September 2021


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In his enlightening and provocative book, Samuel Moyn traces the history of America’s disturbing journey toward a period of endless war.
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In 1880, the chief of the Prussian General Staff wrote, “Eternal peace is a dream—and hardly a beautiful one. . . . War is part of the world order that God ordained.” Many have disagreed with this statement and offered various alternatives, from abolishing war completely to conducting it in a more humane way. In his enlightening and provocative Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, Samuel Moyn, a professor of law and history at Yale, offers “an antiwar history of the laws of war” that traces America’s journey, over the last century and a half, toward the disturbing place we now find ourselves: a period of endless war.

Moyn discusses many notable individuals, causes and arguments within this history, including the founding of the Red Cross despite Leo Tolstoy’s strong opposition. The peace efforts of an Austrian noblewoman named Bertha von Suttner, especially through her book Lay Down Your Arms in 1889, stand out as well. Moyn writes, “Before World War I, no document of Western civilization did more to turn what had been a crackpot and marginal call for an end to endless war into a mainstream cause.” In 1905, von Suttner became the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Moyn argues that the increased use of “unmanned aerial vehicles” (armed drones) and U.S. Special Forces in the modern era makes belligerency more humane but augurs for a grim future. In Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize address in 2009, he said, “We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.” Instead, Obama emphasized a commitment to global justice and international law and insisted on humane constraints—which included the use of drones. He sanctioned the use of armed drones more times in his first year in office than George W. Bush did in eight years. By the time Obama left office, drones had struck almost 10 times more than under his predecessor, with thousands killed. Special Forces units were engaged in fighting in at least 13 countries during the last year of Obama’s presidency, and the same approach continued during the Trump years.

This sweeping and relevant book is a vital look at how foreign policy should be conducted ethically in the face of America’s endless wars.

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