How human wars are inhuman

Samuel Moyn, Humane: how the United States abandoned peace and reinvented war (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux). 416 p. $ 30.00.

IT IS an old military cliché that at some point generals are always ready to fight and win the most recent of their country’s past wars. But it’s a shock when, in his new book, Humane: how the United States abandoned peace and reinvented war, Samuel Moyn, historian and law professor at Yale, one of America’s foremost thinkers on human rights, the laws of war and more generally on international justice, seems in many ways to commit the same fault. Moyn argues that for most of its history the American war tradition has been particularly cruel (the austere title of the first part of Human is “Brutality”). But then, he continues, in the 1970s there was a big leap forward (Moyn actually used the expression in an exchange about Human with his Yale colleague John Fabian Witt) in the legal regulation of combat itself. It was the United States, Moyn insists (rightly so in my opinion), that led the movement for this virtually unprecedented humanization of the laws of war.

For Moyn, it started with the reexamination that took place in the late 1970s of how America had fought the Vietnam War, and not just through opponents of the war, but within government and can – to be even more important within the United States military itself. This led to the brutality that began to give way to a new and, at least in its self-conception, a much more humane doctrine of war and combat. As Moyn says, “From the ashes of Hanoi and the darkness of My Lai, the possibility of a humane war would become possible.” At first glance, this would appear to be very good news for both the United States and the world. On some level, Moyn doesn’t disagree. On the contrary, he strives to admit that in relation to Vietnam or Korea, not to mention the genocidal wars against the indigenous peoples of the American continent, or the imperial wars of the United States in the Philippines and Central America, the decision The shift to a less bloody combat doctrine, codified in American military and civil law but also in international law accepted by the United States, has been an improvement. At the same time, he rejects the idea that this humanization of war should arouse the most cautious optimism. “Human warfare,” Moyn warns at the very end of the book, “is another version of the slavery of our time.” And far from being a ‘utopia‘, ‘human war’ may turn out to be just a ‘dystopia in a new way’.

On one level, Moyn’s argument will come as no surprise to anyone who has read his work over the past twenty years, during which he has become a major intellectual figure of the American left, at a time of the resurgence of the left in the United States. dominant American policy. His most important books have served to demystify various contemporary utopias. In The last utopia: human rights in history, released in 2010 with much controversy but even more critical acclaim, Moyn harshly rejected the conventional wisdom (at least in North America and Latin America) that the contemporary human rights movement was the culmination of centuries of progress in achieving a more human world. This lineage dates back at least as far as the anti-slavery movement in late 18th century Britain, through the founding of the Red Cross movement, and the first radical limitations on what armies were allowed to do. , and more Nuremberg Trial and subsequent promulgation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In Moyn’s account, proponents of this new human rights utopia – one of its boldest arguments is that it only dates back to the 1970s in the United States – assumed they could usher in a world in which it would finally be possible to do away with some of the most common assumptions about international relations. The most important of these, classically described as the Westphalian order, maintains that states have the right to do more or less what they want within their own borders. But through activism and the law, the belief within the human rights movement that it was being replaced by a developing body of international human rights law which, in extremis, would supplant national law. and hold leaders to account for how they have treated their own citizens, not just how they have acted internationally.

MOYN WAS more than skeptical. Its primary claim in The last utopia was that the human rights movement was born in large part because of the moral vacuum created by the failure of socialism, the disappointments of decolonization, and the emptiness of the initial promise of a more just world order than in 1945 many thought they could be anchored in the United Nations system. Socialism, decolonization, the UN: these, Moyn insisted, had been collective aspirations for a better future for the world, promising “the emancipation of capital and empire.” Human rights, on the other hand, were “minimal, individual and fundamentally moral”. In short, human rights were an ideal doctrine for a liberal capitalist world and, since its inception in the 1970s, had become the moral guarantee of capitalism. By implication, Moyn seemed to call for the restoration of these collectivist visions and promises, although in The last utopia he didn’t quite come out to say it. But in his next book, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, published in 2018, he had either turned a little more to the left, or found it necessary to be more explicit about his political radicalism. “Human rights,” he wrote, have been “both a breakthrough in consciousness and a huge reversal”. As good as its intentions were, the Faustian market of the human rights movement with neoliberalism had “left the world more human but lastingly unequal …”

So it turned out that Moyn was not, in fact, a critic of utopias in general, only of neoliberal utopias. For his call Not enough was for those interested in human rights and justice to end “the accommodating relationship they have had with market fundamentalism and uneven outcomes” and return to an earlier utopia. “It is time,” he wrote, echoing Rosa Luxemburg’s famous rallying cry, “… to relearn the older and greater choice between socialism and barbarism, and the time to rise to the a global project that it has rarely been but must become.

In Human, Moyn is moving in a direction which is both consistent with what he has set out in those earlier books, but which at the same time seems to me to be in some ways incompatible with them. “Jacobin Legacy” is the title of the first chapter of Not enough, and Moyn still seems at least in part inspired by what one might call his neo-Jacobinism. Nor has he abandoned his most original and powerful claim, which is that while various reforms – human rights, philanthropy – may appear to be progress, or they are not progress at all. or they are woefully insufficient both morally and morally. political terms. In Moyn’s new book, he applies the same goal to the efforts of both governments – especially the United States – and national armies to radically reduce both the human toll and the physical destructiveness of combat. transformations in tactics, technology and the role of international and military law. For Moyn, these developments are now a huge obstacle to getting closer to what is for him the only morally acceptable outcome: anything but the abolition of war.

Moyn asserts that he is not a complete pacifist, and in Human he clearly wanted to leave open a very narrow exception to his general demand for the abolition of war. But even his neopacifism seems at odds with his earlier neo-Jacobinism. After all, historically neither socialism nor decolonization were exactly nonviolent affairs, nor was revolutionary violence the rare exception to a nonviolent norm. And since Moyn obviously knows this, one can only wonder if he did not want to address such troublesome historical facts in Human or if he has really come to believe that practically all morally lawful wars have already taken place and that thus, presumably, for the first time in the history of mankind, in the words of the great gospel song “Down By the Riverside ”,“ We ​​will no longer study war.

Obviously, there is no great Jacobin, socialist, or anti-colonial hero that Moyn could call upon as a moral model for thinking about war. After all, everyone from Saint-Just to Luxembourg, from the Danish Vesey to the Algerian FLN, believed that revolutionary violence was both inevitable and necessary. In theory, Moyn might have looked to Mahatma Gandhi as a model, but that might not fit Moyn’s socialism. But the number Moyn turns to in Human seems like a much more perverse choice. He takes as a model for thinking morally the nature of war, none other than the great Russian novelist of the 19th century Leo Tolstoy, to whom the first chapter of Human is dedicated. Moyn acknowledges that his moral model “went too far and, like many prophets, spoke too soon.” By this he is probably referring to Tolstoy’s insistence on the inseparability of his pacifism from his very anti-Jacobian anarchism and his Christian faith. Nonetheless, Moyn describes Tolstoy as having made the “most eloquent and stimulating reservations ever against the attempt to ‘humanize’ war, stressing the moral hazard of not combining the desire for a less brutal war with skepticism. towards the war itself ”. Again, Moyn himself is not quite ready to endorse Tolstoy’s absolutist insistence that “war is never for a good cause,” but he comes very close to it when he writes that “this is almost always the case”.