Should War Be Made “Humane”?
Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War
by Samuel Moyn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pp.
Samuel Moyn is a distinguished intellectual historian who teaches both history and law at Yale. His earlier books were written for an academic audience, but in Humane he has an urgent message that he wishes to convey to the general public. There has in recent years been a movement to make war more humane, especially by minimizing death or injury to noncombatants. Moyn thinks this movement poses a danger:
At our stage in the coming of humane war, its advocates and audiences should reevaluate whether they have lost their way in helping to entrench continuing violence, which they could struggle to end instead. If the quest for more humane war could someday minimize not just collateral death and damage but even combatant killing and injury, the looming threat of something far more disquieting is also real. What if the elemental aim of endless war is not the death of enemy soldiers but rather the potentially nonviolent control of other peoples? Would that be tolerable? (p. 324)
If you are opposed to war, humane war, to the extent there can be such a thing, is not enough. That was fully evident to the foremost critic of war of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Count Leo Tolstoy. Just as opponents of slavery sought to abolish it rather than ameliorate the conditions of servitude, so should opponents of war seek to end it, not to humanize it. It was no accident that Tolstoy drew this analogy, as he had been influenced by the American pacifist and abolitionist Adin Ballou. “The Cornell University founder Andrew Dickson White, a long-distance visitor to Tolstoy’s estate, was shocked when Tolstoy insisted in conversation that Ballou was the ‘greatest of all American writers’” (p. 34. Many readers of mises.org will have read White’s great study Fiat Money Inflation in France.).
Tolstoy’s opinions on war mattered a great deal, as he was an international celebrity, widely regarded as the world’s foremost novelist. His followers included Mahatma Gandhi and William Jennings Bryan, who visited Tolstoy at his estate in Russia. Often, though, his opinions on various subjects struck many people as odd and extreme, such as his declaration that Shakespeare was an “insi
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