Remembering the Crime of War

The effort to make war more humane has had the regrettable and foreseeable effect of making war more tolerable and therefore much easier to perpetuate. Along the way, the focus on how wars are fought has distracted us from the even more important questions of whether to fight them and for how long. This is the insightful thesis of Samuel Moyn’s Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, which traces the history of the activists that sought to abolish war and those that chose to try to reform it and ties it together with the history of the brutal U.S. wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The fear of the abolitionists was that reformed warfare would be that much easier to wage and that much harder to end, and the experience of the last 20 years shows that this is exactly what has happened. Now aggressive wars are re-labeled as self-defense to make them seem legal, and once begun our wars go on interminably and expand the longer that they continue.

"We fight war crimes but have forgotten the crime of war," Moyn writes, and our recent history of illegal wars confirms that. Moyn insists that we remember that war itself is the great crime. The Iraq war is a case in point. The illegality of the Iraq war was flagrant and undeniable, but that crime is rarely acknowledged, and it has never been punished. The crimes and abuses that took place during the war have received almost all the attention and criticism, while the war itself is most often described as a blunder or a mistake. Moyn comments: "In the United States, the contrasting responses to the Bush administration’s lifting of international law on the conduct of the war on terror and its twisting of the international law allowing for the Iraq war as such was extremely striking. One stirred national passions; the other went largely un-remarked." But it was the crime of starting the war that unleashed all the other horrors that have since engulfed Iraq for almost two decades, and that crime demands even more opprobrium than the many others that followed from it.

Americans have become so accustomed to their government waging war in other parts of the world that we have come to take it as a given. That is one reason why we have come to treat warfare as a seemingly permanent institution that will always be with us. Moyn rejects this acquiescence to war as an inevitability and warns us of the dangers of normalizing endless war.

Bad faith critics of Humane have chosen to miss this point entirely. Moyn makes it very clear that he applauds the successes of reform, but he says that the role of reform in America’s militarized foreign policy "requires attention precisely because such reform is always a good thing." Reducing harm to civilians is obviously desirable and worthy, but if governments stopped resorting to force so frequently there would be far less harm in need of reducing. It is better for war to be more rather than less humane, but it would be far better not to wage these wars in the first place. The cost of humanizing war, then, is that it entrenches and normalizes war so that the US and the many countries that it bombs will never know true peace. Moyn’s provocation is to suggest that we should not settle for anything less than peace.

The use of drones has been central to the waging of endless war, and each drone strike is always followed by the military’s claims of how careful and precise they try to be. As we saw in the August 29 drone strike in Kabul, this care and precision counted for nothing because the military had chosen to target an innocent man and misinterpreted his harmless daily activities as evidence of a sinister plot. Moyn observes, "Invocations of the care and precision of drone violence still abet or accompany too much violence as the lure of "humanizing security" helps Americans to take the bait of war." The drone war hums along because it promises to eliminate supposed threats at relatively low cost, but it should disturb us how readily we have chosen to accept a system of serial assassination solely on the grounds that the state tells us that the victims pose some threat. The Kabul strike last month is just one of many cases where that wasn’t remotely true.

War is evil. Making it relatively more humane can make that evil more tolerable and therefore more tempting to embrace. It is not an accident that military action has increasingly become our government’s first resort during the same period that warfare has become relatively more precise. Our government launches attacks on foreign soil without regard for international or domestic law, it initiates hostilities against other governments at will, and it deals out death to countless people on the far side of the world even when they have no ability to cause the United States the least harm. At the same time that it professes to take great care about how it fights an endless war that still kills civilians at an alarming rate, our government expands its war to an increasing number of countries to fight a constantly growing list of enemies and tramples international law underfoot. It is not enough merely to rein in the war’s excesses. We must recognize that the war itself is wrong and work to terminate it.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.