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Has War Become Too Humane?

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Anyone hoping that this month’s 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks might bring some closure after two decades of war is going to be disappointed. By withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the administration of President Joe Biden sought to create a sense that the United States’ string of exhausting and counterproductive interventions in the Middle East and South Asia was coming to an end. But the truth is more sobering. For all its commitments to end “forever wars,” the administration has given no sign that it is preparing to pivot away from the use of military force to manage perceived terrorist threats. Its ongoing counterterrorism policy review appears to be focused more on refining the bureaucratic architecture around drone strikes and other forms of what the military refers to as “direct action” than on a hard look at the costs and benefits of continuing to place military force at the center of U.S. counterterrorism policy.

Part of the reason may be that there is little meaningful pressure on the administration to revisit the scope of U.S. military action against jihadi groups around the world in what has become known as the “war on terror.” Executive branch lawyers have long read the broadly worded Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that President George W. Bush signed into law a week after the 9/11 attacks as allowing them to decide—often secretly—where and against whom the United States is fighting this war. Congress and the courts have largely acquiesced. Because military action against jihadi groups is often conducted by drones or through light-footprint operations in remote locations, it rarely attracts public attention. The exception is when something goes terribly and publicly wrong, as happened last month during a drone strike in Kabul that killed an Afghan aid worker and nine of his family members, including seven children, and when U.S. soldiers died during a 2017 operation that went wrong in Niger—a place few Americans even realized was a front in the war on terror. But even in those cases, the headlines rarely last; within days, the story usually fades away.

In his new book, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, the Yale Law School professor Samuel Moyn acknowledges this pattern but also sees another factor that helps explain the war on terror’s persistence. The problem, according to his provocative argument, is not the war’s brutality but its relative humanity. Moyn does not at all advocate a return to brutal methods or so-called total war, but he does suggest that in vilifying torture, reducing casualty counts, and otherwise focusing on how the United States conducts hostilities, lawyers and advocates have stunted public criticism and diverted energy from the peace movements that might otherwise bring it to an end.

Moyn’s craft, erudition, and insight make for a book that succeeds on many, but not all, levels. He does not quite make a persuasive case that humanitarian efforts were instrumental in girding domestic support for the war effort. Nor does the book fully explain what lawyers and advocates who sought to curb some of the war on terror’s ugliest features might have actually done to bring the war to an earlier end. Still, one can disagree with aspects of Humane and nevertheless appreciate the way it challenges acquiescence to the status quo. Beyond being a meditation on the meaning of war, it is a history of the tension between pacifism and humanitarianism. In a culture that has come to valorize the latter, Moyn gives the former its due and pushes readers to think about how law can aid the cause of peace. Reining in the executive branch’s unilateral war powers and requiring public deliberation over where and against whom the United States is waging war would be a good place to start.

If the book has a single protagonist, it is Leo Tolstoy, who features prominently in its lengthy exploration of nineteenth-century peace movements and whom Moyn admires both for........

© Foreign Affairs

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