A Call for Humanists to Again Address the Question of War: Part 2

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021

By Paul Heffron

This is Part 2 of a three-part series by the author about war. You can read Part 1 here.

Slavery was an evil institution created by humans. Reformers, believing that this evil could not be abolished outright, proposed making it less cruel and more humane. The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy countered by arguing that if slavery were humanized, it would never be abolished. But though it took a long time, it was ultimately seen as an irredeemable evil and was ended.

What about war? Why couldn’t it follow this path as well?  That has proven to be more difficult. Some reformers in Tolstoy’s time proposed making war less brutal, believing that would eventually lead to its end.  Tolstoy again argued against it, fearing that  making war more humane would just make it more tolerable.

In his book Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, Samuel Moyn, a professor of jurisprudence and history at Yale, writes, “Tolstoy is being proved right…the humanization of America’s wars has become a part of the syndrome of their perpetuation, not a step beyond them.” In other words, in our recent history we have abandoned the goal of peace and reinvented war as something carried on by humane methods, but seemingly without end.  

The conventional military view, as expressed by 19th century theorist Carl von Clausewitz, rejected efforts to humanize war,  saying wars should be fought without restraints to bring them to an end more swiftly, which would save lives and limit destruction. Many of America’s wars followed the Clausewitz model but not always successfully.

Such wars have generated and ended peace movements. In the late 19th century until World War I, a peace movement was in high gear, with celebrity advocates; best-selling books; Nobel Peace Prize winners; an international peace conference at the Hague; and proposals for arbitration, disarmament, and a world federation based on the U.S. constitutional federation of 1787. This peace movement, and later ones, gained public support, leading to international agreements, but they were mostly lip service with no means of enforcement. Wars continued to break out and became ever more destructive.

The United States had engaged in brutal wars with Mexico and the Indian nations to expand west. In 1898, it instigated a war with Spain, and by winning, acquired Spain’s colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean, including the Philippines, where it brutally repressed a war for independence. An American-style empire was in the making, with a world class navy and growing global economic interests.

In 1917, the United States entered World War I with peace as a goal (“a war to end all wars”). In hindsight, many Americans viewed the war as illegal and pointless. A peace movement emerged in the 1930s but was silenced in 1941 by America’s entry in World War II.

Some advocates of air power claimed aerial bombing was a more civilized form of warfare than ground war. At first, President Franklin Roosevelt said there would be no bombing of civilians. However, with the firebombing of German cities and of Tokyo and other Japanese cities, and then the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities, the air war could hardly be regarded as more civilized. After the war, the Nuremberg Trials and the Tokyo Trials made wars of aggression international crimes.

The UN Charter created the Security Council, which was supposed to prevent war, authorize intervention to end wars, and establish peace keeping, but its permanent members had veto power and could block such actions.

In 1950, when the Soviet Union was not present to exercise its veto, the Council authorized a “police action” in South Korea to counter North Korea’s invasion. After American troops moved up through South Korea and well into North Korea, Chinese troops entered the war, and American forces retreated. “When General MacArthur finally let the air force do its worst [during the retreat],” Moyn writes, “every town and even village of note in the north was reduced to smoking ruin, as fighters strafed those who tried to put the fires out…meanwhile ground forces torched farms and foodstuffs.” Most of those who didn’t starve died in the winter cold. Moyn concludes, “Korea was the most brutal war of the twentieth century, measured by the intensity of violence and per capita civilian deaths.” There was no talk of humanizing war.

Next was the Vietnam War (1964-75). Protesters alleged that the intervention was unjustified, and that the napalm bombs and aerial bombing of North Vietnam, the torture and shooting of prisoners, and the massacre at My Lai were war crimes. Bertrand Russell’s war crimes tribunal (1967), co-led by Jean Paul Sartre, gave a verdict of “inhumane” to the war. Rev. Martin Luther King and associates, many military veterans, political leaders, and student protesters denounced the war.

“From the ashes of Hanoi and the darkness of My Lai, the possibility of humane war would come into view,” Moyn writes. In all of America’s wars, he adds, little attention has been paid to  the civilian victims. That changed beginning with the Geneva protocols of 1977, which prohibited the targeting of civilians and excessive collateral damage in war.

In the late 1990s, there was a new focus in international law on victims of both ground and air wars. In 1999, Human Rights Watch condemned the indiscriminate bombing from 10,000 feet by the U.S. of cities in Serbia to end the war crimes in the Kosovo War ‒ without  U.N. authorization. President Bill Clinton regarded it as just and necessary. The rights of civilians became even more urgent in the drive to humanize war.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, President George Bush declared a new type of war, a War On Terror, and lawyers inside the Bush administration wrote a code of rules. But John Yoo and other advisors provided Bush with escape hatches to do what he and Vice President Dick Cheney wanted, “running roughshod over other rules prohibiting the use of force.”

The War on Terror, as authorized by Congress, allowed going after terrorists and their host nations anywhere in the world without a time limit. That meant going after the 9/11 attackers and many other individuals or groups and nations such as Afghanistan and Iraq that harbored terrorists. It also produced photos of torture at Abu Ghraib and the horrors of detention at Guantanamo. No effective peace movement emerged as during the Vietnam War.  John Kerry criticized the way Bush was conducting the Iraq War in his campaign for the presidency, but Bush was reelected. There followed a greater emphasis on the legality of war and counterterrorism and what would be called a “light footprint” by using limited air strikes, drones, cruise missiles, Special Forces, and cyberattacks.

President Obama reversed many of Bush’s policies and practices and increased and expanded the War on Terror, making it more humane with the use of drones and Special Forces, the latter in 2011 taking out Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of 9/11. Now the goal of less harm to civilians and infrastructure was added to earlier humanizing practices like treating wounded and captured soldiers and prisoners humanely.  The War on Terror was conceived as “self-defense against terrorists” including “preemptive self-defense” regardless of whether or not Americans were threatened. New global engagements were more like policing, defended as humane and morally wholesome. Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

Moyn’s assessment: war was “becoming humane—but never-ending.” Donald Trump as candidate and president was opportunistic and inconsistent. He could condemn the Iraq War, but endorse brutal war. He identified with the hashtag #EndEndlessWar, but carried on what had become the never-ending war against terrorism more expansively. For example, he ordered the killing of Iran’s popular general Ossim Soleimani with a Reaper drone that hovered and fired a Hellfire missile at its target (a weapon costing $65 million).

What about President Biden? Moyn recently observed that he is following in Obama’s footsteps, continuing the policies and practices of the humane forever war.

Moyn’s thesis is provocative and debatable. Maybe our global war against terrorism seems endless. But is making war humane part of the problem or part of the solution? Moyn maintains that our empire as a world power, seeking domination, makes never-ending war inevitable. Maybe world peace is not possible so long as there is a conflict between the world powers of America, Russia, and China. 

What positions have humanists taken? That’s next in Part 3 of this series.


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