Should War Be Made “Humane”?

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 “insignificant, inartistic writer.”

The movement against war of course had other leaders besides Tolstoy. “One of the leading ideologues of eternal peace in the second half of the nineteenth century was the Englishman William [sic] Cobden, who insisted that free trade could someday unify humanity where Christianity had graphically failed to do so” (p. 21. Cobden’s first name was not William but Richard; perhaps Moyn slipped because he was thinking of William Cobbett.).

As I have already mentioned, the antiwar movement of that time wanted to end war, not make it more humane, and indeed Tolstoy was sometimes tempted to go further. In War and Peace, Prince Andrei suggests that soldiers in battle should act as ruthlessly as possible, for example killing enemy prisoners out of hand. Increasing the horror of war might make it more likely that people would end it. By no means was this view confined to fictional characters; Tolstoy himself was of this opinion, though he later withdrew it, and the great Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz spoke in similar terms. Moyn lists a number of examples, but one should be added as well: General William Sherman, who justified his tactics of wanton destruction with this same argument. Fortunately, the view did not prevail in the peace movement, and the movement in fact included efforts to improve conditions for wounded soldiers, of which the most notable were the activities of the Red Cross, founded in Geneva in the 1860s. But the main focus of the antiwar movement was elsewhere. Countess Bertha von Suttner, one of the leaders of the mainstream movement, who had persuaded Alfred Nobel to endow a prize for peace, was justifiably angry that the corecipient of the first peace prize was Henry Dunant, a founder of the Red Cross but not a campaigner for war’s abolition.

Schemes to end war abounded both before and after World War I. Moyn does not mention one of the most theoretically interesting of these, a plan by the philosopher Josiah Royce to end war through insurance agencies, a proposal that prefigured some later suggestions by libertarians for protection through such agencies. (As I fear is all too evident, I am prone to try to catch out authors in errors and omissions; but in doing so, I am especially unfair to Moyn, whose scholarship for this book is prodigious.)

Moyn views with much favor attempts to end war through international law, enforced by an international body able to use armed force to compel acceptance of its decisions. In this connection he devotes much attention to the work of Quincy Wright, a leading authority on international law who favored such an organization. (In his account of Wright’s youth, Moyn points out that Carl Sandburg was a family friend and that Quincy and his father printed editions of Sandburg’s poems on their family printing press. It should also be noted that they were joined in this activity by Quincy’s brother Sewall, who was to become of the twentieth century’s foremost theorists of evolutionary biology.)

I cannot think that this is an effective scheme to end war; the “police actions” of the international body do not cease to be wars by giving them another name. To his credit, Moyn cites a dissenting view by John Bassett Moore, the foremost American authority of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on international law. Moore “felt it was not a good idea for their country to renounce its birthright in exchange for the pottage of endless war to keep other countries from fighting one another (p. 77). Moyn also cites an article by Edwin Borchard, Moore’s greatest disciple, on the illegality of Franklin Roosevelt’s bases-for-destroyers deal with Britain (p. 347, note to p.122).

Moyn also views sympathetically the unsuccessful effort to try Kaiser Wilhelm II for criminal conduct in launching World War I. By making rulers personally responsible for their conduct, peace would be encouraged. Once more, I find myself in dissent from Moyn. Is a tribunal of judges from the victorious side in a war a fit body to decide the responsibilities for a war’s outbreak? Did Germany and its kaiser bear the primary guilt for World War I? I do not think so, and though I cannot argue the question here, the point is much disputed. Moyn also praises the post–World War II Nuremberg tribunal, pointing out that the primary indictment of the German leaders was for starting the war, not for crimes against humanity committed during the conflict. One must again ask whether “victor’s justice” is desirable, all the more so in that the Soviets, sitting in judgment on Germany, had like that country invaded Poland when the war began.

Moyn covers a vast number of issues, and I have space to cover only one more. Today critics of American foreign policy often point to the Vietnam War as the principal instance of horrendous conduct by America during wartime. Those of us alive at the time will never forget the “body counts,” the My Lai massacre, napalm and Agent Orange, and the saturation bombing of both Vietnam and Cambodia. Moyn says that bad as it was, the Korean War was worse. “Korea was the most brutal war of the twentieth century, measured by the intensity of violence and per capita civilian deaths. In three years, four million died, and half of them were civilians—a higher proportion of the population than in any modern war, including World War II and the Vietnam conflict” (p. 135).

Although a number of treaties sought to regulate military conduct during war, serious efforts to apply such measures is a quite recent development. The notorious program of killing by drone, in which civilian casualties are few, at least as compared with earlier military incursions, is a prime case of the effort to “humanize” war. It is precisely this that arouses Moyn’s suspicions. He fears that the expansion of such endeavors, along with programs of global surveillance, would subject the world to hegemonic control by one or a few dominant superpowers. In warning against this danger, Moyn has rendered a great service to peace.