Not Humane, Just Invisible: A Counternarrative to Samuel Moyn’s “Humane”Historians in the News
tags: foreign policy, war, international relations, Samuel Moyn
Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History at Stanford University, focusing on the history of Britain and its empire. She is the award-winning author of Spies in Arabia (2008) and Empire of Guns (2018). Her newest book, Time’s Monster: How History Makes History, was published in 2020.
LEO TOLSTOY’S War and Peace (1869) is a meditation on history — and so it is set during war. One of the novel’s heroes, Prince Andrei, dubs war a “terrible necessity,” echoing the Enlightenment belief in war’s essential role in history’s unfolding. Tolstoy, however, rejected liberalism’s assumption that “a goal exists toward which” history is moving, namely, the “welfare of the French, German, English nation, or […] civilization of all humanity, by which is generally meant those peoples that occupy the small northwestern corner of a large continent.” This belief, he perceived, released those engaged in “collective crimes” in the name of “patriotism” or “civilization” — justifications that lacked “general meaning and are contradictory” — from “moral responsibility.” Tolstoy recognized, in other words, the moral peril of liberal empire, which insisted that the providential spread of Western European civilization may require destruction along the way. Indeed, the “Pax Britannica” of his time was an era of endless war. Eventually, he turned to pacifism as a corollary of anticolonialism, encouraging the young Mohandas Gandhi to resist British rule with nonviolence.
Understanding the integral role of endless war in liberal empire is crucial to grasping what is and isn’t novel about war today. Tracing the tension since Tolstoy’s time between the American movement to end war and efforts to make war less brutal, Samuel Moyn’s new book, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, argues that with the advent of drones, the latter has vanquished the former, inaugurating an era of endless humane war akin to policing. Moyn is right to call our attention to endless war and to drones’ role in suppressing antiwar sentiment but misunderstands how they do so.
Drones follow in a line of technological and bureaucratic innovations that have enabled imperial conflict to endure in an increasingly anticolonial and antiwar world: drones have defused demands to end war not so much by making war humane but by reducing American casualties and allowing political elites steeped in liberal orthodoxies to enshroud war in secrecy designed to marginalize questions about its purpose and justness. Accepting elite perceptions of drones’ humanity, Moyn minimizes both their continued inhumanity and the persistence and strength of American antiwar sentiment despite elite efforts to thwart it.
The endlessness of American war is not new to anyone familiar with American history: the long expropriatory and genocidal conflicts with Native Americans, the Civil War, wars of expansion abroad, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, wars of humanitarian intervention, the War on Terror. To this, Moyn responds that with the end of superpower competition and the United Nations’s promise of global freedom, “it was legitimate in 1989 to expect a different path.” Not so for anyone who has grasped the centrality of racism to the United States’s past and perceived the presumed vindication of liberalism with the end of the ideological contest of the Cold War. The Persian Gulf War did not smash hopes for a post–Cold War pivot toward peace for any who understood the reality of American imperial and military-industrial power. There was little reason to expect anything different from the earlier era of liberal hegemony when Britain was the world’s preeminent power, constantly at war in the name of a Pax Britannica.
Indeed, in the early years of the Iraq War, the “false pretext for the invasion, the direct economic interests of many of the masters of war, the atrocities” reminded the historian Nicholas Dirks of a pattern dating to the 18th-century British Empire, when reformers focused on particular scandals, such as slavery and massacres, rather than question the form of rule that routinely enabled them: the scandal of empire itself. Moyn’s argument that today’s reformers have prioritized eliminating war’s worst abuses rather than the abuse of war itself is similar but misses how the current American way of war, like the earlier British one, is bound up with the scandal of empire.
The “War on Terror” — the American political elite’s updated term for imperial war — relies on a novel technology to extend the type of “control without occupation” that the British aimed for as they invented aerial policing in Iraq in the 1920s. These techniques built on older naval practices that also collapsed war and policing: policing created pretexts for and provoked war, and that belligerence in turn underwrote British policing power. Spreading to British India’s North-West Frontier (today’s “AfPak”), Aden (present-day Yemen), and beyond, aerial “policing” was immediately implicated in conversations about humanity in warfare, not least because the Air Ministry imagined the space between the Mediterranean and Afghanistan as one of “continuous […] warfare” (making it one themselves). In this region, a Royal Air Force official admitted, bombardment did the work typically performed “by policemen and sticks.” “From the ground,” explained officers, “every inhabitant […] is under the impression that the […] aeroplane is actually looking at him […] that all their movements are being watched and reported.” In Iraq, this forever war lasted until the revolution of 1958 finally overthrew the British-backed Iraqi government that tolerated and enabled it. This past deeply informed US strategy in the same region decades later, as I explained at length in 2014 in the journal Humanity (then edited by Moyn).
In short, Moyn’s proposition that war has newly come to resemble policing rests on a misunderstanding of how policing has always worked in liberal empire. As the historian Dirk Moses explains in The Problems of Genocide (2021), the liberal idea of permanent security justifies the extension of power to secure the world in the name of “humanity” while itself producing violence against civilians. The rubric of “security” has long bridged policing and military action under a single umbrella of endless aggression (war on communism, on drugs, on terror). The line between policing and war was blurry well before President Obama expanded drone warfare. In tolerating endless war as a “metaphysical necessity,” Obama affirmed the liberal imperial view since the Enlightenment.