“What if the problem with the forever war is that it’s too humane?”
That question was posed by Samuel Moyn, a professor of history and law at Yale University, at the outset of a recent lecture he gave at Duke School of Law. By opening his lecture in this way, Moyn may have merely intended to stimulate a spirited debate about the potential downside of the emphasis placed on the laws and norms restraining the conduct of hostilities in war, namely that it may help to explain why the United States is able to expand the war on terror with so little resistance or limitation. Questioning the necessity and unbounded nature of a war that takes place mostly out of sight and out of mind for most Americans is a worthy endeavor. But, as two people who work for a non-governmental organization devoted to the protection of civilians, we nonetheless feel compelled to directly and publicly challenge the notion that increasing humanity in war is a bad thing.
To be fair, although Moyn started with a provocation, the majority of his lecture focused on a more conventional line of reasoning specifically related to so-called remote warfare. His basic argument was that by putting “unprecedented” constraints on the ways wars are fought, well-intentioned advocates may have sanitized the war on terror such that robust opposition never emerged, and it is allowed to expand without limits in time or space. In other words, have we made war acceptable enough to enough people that it goes on endlessly? The consequence, Moyn suggested, may be the loss of fewer lives in the near-term, but the continuation of conflict and human suffering in the long-term. He illustrated his point by drawing a comparison to the advocacy movement to make the treatment of animals in slaughterhouses more humane. Activists may have succeeded in making animals’ lives and deaths less brutal, but in the process, they made the meat production industry much more difficult to challenge and ultimately abolish.
In some ways, we have no qualms with Moyn’s basic premise. Remote warfare, where the U.S. military maintains a light footprint on the ground and relies predominantly on drones, has lowered the barrier to entry of conflict in more places. However, this phenomenon of largely fighting war from a distance derives less from the “humane” aspects of the war, than it does a host of other more significant variables. For one, the reliance on drone strikes is less about preserving civilians’ lives than it is about avoiding the need to commit or risk the lives of U.S. forces. It is no coincidence that as the American public’s appetite for sending ground troops to foreign countries has diminished, the U.S. military has increasingly relied on drone strikes and partnerships with local forces. Another, more plausible explanation for the durability of the “forever war” is the lack of transparency, oversight, and visibility of the war’s true costs – in lives and treasure. By denying any civilian casualties in an air campaign, or severely undercounting the loss of life, the public is misled to believe that war imposes few or no costs on civilians in conflict areas, which may in turn affect their analysis of the costs and benefits even if they generally believe in the justness of the war’s cause. The work of journalists and human rights organizations that document civilian harm does much to clarify and illuminate the effects of remote warfare on civilians, which should, in turn, inform political decisions about why and when force is used.
The deeper problem with Moyn’s framing is it begs the question: Too humane for whom? Moyn stated that there can be no doubt – based on the number of combatant and civilian casualties – that the war on terror is the most humane in history. While it may be true that fewer civilians have been killed overall since 9/11 than during World War II or the Vietnam War, these days, civilians are disproportionately bearing the brunt of conflict. The mythology around precision weapons – and a belief that war can be conducted with little collateral damage or civilian casualties – disguises war’s true impact. Amos Fox explains this “precision paradox”:
The Battle of Mosul, a nine-month slog, blending US and coalition precision weapons with Iraqi frontal attacks against an ensconced and determined enemy, precisely leveled the city one building at a time. The result: upwards of 900,000 displaced people, billions of dollars needed for reconstruction, and the city largely in ruins. Precision weaponry did not spare the people of Mosul, nor did it spare the city’s infrastructure.
Our work takes us all around the world where we hear directly from civilians who have lost everything as their city was decimated, and that continue to suffer because of the lack of functioning hospitals, water supplies that are contaminated by human remains, or collapsed school buildings due to the expanded war on terror. These stories have left us with no doubt: War hasn’t become too humane – is has merely shifted the risk and costs to civilians.
The suggestion that an excess of “humanity” in war is the problem also narrows the range of options. If restraints on the conduct of war are to blame, the only possible solutions are not to engage in conflict at all or to dramatically intensify the fighting in an effort to break the will of the enemy faster. Moyn himself acknowledged that his hypothesis is a dangerous one. While he does not consider himself an “intensifier,” others may use it to promote a brand of utilitarian logic that holds that more, or certain, civilians must be made to suffer, or to face a credible threat of suffering, to prevent war or to hasten its end. To do so would lend credence to a line of reasoning that has left nothing but a path of destruction and death over the course of history. Alternatively, as we press for greater humanity in the way war is conducted, we should also make decisions to go to war more difficult with frequent and consistent reminders – to ourselves and those in power – that no war is ever, really humane.
Image: A young boy works to clear rubble from in front of his house in an outer neighborhood of the Old City in West Mosul on November 6, 2017 in Mosul, Iraq. Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images