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“Humane”: Yale Historian Samuel Moyn on “How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War”

StorySeptember 09, 2021
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In his new book, Yale historian Samuel Moyn explores whether the push to make U.S. wars more “humane” by banning torture and limiting civilian casualties has helped fuel more military interventions around the world. He looks in detail at the role of President Obama in expanding the use of drones even as he received the Nobel Peace Prize. “What happened after 2001 is that, in the midst of an extremely brutal war on terror, a new kind of war emerged. … It was important to Americans to see their wars fought more humanely,” says Moyn. “Even though this represents a kind of progress, it also helped Americans sustain war and helped make the war on terror endless.” Moyn’s new book is “Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we spend the rest of the hour with author and Yale University history professor Samuel Moyn. He’s just published a remarkable book, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War. It looks at how the U.S. created a world of endless wars and helped reinvent the rules of war. The book came out earlier this week, just after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan after nearly two decades of occupation and days ahead of the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks and the launch of the so-called war on terror.

Professor Samuel Moyn, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Start off by talking about this very revealing title, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War.

SAMUEL MOYN: Well, Amy, the United States has been at war since before it even existed, against Native peoples, and later beyond its borders. And especially since World War II, America has been at war globally. But all those wars were brutal in the extreme, and there were no rules prohibiting brutal conduct, by design.

What happened after 2001 is that, in the midst of an extremely brutal war on terror, a new kind of war emerged, and it was one in which, really for the first time, it was important to Americans to see their wars fought more humanely, in conformity with international rules that prohibit torture, that limit civilian death. And the worry is that even though this represents a kind of progress, it also helped Americans sustain war and help make the war on terror endless. Even though Joe Biden has withdrawn troops, he has promised to continue the war on terror in other ways.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sam Moyn, you also make the argument that a more humane war — this idea of a more humane war has accompanied an increasingly interventionist foreign policy. So, if you could elaborate on that and also the fact, that you detail in the book, of the role of human rights organizations in advancing this view — Human Rights Watch, for example, which you say initially didn’t take any position on war but then came to support certain humanitarian interventions?

SAMUEL MOYN: So, I would start the story with Vietnam, which was a much more brutal war, illegal in the international system, but also in blatant violation, with lots more torture than the war on terror and a lot more civilian death. And there was an antiwar movement in response to it. And the revelations of the My Lai massacre, which were so horrifying, added fuel to the fire of that antiwar movement. But then George McGovern, the peace candidate, really the last peace candidate we’ve had in this country, lost badly, and Democrats came to learn the lesson — I think, the wrong lesson — that they needed to be as interventionist as the Republicans, whom they were fighting for power. And so, we see, across the later years of the Cold War and into the 1990s, high-minded rationales for American intervention, even though many of these interventions, like the Kosovo bombings, violated the international rules that prohibit the use of force. And the question I’m posing is whether we’ve forgotten about those rules, even as we’ve come to focus on the rules that say, once you go to war, you can’t fight brutally.

Human Rights Watch is an excellent example of these, let’s say, imbalanced priorities. So, when it began monitoring wars in the 1980s and '90s, it promised never to take a stand on whether the wars themselves are unjust or indeed illegal, but they did say they would monitor whether wars are conducted illegally, whether there's torture, whether there’s excess collateral damage. Now, it’s also true, as you mentioned, Nermeen, that Human Rights Watch has sometimes strayed from that commitment and endorsed some great power wars.

But my question is whether — alongside groups like Human Rights Watch, that we need monitoring the conduct of wars, how they’re fought — whether we need to get back some of the antiwar sentiment that was present in American history, at least intermittently, before. After all, the laws of war are incredibly permissive. What they allow states to do once war begins is extraordinarily violent, even when it’s supposedly humane. And also remember that soldiers die, not just civilians, on both sides. And so, our ancestors sometimes said, “We really need to keep war from happening.” And it’s that lesson that we’ve stopped learning in the age of the war on terror, when we’ve let the humanity of our wars compensate for the fact that they just keep on going.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Sam, one of the other arguments you make is that — and also this is a continuation of the effect of the Vietnam War — that once the draft was ended in the U.S., the military here embraced humanitarian laws of war in an unprecedented fashion — you write, quote, “a self-humanization of armed force without precedent in the history of any great power.” Could you elaborate on that and explain why that was the case?

SAMUEL MOYN: So, this period of the later ’60s and the 1970s was pivotal for the morality of how war is fought around the world. Partly, there were all kinds of new states after decolonization, and they were made up of peoples who had been the victims of brutal American and European wars for centuries, and they demanded more humanity. Europeans had stopped their empires and relied on the United States to protect them, and so they were in position to ask for more humane wars now that they were no longer fighting them.

Americans, including in the military, understood that military force had to be inflicted in a more ethical, or at least more optically humane, way, because My Lai was such a public relations disaster for the military. People were shocked. Before, it was permissible to inflict the most kind of brutal violence on enemies, especially if they were nonwhite enemies, around the world, and Americans celebrated when that violence was perpetrated. After My Lai, the military realized it needed to accept some constraints on the way it fights, in the name of being able to claim that it was a moral force.

And so, it was utterly important that even as humanitarians in Human Rights Watch and other groups stopped caring about whether there was American war and focusing on how it was fought, so, too, the military, which wants to keep its missions going, was willing to accept some constraints on how those missions are conducted.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn, Professor Moyn, to President Obama’s Nobel Prize speech. It was December 10, 2009, when President Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. This is a clip from his acceptance speech.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We must begin by acknowledging a hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations, acting individually or in concert, will find the use of force not only necessary, but morally justified. … Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard-bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength.

AMY GOODMAN: “That is what makes us different from those we fight. That is a source of our strength.” You repeatedly reference, Professor Moyn, this Nobel acceptance speech in your book. Can you talk about the significance of this and the intensification of the drone wars?

SAMUEL MOYN: So, what fascinates me about Barack Obama is that he was a public moralist, and he thought publicly about the moral significance of law, in particular. And he talked about it in that extraordinary address, as well as the one four years later defending the use of drones. Now, Obama famously wanted to see himself as an heir of Martin Luther King Jr. And in certain ways, he was. He claimed, or repeated, the belief that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. But where King had disputed the use of force when it’s immoral — going to war, in the case of Vietnam — not just how American force was used, Obama ignored the first issue, or justified eternal war, as you heard, and focused on the second, as if how Americans fight would guarantee the moral propriety of the endless wars they’re still fighting today.

When it came to 2013, he gave an equally remarkable speech at the National Defense University, where he said —

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to that clip, because we happen to have it.

SAMUEL MOYN: All right. Excellent.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, in May of 2013, at National Defense University, the one that the well-known peace activist Medea Benjamin of CodePink interrupted. This is President Obama.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: How about Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, 16-year-old American citizen —


MEDEA BENJAMIN: — killed [inaudible]?


MEDEA BENJAMIN: Is that the way we treat a 16-year-old American?


MEDEA BENJAMIN: Why was he killed?


MEDEA BENJAMIN: Can you tell us why Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was killed? Can you tell the Muslim people their lives are as precious as our lives? Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you to stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activities?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We’re addressing that, ma’am.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Will you apologize to the thousands of Muslims that you have killed? Will you compensate the innocent family victims? That will make us safer here at home. I love my country. I love the rule of law. Drones are making us less safe. And keeping people in indefinite detention in Guantánamo is making us less safe. Abide by the rule of law. You’re a constitutional lawyer.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, I think that the — and I’m going off script, as you might expect, here. The — the voice of that woman is worth paying attention to. Obviously — obviously, I do not agree with much of what she said. And obviously she wasn’t listening to me in much of what I said. But these are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: And that audience member, I daresay, he knew exactly who she was, CodePink’s Medea Benjamin, if you had trouble hearing, saying, “Thousands of Muslims that got killed. Will you compensate the innocent families? That will make us safer here at home.” She said, “I love my country. Drone strikes are making us less safe. Keeping people in indefinite detention is making us less safe.” Samuel Moyn?

SAMUEL MOYN: Again, it’s such a morally dramatic moment, not least because you might wonder, after hearing that exchange, which one of them really deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. But what I write about in my book, because I think that moment was, in a way, the climax of Obama’s presidency, at least judged as a moment when he was morally reflecting on his deeds, he conceded that there needs to be some control on war. And if you listen to her, mainly what she’s asking is for less inhumanity.

What’s amazing is that Obama himself goes on in the speech to say maybe the problem is not so much the brutality of the drones, but that we’re fighting endless war at all, because, he says, these kinds of wars will have effects not just on our victims, but on the perpetrators, too. And he anticipated, I think, in that address, if you read it, the coming of Donald Trump as a kind of — you know, a kind of consequence of what happens when nations fight endless war. And sadly, we’re still doing it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We just have a second, Sam, but could you elaborate on that? Why is Trump an effect of that endless war?

SAMUEL MOYN: Well, so, as Spencer Ackerman and so many others have written and talked about on your show, wars fought are never without consequences for the states that fight them, even though, of course, we should be concerned, first and foremost, about those who die or those who are merely surveilled and haunted by drones and special forces.

This really matters because it’s essential that when Biden gave his two speeches the other week defending the pullout from Afghanistan, he made utterly clear that while giving up on failed counterinsurgency, he is turning to, and maybe will intensify himself, the real fruit of 9/11, which is kind of endless counterterror, no matter what the constraints of international law say, unless they require the drones to strike or the special forces to visit with care for the victims.

AMY GOODMAN: Samuel Moyn, we want to thank you for being with us. His new book, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, professor of law and history at Yale University.

Tomorrow, Congresswoman Barbara Lee. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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