so on. That’s the story of the book.
FP: I covered Kosovo. It was deemed at the time a humanitarian war. But it doesn’t strike you that way.
SM: Kosovo was a humanitarian intervention that was supposed to make good on the failures in Rwanda and Bosnia. The fact that it was illegal under international law without a United Nations Security Council resolution was deemed unimportant. Of course, it was not humanely fought; no war is. It was fought from 10,000 feet, and all war from the air is going to be marked by excess and error. Yet the aspiration to fight humanely affected it even so. Like other post-Cold War engagements, it had lawyers picking targets and humanitarian groups like Human Rights Watch monitoring all sides. I think it did establish a precedent for me and others at the time that just wars, even if illegal, were worth having if fought more humanely. Along with many others, I simply lost faith thereafter.
FP: As we enter the era of over-the-horizon surveillance and kinetic action, with fewer follow-up action reports than ever before, are we approaching a new kind of nightmare?
SM: I agree that’s a huge risk. As a historian, I would observe that distant wars are always obscure, and that’s been true for centuries. But humane wars are new, and that intensifies the risk that people will kind of know wars are being fought in their name but will console themselves that they are being fought humanely. And Tolstoy was on to this when he compared citizens whose countries might fight war more humanely to people who console themselves with the fact that animals have been slaughtered humanely somewhere out of sight but eat the meat anyway. I don’t say we should never fight war, but I don’t want us to take the humanization of war to mean that war is moral.
Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy.
Samuel Aaron Moyn (born 1972) is the Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School and Professor of History at Yale University, which he joined in July 2017. Previously, he was a professor of history at Columbia University for thirteen years and a professor of history and of law at Harvard University for three years. His research interests are in modern European intellectual history, with special interests in France and Germany, political and legal thought, historical and critical theory, and Jewish studies.