The Voices of War

40. Samuel Moyn - On ‘Humane: How The United States Abandoned Peace And Reinvented War’

VOW 40 | Humane War

My guest today is Samuel Moyn, who is the Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School and a Professor of History at Yale University. He has written several books in his fields of European intellectual history and human rights history, including The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (2010), and edited or coedited a number of others.

His most recent books are Christian Human Rights (2015), based on Mellon Distinguished Lectures at the University of Pennsylvania in fall 2014, and Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (2018). His newest book, published in September this year, is titled Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented Warand will be the focus of our conversation today.

Over the years, Samuel has written in venues such as the Boston Review, the Chronicle of Higher EducationDissentThe NationThe New Republic, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

I recently finished his latest book, Humane, and to say that it was a perspective-altering read would be a huge understatement. It is a deeply insightful and undoubtedly controversial book, and I hope it gets the global attention it deserves. For that very reason, I am truly humbled to have hosted Sam on the show.

Some of the topics we covered include:

  • Sam’s introduction into the field of human rights
  • The genesis of humane war thinking
  • Outlawing war vs. humane war
  • Distinction between pacifism and being anti-war
  • Vietnam and the focus on the conduct of war
  • How ending conscription helped perpetuate humane war
  • Trade of diplomacy for humane war
  • Importance of 9/11 in evolution of humane war
  • The issue of terrorists and ‘associated forces’
  • The role of lawyers in making wars ‘just’
  • Jus in bello and it’s illusions
  • Ongoing trajectory of ‘safe’ and ‘clean’ war
  • Potential dangers of ongoing humane war

Listen to the podcast here

Samuel Moyn – On ‘Humane: How The United States Abandoned Peace And Reinvented War’

My guest is Samuel Moyn, who is the Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School and a professor of History at Yale University. He has written several books in his fields of European Intellectual History and Human Rights History, including The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. He has edited or co-edited a number of others. His most recent books are Christian Human Rights, based on Mellon Distinguished Lectures at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 2014, and Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World.

His newest book published is titled Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War. It will be the focus of our conversation. Over the years, Samuel has written in venues such as The Boston Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dissent, The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. I finished his latest book, Humane, and to say that it was perspective-altering greed would be a huge understatement. It is a deeply insightful and undoubtedly controversial book. I hope it does get the attention that it deserves. For that very reason, I’m truly humbled to have Sam on the show. Sam, thank you for joining me on The Voices of War.

Thanks for having me. It’s a privilege to join you.

Before we get into the book, and it’s a thesis, maybe we can start with your own background a little bit. How did you come to be interested in Human Rights in the first place, and then perhaps war as secondary as well? What drove you into the field?

I was a young man in the 1990s, at what we thought of as the end of history. Human Rights were enjoying their apogee. Students like me were presented with them as the basic principles of the future of global governance. I still think they’re very important. I took the Laws of War in law school because it seemed like the residual problem after the end of Communism. There were these outposts of barbarity like Southeastern Europe or Rwanda.

It was very important to enforce norms against atrocity to keep it from happening, including through military intervention if possible or to punish the perpetrators of it. I realised that a lot of that turned out to be paradoxical. We didn’t realise after 2001 that a new age of the American War was coming. The priorities of the 1990s affected that era, those twenty years so far of war on terror in ways that I began to find worrisome, and so I wrote a book about it.

What a fantastic read. It’s interesting that you mentioned the barbaric region of Southeastern Europe or the Western Balkans, which is, of course, where I hail from. I was particularly interested to read certain segments of the book because it resonated very closely to my own experience or of my countrymen and women and certainly my family. Did you have an academic background in your family or any kind of disinterest into war?

Not all, my grandfather was in the Army in World War II but served in the United States. My father was in the Air Force in the era of the Vietnam War, but didn’t go there. I’ve had family members in the US military. My own personal background was involvement in US foreign policy, working in the White House during the Kosovo intervention. I mentioned barbarism because that’s how the Serbs were presented to us by authors like Robert Kaplan and others who suggested that Southeast Europe was a place where we needed to civilise. Ancient ethnic hatreds were becoming un-masterable after Communism departed. That was my own personal experience as an actor, but otherwise, I’ve been reading and writing books for life.

What a lovely narrative to embrace. Let’s go and civilise these uncivilised hoards, which seems to be a narrative that’s very easily embraced. The paradox of that narrative is very well-weaved into your book. Maybe we’ll touch on that Kosovo piece again because it does actually feature in the book. It’s an important point in how we’ve shifted our relationship to war. We can start off with a broad overarching understanding of what the book is about and its main thesis.

The book is about different ways that International Law has been used to constrain war since about the middle of the 19th century. I especially focus on a distinction between two ways you might go. One is keeping it from starting or stopping it once it starts. On the one hand, reducing suffering in it once it begins, or if you can’t stop it on the other.

VOW 40 | Humane War
Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War

I try to study how the first agenda stopping war had the upper hand for a long time, but it was succeeded by an almost exclusive interest in the second agenda, making war humane. I worry that comes with a cost. It’s not that less brutal war is bad, it’s good, but that it’s one of those good things that could have some bad things with it. In particular, I focus on the risk that relatively more humane wars are easier to perpetuate like the American War on Terror has been.

It’s something in my own experience that having served in a couple of oppression theatres in this Global War on Terror. I can certainly relate to the simplicity of it. It’s game-like in many ways for those who aren’t on the front lines kicking doors in. It’s all very distant. I do like how you phrase that because when I was writing my notes, I literally drew a junction. There was a split. I’m even reluctant to use the term pacifist or pacifism because it is now culturally imbued with such negativity and naivety. This, “You poor little pacifist over there, the world is not that kind.”

That’s the split. It went to pacifism, and then it went to this, “War is inevitable, so, therefore, let’s make war nice, neat, clean, and surgically precise.” I note that you actually use Leo Tolstoy quite a lot in your book after you open up with a deep understanding of Tolstoy’s background, which for me was actually very new, but you bookend it as well. Maybe that’s a question to ask. Why Leo Tolstoy in particular, and how does he relate to this junction that we’re talking about?

I really appreciate your anxiety about pacifism because many of us have been raised to think of it as extreme or marginal, which it is. I make a distinction in the book between an anti-war and a pacifist position, which says that war is never justified or legal. If you take an anti-war view, you might say, “If it turns out that most of the wars that break out are bad, they make the world worse,” then it doesn’t mean that there can never be a justified or legal war. It does mean that there is this strong possibility that wars turn out differently than you think. They last longer. They get out of hand. They become self-perpetuating.

What I try to do is, if I can use an American phrase, give some love to anti-war impulses, which have changed the world, and actually led to a reduction in some forms of international war before our time. We can’t really make sense of modern history without considering how much people focused on the constraint of war itself rather than the constraint of how it’s fought.

Tolstoy was a pacifist eventually, but I focus on him not for that reason but because I think he developed the best anti-war criticism of making war humane. He basically argued, after participating in wars himself as an officer, like the Crimean War, that we should worry about the risk of the perpetuation of war and the attempt to reduce suffering in it.

He developed some hard-hitting suggestions in the course of building his case. He compared making war humane to making slavery humane, which had been popular in the early 19th century. Tolstoy said, “That involves an unacceptable compromise with slavers, which may entrench this evil when it’s important to get rid of it.” He compared making war humane with the humanisation of non-human animal slaughter and said, “Look at all the people who think they’re good because they’re eating humanely slaughtered meat.”

He, as not just a pacifist but as a vegetarian, assumed that meat eating is vicious. If you take that view, you start to worry that humanisation fools meat eaters into thinking they’re better than they are. Analogously, Tolstoy worried that those who say that humane war, in a sense, makes us good people if we choose to fight it could be people who fight wars that are evil and fool themselves into thinking they’re not.

The idea is that the path to hell was paved with good intentions. It very much speaks to that point.

His analogy with humane slaughter is supposed to identify bad faith. It’s not that they are unexpected outcomes that we’re diluting ourselves, and we’re trying to get out of something we know is wrong by saying, “We’ve made it a little kinder and gentler.” Both points are really important because of course, we have entered so many wars that have involved unintended consequences, but we’ve also supported wars. We’ve probably suspect they aren’t worthwhile and are doing more harm than good. Listen to politicians say, “At least we’re not torturing anymore, or at least we’re keeping civilian casualties to a minimum in the course of it.” It’s that latter thing that Tolstoy is concerned about.

It speaks to me as a drug addict or as a former recovering smoker, “At least I’m having one cigarette a day now. That’s okay. At least I’m outside, I’m not harming anyone else.” It’s on a much bigger scale, but that’s our attachment to war.

It deals with what you make with yourself is really central to staying on the wrong path. Tolstoy developed a version of that worry and focusing not just on any deal but on the deal that if we’ve made something that’s brutal, more humane, it must be more tolerable when it is, and that’s the problem.

There’s a lot of truth in it. It’s resolving our own cognitive dissonance with the fact that we’re killing other human beings who are like us when we peel back in every other way. We’re justifying it through for theory and International Law, which we’ll cover. That’s our antidote to soothing our moral crisis or of our conscience. There are so many threads in the book. One could never unpack an entire book, but you do make the case. Starting with Tolstoy, we were going down a path of making war illegal. There was quite a lot of traction. Why did we sway off that path? What happened?

I followed the emphasis on Tolstoy by looking in a lot of peace activists across the Atlantic, who tended to be women. I focus in particular on an Austrian noblewoman who won the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize, who was one of the most iconic peace leaders and probably, for a bit, the most famous woman in the world in the early 20th century.

I focus on how such peace advocates were not pacifists necessarily. They just had an anti-war movement, demanded that states get along better, and take the choice to go to war with each other off the table. They fail badly in the short-term. World War I comes, World War II comes, but they ultimately succeed, and yet it comes at a price.

They succeed because they change International Law. We have something called the United Nations Charter in 1945, which is supposed to prohibit war, except when there’s self-defence at stake or the Security Council authorises it. It required the United States to agree to rule the world. That meant that while the United States had fought lots of wars before, it began to fight wars in lots of new places after 1945. There was a European piece, but America began fighting global wars of the kind that European empires had been fighting for centuries.

One way of looking at why the imperative shifted is that first, people thought that was the best that could be done. It’s true that after 1945, the incidents, the regularity of international war declines or people also associated peace with the Soviet Union since the Soviet Union was doing lots of bad things, including its own intervention in Afghanistan years before America was after 9/11. Because it was weaker in the Cold War, the Soviet Union presented itself as a peace power.

It’s only fair to note the United States engaged in lots of interventions through the years after 1945 during the Cold War. People were nervous to pursue the peace agenda because it seemed like it was pink or red. That was the second reason. There was a last reason, which is that after 1989, in a unilateral world with one superpower, it began to seem like war was a good thing.

We needed the United States to fight not fewer but more wars, and actually, the country intervened more often than during the Cold War. That’s partly because people concluded that in the case of Southeastern Europe, or in the missed chance of Rwanda, in the case of Kosovo, it was important to have a war for a good cause. For all of these reasons, the focus was taken off constraining the use of force, and maybe it migrated to this other agenda, which had taken a backseat for so long, making the remaining wars less brutal than they had been.

It strikes me as though that deeply infused in this narrative is morality. It is moral. We have a responsibility to stand up. As somebody who’s born and raised in Bosnia, in Sarajevo, who lived for several months under sniper fire, shelling, got out with one of the last UN convoys. My father was on the front lines for three and a half years.

He’s the first one to say, “Thank God the US came and bombed the Serb positions around Sarajevo.” What do you say to those people? Even people myself would argue that the right to protect is a legitimate claim, certainly post-1989, at the end of history, so to speak, when the US did seemingly rescue nations like Bosnia.

As someone who’s anti-war but not pacifist, I want to leave room for good wars and hopefully legal ones. In that case, NATO had the authorisation of the United Nations to go out to stop bad actors. The trouble is that it was paving the way for something that ended up not being as worthwhile. Remember Kosovo, that was a NATO action that was not authorised by the United Nations. A lot of us said it didn’t matter because it was a morally just cause, and who else was going to do it?

That’s the slippery slope that you’re referring to.

What happened not four years later? George W. Bush disregarded International Law and invaded Iraq. The death count from that part is more than 500,000 people. Even if you say, “These wars are in a good cause,” what about the abuse of pretext that good wars allow? What about the precedents they set? Above all, what about the unintended consequences, as you mentioned?

I’m not against wars if they’re just, but part of the question of whether they’re just is what are all the results that you’re teeing up for a future? Once we begin to see that more war in the international system is generally for the worst, we really have to be very stingy, and make sure that we’re not allowing too much violence that is going to set us back collectively, which I think American War has on balance in our lifetimes.

Once we begin to see that more war in the international system is generally for the worst, we really have to be very stingy and make sure that we're not allowing too much violence that is going to set us back collectively. Share on X

That’s the difficult predicament here is the fact that to make it just, again, it implies it’s moral that we need to do it. When you start doing some mental gymnastics through your lawyers that shape justice and morals into interests, that’s when we start deviating from the intent behind what we tried to do after World War II, but then, of course, we had Korea and Vietnam.

You named one of your chapters as the Vietnamese Pivot, which again is really insightful because Vietnam did something very new to how we view not only the justice of war but then the conduct of war. This is where we introduce different dimensions of importance, that is how we fight wars, which shifted the discussion. It’s no longer about, “Is the war itself just?” but, “Are we fighting it justly?” Can you maybe elaborate on that a little bit?

The agenda of making war humane goes back to Tolstoy’s time. He actually has one of his characters criticise it because the first Geneva Convention, which was created by these Swiss do-gooders in 1864, is about taking care of wounded soldiers on the battlefield. Generally, the rules about how to fight the war are brutal for a very long time, especially when it comes to European colonialism, which basically often excludes colonial subjects or non-Christians, non-Whites from coverage by the rules. Those rules are set aside when conflict is nasty, like in World War I and World War II. Something has to happen to make the humane war that isn’t just some writing on paper, but it’s actually affecting the conduct of war.

I argued that Vietnam is a big transformative event. You go back and think about Korea, the first big war after 1945 in the UN Charter. Actually, in the beginning, the United States says, “No, it’s North Korea that violated the UN charter,” and it gets a UN resolution to protect South Korea, which it does. The trouble is that Douglas MacArthur then decides to push up into the North. It was a three-year war that followed because the Chinese then intervened. It’s one of the most brutal wars in history, probably by some measures, the worst war in the 20th century. Americans don’t really care that much. There isn’t a crisis of conscience around Korea. Things changed in Vietnam.

No existential threat like a few years before.

That’s for sure. Because of Cold War imperatives, it’s deemed important to secure freedom in South Korea or even see if the whole Korean peninsula could be unified. MacArthur didn’t bet on Mao sending thousands of Chinese troops. It’s one revolution across the Yalu River. It’s an atrocious event with peasants and US soldiers fleeing south and a war of position that was horrendous. Vietnam begins, and it’s not like people care that much about the brutality that is going on in a very lopsided war with the same aerial bombardment that had been used in the Pacific in World War II and in Korea.

The terms of debate around the war in the early years after 1965 when America escalates it are basically, “Should we have the war? Is it illegal to have the war like the UN charter would suggest you do?” The My Lai massacre came, and a lot of people seized on it and said, “What proves that American aggression is terrible is that it leads to atrocity of the kind that the notorious photos of the women and children shot in the village dramatised.” They succeed by dramatising atrocity in making the war so unpopular, even more unpopular that it ends. Richard Nixon does some bad things at the end of the war, the Christmas and Cambodian bombings, but basically is forced to end it.

It’s in the aftermath of that that the anti-war cause begins to die, and instead, a few different actors begin to say, “What’s really important is making war less brutal.” One group is the new States of the Global South. They’ve been treated to brutal war for centuries at European hands chiefly. They say, “Let’s have better rules.” It’s only in the 1970s that the International Law finally said, “You can’t shoot at a civilian.” It says that “Even if you’re shooting at a combatant, you can’t kill too many civilians along the way.”

Europeans are done with their empire, so they’re on board. The interesting case is the Americans after Vietnam because even in the military, they recognised and taken a terrible public relations hit. They want to change the warrior’s honour to be different so that it’s not about that event that My Lai revealed. They sign on to the Laws of War, which are now branded International Humanitarian Law. You have this convergence after Vietnam to focus on making war humane.

It’s incredible, and the echoes of that. This almost focuses on the conduct of, as opposed to the war itself, which is echoing even in Australia. We’ve got some soldiers who are in some hot water over potential war crimes conducted in Afghanistan, and certainly not the only Army in the world that’s facing these questions. They should be questioned. There’s no dispute about that.

It removes the bigger piece of the puzzle off the table because we’re focusing on the micro and a couple of soldiers as opposed to those who’ve actually sent us to war. Whether they had met the very laws or the principles of our much loved just war theory themselves, this is where we started talking about the last resort, it’s fallen off.

War is the last resort because it is the resort that will get us the quickest effect on the battlefield that we want, which I find absolutely fascinating. There was one other interesting piece that I’ve discussed elsewhere, but I want to pick out here about Vietnam. You’re right in there that Vietnam stopped conscription. That’s where we saw the end of this large scale, “You are going to war.” I’m absolutely fascinated by this point because there’s so much in it. Why do you think that’s an important piece, and why this shift to professional, all-volunteer Armies has played a role?

It’s an absolutely fascinating debate that takes place because some people at the time think that if you eliminate conscription, you’ll make it more difficult for politicians to go to war because they won’t have the forces to do so. Whereas others warn that, “No, it’s the opposite. When you have volunteers staffing the military services, you won’t need popular consent or it’ll be easier to sustain it because nobody’s sons, husbands, and brothers, and increasingly women, are going to be threatened unless they’ve chosen that life.”

Therein lies the thing if they’ve chosen it.

In America, and I don’t want to generalise, it turns out that we have a very inadequate welfare state. A lot of the poorest Americans, who are often African-Americans, join the military because it’s an incredible chance to get benefits, salary, and get trained to earn the salary. There’s an irony here because ultimately in the book, what I try to show is that American War evolved beyond using troops.

VOW 40 | Humane War
Humane War: America has a very inadequate welfare state. A lot of the poorest Americans, who are often African-Americans, join the military because it’s an incredible chance to get benefits and a salary.

It’s not like we can say that the new form of The War on Terror that will end up talking about was dependent on troops, whether they were conscripts or volunteers. It’s interesting that there was a big debate about what it would mean for the perpetuation of the American war that conscription became so unpopular, and it was replaced by an all-volunteer force in the early 1970s.

The way I explain it in my head, it removed the war from our lounge rooms and our discussions and the sorrow in the lounge room. I knew that my father, brother, mother, and sister had died. It moved it onto a TV screen, which is, for one, it’s entertainment, and there’s an emotional disconnect. There is a core of professionals who’ve put their hands up. This is a question, “Did they really choose or was it the only option available?” That’s a different debate.

A core of those who have chosen to go and fight our wars, let’s wrap them up into these glorified notions of fighting for our freedom, morally just wars, which is a wonderful narrative. It’s beautiful. As a citizen who chooses to sit back here in the comfort of my own home, it’s a wonderful narrative to get behind to, “Show your patriotism. Show your love of country. Do part of your duty. If you’re not going to go and fight the war, at least support the warriors who are fighting the war,” which I think as societies, we probably need to talk about that a lot more.

We don’t need to delve into every conflict. I invite my readers to read your book. It is a fascinating read. I enjoyed it. What I love about talking to historians reading history books is that you’re weaving in a narrative, but you’re linking so many different points of history and telling us how they relate to each other because nothing happens in isolation.

We go down the path, and we find ourselves in a post-9/11 world, which I think is where we see this war coming into its own. We’ve desensitised the population, broadly speaking, to war. We have a professional warrior class that’s going to fight our wars for us, sitting back as civilians, off they go to fight for our freedoms. This is now where you start, like you said, we start removing the need for even the soldiers themselves, but we’re bringing the wedge down into firstly, our Special Forces and then drones. Maybe I’ll let you tell the story because this is pivotal of what happens after 9/ 11.

In some ways, it’s the comparison between Vietnam and The War on Terror suggests that even more people, maybe a near unanimity, after September 11th, were for some military response. Interestingly, the support eroded more quickly in the era of 9/11. What interested me was what the consequences were. If you compare the period of My Lai and after, you have atrocity adding fuel to the fire that the anti-war movement has created. After 9/11, the reverse happened. There was a comparable atrocity story around the Abu Ghraib prison and sickening images just as at My Lai. Actually the same reporter, much older named Seymour Hersh, played a role in both revelations.

The years after 2004, when the Iraq War had gone south, and the occupation was so difficult, and the Abu Ghraib story helped delegitimise that war. That went in a different direction. The War on Terror didn’t end. Instead, if atrocity was removed from the equation, it turned out that brutality could be like a bug in a program. It was removed, and the result was an ongoing counterterrorist war. I focus especially on the role of lawyers and changing the original War on Terror, which was big and brutal, to the second and new form of the War on Terror, which was using Special Forces and armed drones rather than big troop deployments.

It was advertised publicly by politicians, as adhering to the Laws of War and the constraints that are supposed to rule out brutality. A lot of Americans bought it. It’s quite fascinating that we do think of making war humane is a good thing, and it is, if the alternative is brutal war. It turned out after 9/11 in this story I tell that if the even better thing is not having a war that’s not worth fighting, making more war humane could have its own evil associated with it because it perpetuates the war or helps legitimate the war. The central character I try to dramatise is the President after George W. Bush, Barack Obama, who talks in public about these moral dilemmas and tries to shape a view of The War on Terror as now humane.

It's quite fascinating that we think of making war humane as a good thing, and it is if the alternative is brutal war. Share on X

I was going to bring that up because he’s a prime example who publicly had thought bubbles. He was wrestling publicly with his own conscience. In some way, I’m sure he’s truly convinced that he’s doing the right thing. I find it hard to believe that this is motivated by sinister internal monologues of crushing and deleting entire populations or that it’s somehow fuelled by evil internally. This is more of a path to hell that is paid with good intentions. You, as an individual actor, say a US president, only have a lifespan of agency in that office that is limited. I’m sure deep down, all of them are fuelled by good intentions somewhere, regardless of how externally they might be perceived.

That’s why I focused in the way I did in the book because of course, you can say, “America is a war machine. There’s the military-industrial complex, and politicians always want to fight.” It’s only fair to say that Obama had a lot of considerations. He understood that Bush’s popularity had tanked because the war was brutal and a lot of Americans died.

Obama’s biggest need was to immunise American soldiers from harm, which turned to the new form of The War on Terror, Special Forces, and especially armed drones or standoff missiles did, because this new form of war is much safer for Americans. It doesn’t require an occupation force that’s subject to roadside bombs and other kinds of attacks. When he talked in public about the new regime of targeted killings that he normalised, he didn’t talk about Americans and the safety of our troops.

Although that was surely part of it and the military-industrial complex too, instead, as you say, he wrestled with it. What I think is the most amazing speech occurred in 2009 when he received the Nobel Peace Prize, and he cites this Swiss gentleman back in the 19th century who had the idea of humane war. Four years later, when he rolls out the drone program and says, “We shouldn’t remain an endless war. War like this degrades countries.” A lot of us think he called the coming of Donald Trump at that time, but then he said, “The alternative is a brutal war, and I have to fight terrorists, so you should thank me for banning torture, for minimising civilian casualties and making the war humane.”

Amazingly, he was heckled by an anti-war activist in this speech, which is at the National Defence University in 2013. She got taken out of the room, but he continued reflecting off-script on the whole ethics of the thing. I agree with you that no matter the big powerful forces that affected him, he was still a moral reasoner, and he wanted to think morally about his political choices. That’s why I wrote the book because he himself stressed the moral significance of humanising war.

These are such nuanced points that I do hope that your book goes far and wide. Students and practitioners of war actually talk about these issues. Certainly in the Australian Army as we’re starting to talk about the ethics of war from a slightly different angle, but we’re still not zooming out of the macro. How do we get to where we are? I see this as various branches. We branched off at some point from anti-war, then off into different forms of a just war and then humane war. We are continuously arguing for progress along this branch.

It feels to me like we need to step back a whole bunch of branches and go, “Hold on, how do we end up down that far? What did we skip here?” One point that did stand out, especially because I’ve spoken to a couple of my guests about this in the past, is the absence or reduction of diplomacy. It’s a nuanced point you make is that humane war has in many ways, if not replaced and certainly pushed aside the need for diplomacy. Why was that?

I agree with you totally. Making war humane is important, and yet it’s not the only question. It’s not even the main question, which is, “Should we have the war no matter how brutal or humane?” There’s a parable in the life of a soldier who died an American, Colin Powell, who was the prince of the post-Vietnam officer corps. His claim to fame for a long time was that he said, “We will not repeat Vietnam.” He didn’t mean so much the brutality as letting the military get sucked into a quagmire in an endless war, and yet what did he do? He ended up justifying the Iraq War before the United Nations and supporting it.

It was the worst thing that ever happened to the US military in recent times. Even in the military, or especially in the military, everything is at stake in whether the war is just and necessary and not so much, or only whether it’s humane enough. People of goodwill can coalesce around more attention on this basic question. It matters for Australians because you’re in the five eyes. You’re part of a Global Security Agenda that Americans are leading. Australians are frequently involved. Australians were involved in Vietnam.

We’ve been to every war with the US. We’re the only country that has.

The role of Australians in the Vietnam War is little studied but is important. My principle argument is it’s not that we shouldn’t struggle to have war more humane, but only once we’ve made absolutely sure it ought to be fought. You come to diplomacy, and there’s not a broad public discussion around what would be the conditions under which you could not have a war on terror anymore?

We shouldn't struggle to make war more humane, but only once we've made absolutely sure it ought to be fought. Share on X

Sadly, it was left to Trump to do things like tweet out this #EndTheEndlessWar and to make a deal with the Taliban to get America out of that quagmire. That’s a failure on the part of the elites in the country to let this thing drag on so far that it fell to Trump, someone way outside the mainstream, to claim the anti-war tradition, which is sad. It represents a shameful chapter. He was shameful, but he capitalised on a mistake in omission in the years that led up to him.

You make the point. It’s the mainstream war, as he then later called it, the swamp. To his credit, which I can’t even believe I’m saying, but he called it, and he saw it as it is. The world has been, and I’m talking to the US and broadly the West, disappointed by its leaders because it’s been lie and lie after lie. Our endless wars, and when I say our, I mean Australian as well. This has been Australia’s longest war as well. We’ve been alongside the whole way. Despite the rhetoric of we don’t negotiate with terrorists, we’re doing the very thing right now.

In spite of the chaos, disorder, and withdrawal from Afghanistan, it was a good thing to negotiate an exit. You can say the Taliban is a terrorist group, but in fact, it ruled the country even before there was a choice to withdraw. I even would say the intervention in 2001 in Afghanistan, which people were tolerant about, given what had happened on 9/11 in Lower Manhattan. If it ends up putting the same people back in power that you ejected, it was a mistake.

If it ends up leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths locally and setting the country back as all the economic studies show, not to mention trillions of dollars of Australian and American money to fund the thing, it was a waste. That’s why we should have a lot more care and caution before war starts and not focus on how it’s conducted, which has been the premier topic of discussion around The War on Terror for twenty years.

You remind me of an interesting point from the book. The change of 9/11 was not merely we were going to go and target terrorists and removal of their protection. Consciously, you provide a lot of insight from John Yoo’s writing, which subsequently, is going back. So much has happened that I didn’t have a recollection of that in any way. I went back and read the memo that has now been declassified. It’s incredible, but also there was the expanding ring of culpability that you talked about. This idea of associated forces. Therefore, we’ve swallowed the pill of “We do not negotiate with terrorists.”

We give ourselves the absolute moral right to treat them how we see fit under the idea that “It’s to save our own lives or to prevent future attacks,” which, to an extent, I can understand the argument. I don’t agree with it because it makes us as bad as those that we’re seeking to prosecute. It doesn’t just do that. It does that to anybody who we describe as an associated force, which of course was the Taliban, as we go from there to a myriad of other forces if we can call them that.

It expanded our target list for one, but it reduced the list of those who we can actually talk to. Anybody who we tarnish with the brush of terrorism, we don’t talk to them. If you’ve made that brush bigger and thicker, this is again, you make that point. It reduces our ability to negotiate and have diplomacy. Did you want to add?

I agree with all that, and I focus on the insidious role of lawyers. John Yoo was widely castigated for his sloppy legal work in authorising various wars and torture for that matter. You get to the later lawyers, and they are the ones who never find a war for which they’re not willing to give the US president a permission slip under Domestic Law or International Law. They compensate by saying, “We’re the custodians of the humanity of the war because we’re, unlike John Yoo, forcing the war to be fought without torture and with a minimum of civilian casualties.”

That’s the self-delusion that we started talking about. We need to stop listening to the lawyers and reserve the right to ask, “Should we have the war? Is it good enough that it’s humane? Are there other views that we ought to consider about whether it’s legal in the first place?” A president is always going to think that what he wants to do is legal.

The lawyers will make it so.

There’s no judge to contradict them. Only the people and the international community can. If there were more emphasis on the rules that are supposed to stop wars from starting in the heat of the moment, then I think we’d all be better off and not let the lawyers take charge because what that means is more war, even if it’s more humane.

VOW 40 | Humane War
Humane War: If there were more emphasis on the rules that are supposed to stop wars from starting in the heat of the moment, we’d all be better off.

That’s a hugely important point. It’s really relevant for Australia, and I think I touched on this previously, but I don’t think social discourse is something that’s discussed a lot. For example, in the Iraq War, Australia went to Iraq with the US. Now, it’s openly discussed by some of our senior leaders, military, and otherwise, and are now prominent political thinkers. We went there for the alliance. It’s open knowledge. It’s not classified in any sense, a discussion. It is completely, transparently presented as, “We went because it’s in our interest to keep our alliance with the US.”

You have to ask the question, “At which point do we hold our leaders, who sent our men and women to war with complete impunity against the very principles we so love, the just war theory?” Last resort, necessity, proportionality, all of these things that fit under the jus ad bellum domain, whilst we hold our soldiers to the jus in bello domain of the conduct of war. This is why this debate and discussion need to be elevated to much higher levels. It needs to become more, and I hate to use the term, but mainstream.

It was a noble thing for my country to save yours during World War II, but that doesn’t mean that you outsource your diplomacy and legal determination of whether the wars you join us in fighting are just and legal to our lawyers or our politicians for that matter. Some greater policy autonomy in Australia would make a lot of sense to me.

A decoupling from values and interests because those two have become aligned where we’re selling the idea to our domestic audiences, who we need to keep satisfied, is that we are doing the right thing by going to this war against weapons of mass destruction. That’s a nice pill to swallow that we are doing the morally right thing, which is the values piece, which is what we so much promote in the global arena, but it’s for our interests. Interests being our alliance with the US, which is we need to decouple those two again and actually make a clear distinction of one against the other. This is such an interesting conversation, but I do want to bring it to the dangers you highlight. You’ve touched on it a few times. Humane war is better than a non-humane war or an inhumane war, but there are more sinister dangers at play if we go down the path that we are going. What are those?

There’s only a limited extent to which you can make war humane, even if war is becoming more humane, at least great power war, fewer are dying, etc. The law is very permissive. What you called jus in bello, what I called International Humanitarian Law, still allows states to do a lot. Some say humane war is an oxymoron. I think that’s wrong because we have to see that it’s becoming more humane.

One problem is the residual violence, but even if you take that out of the equation, you have war itself. If I’m right, that making war humane, at least, allows for war to be legitimated or perpetuated more easily, then you’ve got all the things that war involves, which is soldiers’ deaths on both sides, which are again legal. You have the taxes that are paid for one reason rather than another, all the damage done. The thoughtless policy detour that we’ve discussed where you’re ending up fighting a war because you’re fighting a war rather than thinking what your best course is.

Making war humane, at least, allows it to be legitimated or perpetuated more easily. Share on X

Finally, and this is a bit edgy, I raised it at the end of the book. What if it turns out that we’re really doing this not to kill even those who can be legally killed but because the war on terror has allowed massive surveillance power and with armed drones that might strike but might not? It might collect information or film. We’re establishing almost like a permanent security arrangement over certain people across Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and it’s less bloody. It might be psychologically damaging.

The point is we still wouldn’t want it happening to us. We wouldn’t want domination and control, even if it’s “more humane.” That’s the last category of concerns that I would single out. Violence, which continues war itself, which involves a lot of things besides violence, and then this new thing, which is non-violent control. All three of those seem to me sinister and worth calling out. We can end up worrying that humanisation is distracting us from focusing on that.

We also know what surveillance and observation do to human behaviour. We know that it shapes and changes behaviour. What are your thoughts?

That’s an important point.

If the sheer knowledge that there might be a drone above your head, even if you are not a sinister actor, if you are merely wanting to hold a wedding, that will shape how you behave, which is dangerous in itself.

I start out the book with this parable I made up of a wedding happening in Melbourne versus one happening somewhere under the drones. They might be glad the guests at the wedding under the drones that they’re not struck, but they’re still subject to this perpetual rule in effect, and we wouldn’t tolerate it. The question is, why would we impose it on others when security doesn’t require it? You’re making a good point.

This is the danger of the free West or our comfortable lives because we often forget the impact. This is something I try to infuse into my show is the perspective of those not who are sinister, but those who are innocent, who are part of this just war that we’re prosecuting. I’ve spent eight months during a break from the military. I spent eight months in Iraq working in the development industry. My eyes were open to the distance from those who want to do good in the development industry to how they’re shaping and influencing the lives of those who have already suffered, in some cases, decades of violence.

We forget them very quickly. If we just think about fear, what fear does even to us now with COVID, how that’s shaping our anxieties going through the roof by having to stay locked up in our houses, watching Netflix, and ordering Uber Eats. Move that onto the reality of not having food, not having water, and the potential of some missile dropping on your roof and wiping out your family. These are things that we don’t account for when we talk about war or precise war, humane war, etc.

It’s probably coming across how passionately supportive of your book I am. I’ve got an article that touches on this point of jus in bello and the illusion of jus in bello, but we’re letting our leaders free without questioning the actual reason to go to war. It’s very timely for me. The book does chart a path through the US Presidents. The book was really recent.

You do mention on Biden’s election and being in power, but what is your assessment so far on Biden’s intent? Are we likely to see the same trajectory? There’s a pivot now from the Middle East, broadly speaking and the disaster of Afghanistan to the much bigger piece of competition and contestation with China. How do you see this playing out, and where are we at the moment?

It’s mixed. The truth is that American presidents began pivoting away from this first big brutal form of The War on Terror almost immediately. Bush began drawing down troops in Afghanistan before Obama came to office and tried this surge. Both of them ultimately drew down troops. Obama almost got to zero in Afghanistan. He left it at about 7,000 after having surged to 100,000.

From that perspective, Trump, in struggling to get it to zero, was completing the job of his predecessors. Because he wasn’t allowed to do so, Biden did it for him. At the same time, this whole new form of The War on Terror came online, and Biden promised to continue it in the speeches he gave supporting the Afghan withdrawal. He said, “I’m preserving counterterrorist operations.”

The drone war, in particular, has been under review, and it sounds like there may be some modifications made to it. As you say, the prime justification for US foreign policy these days, not just in the war realm, is this pivot to confrontation with China. If America starts a new Cold War, we know where that leads, and on the base of the old one, it might not lead any time soon to direct military confrontation, but it could lead to a lot of peripheral war. That will undoubtedly take the form of shadow wars.

The humanisation of war that’s been accomplished in the past few decades is not entrenched forever, but it’s a big phenomenon that will be hard to undo because American and Australian elites care about it. If there’s ever an existential conflict with China, all bets will be off, but there may not be. They may be lesser wars, and there we have to ask, “Is the humanisation of war playing this insidious role it did in the war on terror of distracting us from case to case? Should we be fighting at all? Is there a more conciliatory, diplomatic route to peace that we ought to pursue instead?”

VOW 40 | Humane War
Humane War: The humanization of war that’s been accomplished in the past few decades is not entrenched forever, but it’s a big phenomenon that will be hard to undo because American and Australian elites care about it.

That’s a huge question, and hopefully, one that’s echoing. I’ve certainly touched on that very question with even some regional experts on Southeast Asia. This morality that’s infused in our own decision-making makes this a dangerous path.

Australia will be deeply involved in war-making in the South China Sea or wherever else on grounds of proximity. It’s important to think about.

Sam, it’s been absolutely fascinating. I can’t stress enough how important your book is. Thank you very much for writing it. There are so many threads, and I’m not sure if we’ve caught all of them. I want to throw across to you if you’ve got any closing remarks or any points that you want to make before we close up that I might have missed to ask.

Not at all. It was comprehensive, honestly, and a great privilege because you’re asking the right questions, not just of me but in general. It’s really exciting that this show exists.

Thank you so much for your time, Sam. I’ll hope to speak again in the future.

Thank you so much.

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