How Liberalism Justifies the Forever Wars

For over half a century, liberal organizations, governments, and lawyers have promoted the idea that wars can be made “humane.” The concept’s triumph in the twenty-first century has only served to justify US belligerence and endless drone warfare abroad.

Samuel Moyn’s latest book highlights the way “humane war” serves as a conceptual Trojan Horse for American endless-war-making, carried out by drones and special forces. (Jonathan Cutrer / Flickr)

Samuel Moyn’s Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War follows the historical ascendance of the idea that war should be fought “humanely.”  The book is an important extension of themes he has been developing since his critical account of “human rights” in 2010’s The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. Over the last half-century, according to Moyn, liberal activists, organizations, states, and (most notably) international lawyers, have thrown their weight behind the development of international norms grounded in our shared, universal “humanity.” In The Last Utopia, Moyn described how the world’s great powers weaponized these norms against anti-colonial and Third Worldist movements in the 1970s and ’80s. His latest book similarly highlights the way “humane war” serves as a conceptual Trojan Horse for a dystopic new reality: a deterritorialized form of American endless-war-making, carried out by drones and special forces, in which one side has “complete immunity from harm” but takes “unprecedented care when it comes to killing people on the other.”

To explore the emergence of “humane war” as a now hegemonic idea in US foreign policy, Moyn begins the book with a rhetorical question: “Is it good enough — is it good at all — that American war could someday become as humane as advocates both within and outside government can make it?” His answer to this question is clear: No, it isn’t good at all. In the process of fighting war crimes, he insists, we have “forgotten the crime of war.” The humanization of war has normalized war itself, transforming it from an episodic to a prolix phenomenon. This has meant mutating violence into something more disciplinary and traumatizing for men and women in the “war-on-terror” zones, ensuring their experiences are even less visible to the self-satisfied denizens of “liberal democracies” than they already were.

And yet, the way Moyn engages the rhetorical question is important. To fully understand the implications of “humane war,” he argues, it is necessary to combine two histories that are usually kept apart. One is a story about the development of expectations and rules for peace instead of war. The other is a story about the development of rules for conducting war humanely. As a whole, Humane is situated in the pincer grip between these narratives. Moyn’s turn of art in the book is to spin a braided, historical yarn that brings these stories together, illuminating both how we got to this particularly salient point in history while highlighting those moments when things could have been different.

Moral Reckoning

The story begins with Leo Tolstoy — a touchstone for Moyn — who observed (somewhat dyspeptically) that the move to make war more humane could ultimately have the effect of dragging it out indefinitely. It then tells the story of the intellectual figures behind the first Geneva Convention before pivoting to a discussion of peace movements in Europe and the United States from the late nineteenth century through World War II.

Chapters three and four circle back to follow the arc of US imperial violence, from continental encounters with native peoples, to the explicitly imperialist objectives of the Philippines occupation, through the Cold War and the mass death, disappearance, and torture associated with maintaining American hegemony and the postwar order. For Moyn, the important thing to understand about this period is that Abraham Lincoln’s general order to limit the torture and abuse of prisoners (the “Lieber Code”) was never meant to limit the torture and abuse of people in the colonized and postcolonized zones of the world (including “Indian Country”), since, within these zones, “the people were the enemy.”

This insouciant attitude toward the violent excesses of war (at least when aimed at non-Europeans) begins to change, Moyn argues, during the “period of clarity” following revelations about the My Lai massacre, a time in which many people “were prepared to see government officials and US citizens themselves as potential and actual evildoers.” Gradually, international lawyers began focusing their interventions less on the legality of war itself and more on holding states and individuals legally accountable for the inhumanity of war crimes. The results were enhanced supplements to the Geneva Conventions in 1977 and the 1985 United Nations Convention Against Torture.

Delegates from formerly colonized, recently liberated states in the Global South, Moyn argues, were successful in getting language into these protocols to acknowledge struggles for “national liberation.” But their greater objective — to establish “a more peaceful world with less great-power intervention” — was ignored entirely. Instead, the international order that had taken shape over three hundred years of European imperialism — what that master of euphemisms John Ikenberry calls “a hierarchical order with liberal characteristics” — shifted its moral orientation, away from concern with “armies against armies” toward a fixation with “armies against humanity.”

This shift, Moyn argues, gave “unprecedented power and responsibility alike to military lawyers” who, throughout the 1990s, would help lock in a new cultural imperative for “humane war” within the military. Once George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton had abandoned any possibility that the end of the Cold War might bring about a reconsideration of US military hegemony, these lawyers — and the discourse of “international humanitarian law” they concocted — rapidly became the lingua franca of American domination.

September 11, therefore, did not “change everything.” Rather, the ineradicable quality of the war on terror simply extended the time horizon of war, a war whose now explicitly endless quality could be squared with “humane” parameters of engagement. As Moyn deftly illustrates, the claim that torture was illegal swiftly overcame claims about the illegality of the Afghan and Iraq wars. An obsession to end “cruelty,” rather than war itself, settled in, sucking all the legal and activist oxygen from the room.

Moyn’s chapter on Barack Obama — and the way his signature technocratic approach cut the legs from under the peace movement and installed drone strikes as a permanent feature of United States’ military landscape — is perhaps the most powerful in the book. Obama, Moyn insists, who ran as an anti-war candidate, “expanded the War on Terror to an awesome extent, while making it sustainable for a domestic audience in a way his predecessor never did.” Moyn is absolutely unforgiving in his critique of Obama’s “lawyerly” style and his savant-like ability to perform moral reckoning (e.g., “We tortured some folks”) while overseeing a new, abusive stage in the expansion of US power.

For Moyn, Donald Trump is merely the logical outcome of the catastrophic failures of the war on terror: a racist, xenophobic, unhinged populist who, nonetheless, came to power on the promise of ending endless wars. That he did no such thing — that he merely increased reliance on special forces and drone strikes — should come as no surprise. Through three presidents, “the shambolic last one included,” Moyn argues, the United States has made strides to minimize the cruelty, violence, and harm of war while expanding its ambit. The result has been an entrenchment of disciplining, surveillance-oriented militarism on a global scale and a Republican Party increasingly in love with full-blown authoritarianism at home. And all of these changes have taken place against the ever-more-invisible backdrop of people’s actual lives — the daily routines of men, women, and children coping with instability, insecurity, and trauma under skies transformed by the relentless roar of drones thrumming “humanely” overhead.

“Not Us”

One of Moyn’s greatest gifts as a scholar and a writer is his capacity to combine a carefully crafted historical narrative with both an analysis of political and legal discourse and a righteous anger at the abuses this discourse enables. He is particularly attuned, for instance, to the way the rhetorically slippery language of “humane war” allowed liberal internationalist supporters of US hegemony to distance themselves from neoconservatives during the George W. Bush Administration by professing shock — shock! — at America’s torture program.

“It was honest and right,” Moyn asserts in perhaps the most arresting passage of the book, to decry John Yoo’s “cavalier attitudes toward the Geneva Conventions.” “It was false and strategic,” he continues, “to imply that . . . humane war under the law had long been central to American ideals before a cabal of neoconservative radicals came along.” In moments like this, one feels Moyn’s anger at the unrelenting hypocrisy of international lawyers and the United States’ foreign policy establishment like a punch in the gut.

My one sympathetic dissatisfaction is that the book doesn’t go far enough in amplifying and historicizing that hypocrisy itself. In other words, Humane is incredibly good at following the twinned ideas of peace and “humane war” from the nineteenth century to today and incredibly good at illuminating the twisted moral and political landscape of a contemporary moment in which “swords have not been beaten into ploughshares,” but rather, “melted down for drones.” It is less good, however, at linking the ascendence of “humane war” to the larger ideological universe that has sustained US hegemony for so long. It is less good, in other words, at interrogating the way politicians, public intellectuals, and international lawyers have historically relied on a common sense about the American character as inherently liberal to deflect criticism from all the ways it is not.

Moyn is fully aware of this rhetorical sleight of hand, as his damning critique of Obama demonstrates. “Over and over again,” Moyn notes, “Obama’s characteristic reaction to the inhumanity he was editing out of endless warfare became: ‘That’s not us. That’s not who we are.’” He argues that this negative formulation — not us — made the United States’ forays into empire and torture seem “out of character” because we know ourselves to be upstanding people with good, humanitarian values.

What isn’t as obvious, from Moyn’s critique, is the historical tenacity of this “not who we are” framing and the extent to which it has persisted throughout the historical period the book covers. We see it, for instance, in Moyn’s own retelling of that history. In 1899, he explains, the liberal editors of the Nation may have been quick to call the genocidal military campaign in the Philippines a form of “cruelty worthy of savages,” but they also insisted that “to the credit of our soldiers,” even in the midst of battle and as “they carry out the orders to take no prisoners, most of them inwardly revolt at the idea of such barbarism.” Yes, Americans may have done terrible things in the Philippines, says the Nation, but they never felt good about them. Moyn notes the oddity of this disclaimer but doesn’t pursue it further.

And yet, rhetorical turns like this are incredibly common in the history of international discourse. Since the emergence of international institutions at the turn of the last century, and particularly since the end of formal imperialism, liberal internationalist supporters of both the British and US empires have described the unsavory actions of those empires in the same language that the Nation used in 1899 and Obama in 2014: “That’s not who we are.” They have couched this denial in both racist and nonracist terms. They have used both civilizational and egalitarian logic. Most importantly, they have insisted that “who we are not” trumps “what we do” even in the face of violence and cruelty, even in the absence of laws about “humane war.”

Within liberal theory itself, there is a robust, recent tradition of such negatively framed identity claims. For instance, when Judith Shklar,  Richard Rorty, and Annette Baier argued in the 1980s and ’90s that “cruelty is the worst thing we can do” (the title of Moyn’s sixth chapter), they were making affirmative statements about what it means to be a liberal by describing what it cannot tolerate. Within the realm of foreign policy, liberal internationalists have been at the forefront of making similar assertions about identity, insisting that violence and cruelty are exceptional to “our” values and the principles of the US-led liberal world order.

Yes, Ikenberry and Daniel Deudney argued reluctantly in 2018, global liberalism may have been associated historically with “imperialism, slavery, and racism.” But, they continue, that isn’t really us. Rather, they insist, to the extent “that the long arc of history does bend toward justice, it does so thanks to the activism and moral commitment of liberals and their allies.” Liberalism and liberals, in this equation, are always the perennial answer to any question, because “we” are not imperial people.

Moyn is absolutely familiar with this liberal legerdemain, and at times in the book — as with his cutting critique of the way liberal internationalists joined forces with neocons after 1989 to slam shut any possibility of “a more peaceful era” — he is explicit about how it works. These criticisms, however, are not conjoined across the time period the book covers, and, as a result, the reemerging quality of the rhetorical theme itself is more muted than it could be. As I read Humane, my nagging sense that this might be the case was confirmed when I flipped to the back cover and saw that former Princeton University professor and director of policy planning for the State Department during the Obama administration Anne-Marie Slaughter had endorsed the book. Even more perversely, she had done so by explicitly comparing it to Michael Walzer’s 1977 philosophical treatise, Just and Unjust Wars.

To be clear, Slaughter’s commitment to a rigidly blind US exceptionalism makes her one of the most deflective liberal internationalists writing today. Walzer’s own brand of liberal exceptionalism was fully on display in his support for the war in Afghanistan and his tepid refusal to condemn the Iraq War outright, while his long-standing advocacy of just war theory has recently come under criticism for its imperialist applications. That Slaughter could read Moyn’s book (assuming she did) and not only endorse it but compare it to Just and Unjust War suggests, I think, that Moyn’s frequent observations about liberal internationalist hypocrisy are sufficiently low-key enough to escape Slaughter’s notice. In other words, somewhere in the story of “humane” war’s triumph, liberal complicity fades slightly into the background.

High Stakes

Why is this important? Moyn has, after all, written a book to explain the emergence and triumph of “humane war” as a concept in international law that justifies and enables endless war. He has done that exceptionally well. Moyn himself, however, knows that the political problem and the political stakes of our current moment are bigger and more complicated than the story of “international humanitarian law” can capture, and this troubles him. “The bitter truth,” he argues, “is that exposing America’s illicit violence, and showing that humanity is just a cover for it, has not worked.” It has not slowed down the war on terror or changed the minds of a foreign policy establishment who continue to take US military hegemony as an article of faith. “Humane war,” in this sense, is the latest in series of legitimating narratives that allow liberals to square the circle between what “we” are not and global domination, a shell game with horrific consequences for both foreign and domestic policy.

We must, to my mind, take Humane as a call to arms — she says, fully aware of the irony — to begin talking more explicitly about liberal complicity with empire in a way that will make embedded public intellectuals like Slaughter deeply uncomfortable. This is not, I freely admit, an easy thing to do. The language of “not who we are” is an identity-driven rhetorical filter that instantly transforms even the mildest criticism about the US-led liberal world order into an existential crisis and a personal attack. Recent invectives hurled at pro-restraint scholars (including Moyn) by liberal internationalists demonstrate that they do not respond well to such prodding. Anyone who has ever read Walzer’s histrionically defensive, ad hominem attack on Edward Said know what vitriol can result from lowering such a boom in public, no matter how reasonable and well-sourced the argument.

At the end of the day, however, I think if we are going to find a political response to the problem Moyn identifies — that showing humanity has been a cover for war has not worked to fix the problem of endless war — we are going to have to start situating phenomena like “humane war” within the broader, ideological edifice of liberal exceptionalism. We are going to have to start collectively digging, as Said once put it, “between the space of words” to reveal the ugly forms of hierarchy and domination behind not just the language of humanity, but the whole deflective liberal-imperial edifice.

Returning to Tolstoy at the end of the book, Moyn reemphasizes that the project of eliminating suffering in war cannot be the end goal in itself, but rather, must be part of a “broader project of challenging hierarchy in all its forms, including non-violent ones.” Insofar as this book exposes — with precision and pathos — the ways that “humane war” has served as cover for the United States’ grip on a hierarchical global order, it succeeds brilliantly.

Combating “hierarchy in all its forms,” however, is a knottier political project that requires, on the one hand, head-on confrontation with the liberal deflective word salad of US exceptionalism. Because, for too long, liberals have framed their conception of “who we are” using terms (e.g., human rights, democracy, equality) that ring hollow in the context of our current political and economic climate, both global and domestic. For too long, liberals have talked about “humane” warfare while explicitly sanctioning the expansion of the war on terror and the United States’ grotesque, metastasizing security budget. Exposing how “not who we are” disclaimers mask that hypocrisy — and doing so in a public and confrontational way — has to play a crucial role in the fight against “hierarchy in all its forms.”

On the other hand, that fight also necessitates a wholesale reimagination of the “we” in positive terms that challenge liberal common sense about global wealth redistribution and the moral necessity of US military hegemony. And that has to happen soon — as in now — because the rhetorical thread that sews together “not who we are” narratives with actual conditions of domination and radical inequality has been pulled tighter and tighter in recent years to sustain an increasingly abusive capitalist economy and a war on terror without end.

Five years ago, Moyn rightly argues, this tautness gave us Trump, who smashed through liberal deflection with his affirmative vision of a “we”: white, nationalist, Christian, and free. If “we” are not bold in our condemnations of liberal perfidy and fierce in our demand for a better world, he’ll come screaming-knuckles-dragging back onto the global stage in 2024 to, once again, fill in the “not” with something even more noxious.

“We” are more than “not” that.