Skip To Content

In honoring those who wage ‘humane’ war, has the Nobel Peace Prize become a force of villainy?

Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War

By Samuel Moyn

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 416 pages, $25.49

Slavery is evil. It is also a part of human nature. Human beings are aggressive, violent creatures, which is why you find slavery in every society in human history. Ergo, attempts to get rid of slavery are well-meaning but hopelessly naïve. You can no more ban slavery than you can ban evil; human nature is human nature. This doesn’t mean that we should be celebrating slavery, of course. That would be immoral. No, the responsible, pragmatic way forward is to try to make slavery better: better health care for the sick and injured, safer working conditions, shorter hours, fewer beatings. It’s the realistic thing to do.

It’s also bullshit, the logic so tangled, the counterexamples so numerous, the moral obliviousness so intense that to go through the preceding paragraph and refute it point-by-point would be a waste of everyone’s time. But replace “slavery” with “warfare,” and suddenly you have an argument that almost everyone takes seriously. Wars may be just or unjust, but warfare, hawks and bleeding hearts agree, is here to stay. The best we can do, alas, is make sure the children stay out of the line of fire and the POWs have enough blankets. It’s not just realistic, it’s humane.

With “Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War,” Samuel Moyn has written the definitive history of a curious little idea: that there is a civilized way to murder your opponent on the battlefield — or, more often these days, in his home while he’s sleeping and you’re steering a drone from the safety of a desk two time zones away.

Between “Humane” and Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Bomber Mafia,” 2021 has been an eventful year for airstrike literature. Gladwell’s book lionizes the engineers who thought they could make war more Christian by making bomb-dropping technology more accurate, so that only the bad people would die; their noble dream, Gladwell suggests, has more or less come true with the 21st-century American military.

Humane, by Samuel Moyn

An Extraordinary Book: Moyn explains, in at times painfully clear prose, why wars drag on for decades; why well-meaning “realists” often turn out to be the most unrealistic people of all; and why the oxymoron of humane warfare has seduced so many of them. Courtesy of farrar straus and giroux

To say that Moyn has written a better book than this would be meager praise; “Humane” is an extraordinary book. It explains, in at times painfully clear prose, why wars drag on for decades; why well-meaning “realists” often turn out to be the most unrealistic people of all; and why the oxymoron of humane warfare has seduced so many of them.

We begin, pre-Afghanistan, pre-Vietnam, pre-World War and pre-airplane, with Leo Tolstoy. A pacifist Christian, Tolstoy despised war unequivocally, which meant he despised anyone and anything that made war more feasible, even the saintly likes of Florence Nightingale. The First Geneva Convention of 1864 was and is still seen as a triumph of international humanitarianism. 14 European powers, rattled by the Crimean War, agreed to a set of rules for the ethical treatment of prisoners: henceforth the wounded would have the right to adequate medical care, to be provided by neutral organizations like the Red Cross. It was an ambitious effort to ameliorate one of the nastiest parts of armed combat, and for Tolstoy it was a disaster.

Leo Tolstoy

Pacifist Christian: Leo Tolstoy despised war unequivocally, which meant he despised anyone and anything that made war more feasible, even the saintly likes of Florence Nightingale. By Getty Images

By claiming to make warfare more humane, Tolstoy argued, Europe had merely legitimized warfare, dressing it in the moral prestige of the Red Cross. There could be no amelioration of the evils of war; only eradication would do. Yet after Geneva, war was no longer a deviation from law; it was part of the law. Perhaps even worse, one of the primary reasons why societies hesitate to fight — the grotesque suffering of soldiers and their families — had lost some of its prohibitive power.

Seen a certain way, Tolstoy’s argument has a stubbornly idealistic, mildly infuriating, altogether Tolstoyan tone. It reminds me of Lenin’s response, upon learning about murdered proletarians in German, that “worse is better” for the global Socialist revolution. Didn’t Tolstoy care about wounded soldiers? Did he really want them to die of gangrene? But just as realists have a funny way of coming to seem unrealistic, cranky extremists sometimes turn out to be perfectly correct — if not about their own time, then about a later one.

Ours, that is.

Since 2009, the White House has rubber-stamped airstrikes in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya — all internationally condemned and all sketchily reported in the mainstream American press, if reported at all. The old pattern of wartime-peacetime-wartime has become a ceaseless trickle of bombs. Even more astonishingly, this is supposed to be a good thing.

Samuel Moyn

Truth Teller: Samuel Moyn’s “Humane” assails the oxymoron of civilized warfare. By Jessica Scranton

Since the Dubya years, the myth goes, the War on Terror has cooled down. The horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay have been replaced by the delicacy of the drone strike, executed with what is always defensively described as “surgical accuracy.” (An eerily apt description, since pointless, overpriced cosmetic surgeries are a hobby for the billionaires who buy the politicians who approve the strikes.) Any statistics that challenge this myth — e.g., since 2016, 40 percent of the civilians killed in airstrikes in Afghanistan have been children — are ignored.

Looking back at 20 years of incompetence and bad faith in the Middle East, it’s hard not to conclude that Tolstoy was right all along; when it comes to war, any form of amelioration boils down to continuation. The glib alibi of humane combat has suckered reasonable people into supporting a forever war in which only bad people are killed by drones, because drones only kill bad people, because drones are surgically accurate.

For the last 150 years, Moyn shows, Western humanitarians have been missing the point with clocklike regularity. War isn’t wrong because POWs are tortured or because civilians are massacred. It’s wrong because it represents an occupation of other people’s land, an attack on other people’s lives — in other words, because it’s war. It doesn’t matter how virtuous the humanitarian crusaders’ intentions are: To crusade against war crimes is to imply, subtly but surely, that there is a non-criminal way of waging war, floating just out of reach.

There almost seems to be a rule that whenever Western powers unite under the banner of the humane, they’re hiding a guilty conscience. In the early 1900s, every right-thinking, educated, liberal progressive in Europe and the United States was against the Belgian regime in the Congo. Belgian colonialists treated their subjects cruelly — children were being worked to death; adults were being whipped and tortured. It was inhumane and had to be stopped. In those same liberal progressive circles, meanwhile, the principle that Europe and the U.S. had the right to colonize Africa and steal its resources went all but unchallenged.

It’s easy now to see what few admitted at the time: the debate about crimes against the Congolese was a smokescreen, intentional or not, for the crime of imperialism. By ganging up on Belgium, the Great Powers made their own colonies seem virtuous by comparison — no torture in India or Hawaii, just dispassionate, systematic domination. (And Belgium was only able to colonize the Congo in the first place, it’s worth remembering, by raising money from humanitarians convinced they were spreading civilization to the “Dark Continent.”)

Moyn doesn’t write at much length about the Belgian controversy, since it wasn’t a war. But then, none of the violence Europe inflicted on Africa in the 19th century was considered war under the articles of the Geneva Convention, and thus none of it — not the torture, not the child abuse, not the concentration camps — was inhumane, technically speaking. Humane combat was the privilege of civilized nation-states — i.e., the fraction of humanity that called itself white.

In Moyn’s early chapters,. he does an unimprovable job of pointing out the hypocrisies in the 19th-century’s definition of the word. But he never loses sight of the main point: Even when countries unhypocritically enforce the rules of warfare, war remains immoral. The means of war are always evolving, but the cycle of moral outrage has barely changed since the days of the steam engine.

First, a powerful, industrialized country invades another country, usually under the guise of preserving civilization or keeping its citizens safe. A few onlookers insist that the powerful country had no right to invade. The fighting drags on. Rumors of human rights abuses slowly harden into facts. Opposition to these abuses grows louder, until it has drowned out any opposition to the initial invasion. Eventually, the fighting ends, and a few war criminals are punished for their roles in a few thousand inhumane deaths. The leaders of the powerful, industrialized country — usually the United States — go unpunished for ordering millions of deaths, since those deaths are humane. The flimsy legal rationale for war survives, allowing the cycle to begin again: World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq …

So much for what has stayed the same. What’s changed, Moyn convincingly and depressingly demonstrates, is the apathy of the public, which has grown with the elimination of the draft and the emergence of ever-more distracting and addictive forms of entertainment. In the Nuremberg Trials of the late 40s, the Allied forces prosecuted Germans officials not only for war crimes but for “crimes against peace,” the message being that starting the war was the Nazi’s greatest act of evil. Yet this message has been largely forgotten.

When American high school students learn about Nuremberg, they’re usually taught that it was about punishing atrocity, as if war might be acceptable if it were atrocity-free (which is like saying that Belgian imperialism might have been acceptable if the colonists hadn’t chopped off so many Congolese hands). Since 1949, the crucial “crimes against peace” section of the Nuremberg Principles has never been enforced.

America’s grasp of later wars has been even shallower. As Noam Chomsky has argued, there was almost no public opposition to the war in Vietnam or the war in Iraq; there was widespread opposition to the implementation of both, to the inhumane events of My Lai and Abu Ghraib, but scarcely a word of protest to the idea that the United States has the right to invade other nations. Iraq and Vietnam weren’t in themselves crimes; they were bad investments, mismanaged. In 2019, when The Washington Post revealed that Pentagon officials had deemed the war in Afghanistan unwinnable from day one, people shrugged and went on scrolling.

If Tolstoy is the surprise hero of “Humane,” the surprise villain is the Nobel Peace Prize. For an organization expressly committed to “the abolition or reduction of standing armies,” the Nobel committee has honored an eyebrow-raising number of people who’ve helped get wounded soldiers back on the battlefield as soon as possible — including, in its first year of existence, the Red Cross co-founder Henri Dunant. The Red Cross itself has won the prize three times, the second time in 1944 for its “great work on behalf of humanity,” which we now know included its complete silence on the Holocaust as well as the slaughter of 3 million POWs on the Eastern front.

Sixty-five years later, Barack Obama won a Peace Prize of his own and used his acceptance lecture to announce that he’d be open to starting however many wars it took to beat the terrorists. The Nobel Secretary Geir Lundestad later said he wished the committee had chosen a different recipient; by then, Obama had become the first president in American history to lead the country through eight years of nonstop, relentlessly humane war.

Moyn’s tone as he explains this — as he explains anything, really — is even, measured, thoughtful. He’s not a melodramatic writer, and in a sense melodrama is the thing he’s writing against. One of this book’s most subtly powerful points is that the weepy rhetoric of “atrocity” and “inhumane” has, for all its gentle intentions, helped justify a world in which war never ends, the drone strikes never stop, and nobody seems to care. Almost nobody. Make no mistake: beneath Moyn’s calm prose, he’s shaking with rage.

Jackson Arn is the Forward’s contributing art critic.

A message from our editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren

We're building on 127 years of independent journalism to help you develop deeper connections to what it means to be Jewish today.

With so much at stake for the Jewish people right now — war, rising antisemitism, a high-stakes U.S. presidential election — American Jews depend on the Forward's perspective, integrity and courage.

—  Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief 

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.