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‘The Question Not Being Discussed Is Whether the War Is Just or Necessary’

7 13 2
24.09.2021

“War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it,” Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman wrote in 1864 in the midst of the U.S. Civil War. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee remarked two years earlier, “It is well that war is so terrible. Otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” Yet more than 150 years later, the United States has done both: refined war and even grown somewhat fond of it—or at least is not minding it as much.

So argues the Yale University historian Samuel Moyn in his powerful new book, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War. In an era of seemingly permanent “over the horizon” warfare—with the often innocent victims of drone strikes around the world rarely acknowledged—Americans have tried to refine war to the point that they’ve stopped debating, for the most part, whether it should even be fought. After a century that yielded the most terrible wars ever waged, and then a decade when the Geneva Conventions and laws of war were intensely debated by the United States following the 2003 Iraq invasion, a zoomed-out perspective on war itself has all but disappeared from the public forum. “The gore and mortality of America’s initial modes of intervention after September 11 have, to a remarkable extent, been removed, like bugs that programmers delete,” Moyn writes. “We fight war crimes but have forgotten the crime of war.”

Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, Samuel Moyn, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 416 pp., $30, September 2021

“War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it,” Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman wrote in 1864 in the midst of the U.S. Civil War. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee remarked two years earlier, “It is well that war is so terrible. Otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” Yet more than 150 years later, the United States has done both: refined war and even grown somewhat fond of it—or at least is not minding it as much.

So argues the Yale University historian Samuel Moyn in his powerful new book, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War. In an era of seemingly permanent “over the horizon” warfare—with the often innocent victims of drone strikes around the world rarely acknowledged—Americans have tried to refine war to the point that they’ve stopped debating, for the most part, whether it should even be fought. After a century that yielded the most terrible wars ever waged, and then a decade when the Geneva Conventions and laws of war were intensely debated by the United States following the 2003 Iraq invasion, a zoomed-out perspective on war itself has all but disappeared from the public forum. “The gore and mortality of America’s initial modes of intervention after September 11 have, to a remarkable extent, been removed, like bugs that programmers delete,” Moyn writes. “We fight war crimes but have forgotten the crime of war.”

Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, Samuel Moyn, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 416 pp., $30, September 2021

And today, Moyn says, with the withdrawal from Afghanistan and traditional combat zones, the United States is embarking on a fresh phase that could set a dangerous new precedent for the world, one that China and other powers may decide to invoke against their own perceived enemies, possibly including political dissidents. It amounts to the “normalization” of a new kind of quiet, unaccountable war deemed by its authors to be “humane” and therefore acceptable. “At some point,” Moyn writes, “today’s deterritorialized and endless war may mutate into an unprecedented new system: rule and surveillance........

© Foreign Policy


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