Blogs > Robin Lindley > Samuel Moyn on His Recent "Humane" and More

Aug 25, 2022

Samuel Moyn on His Recent "Humane" and More

tags: human rights,peace,international relations

Recently, a poet friend said, “To think of peace now is bizarre.” Perhaps a perceptive comment in light of our history of violent conflict. In a 2019 address, former President Jimmy Carter called the United States “the most warlike nation in the history of the world,” because of Washington’s tendency to force other nations to “adopt our American principles.” He also observed that America has enjoyed only about 16 years or so of peace in, at that time, our 243-year history. And now our “Forever Wars” against terror rage on.

And our policy makers seldom call for an end to war making. For example, President Barack Obama—a 2008 peace candidate—in his 2009 speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, accepted that violent conflict cannot be ended and instead pledged to follow the rules of war or “humanitarian law” when military violence becomes necessary to protect American interests. In particular, he focused on waging war in conformance with international law to minimize brutality, reduce civilian losses, and prevent other horrors. His successor essentially followed suit.

Celebrated Yale Professor of History and Law Samuel Moyn grapples with the question of whether making war more “humane” actually makes war more inevitable in his recent groundbreaking book Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).

Professor Moyn surveys the history of war-making and peace movements over the past 150 years in Humane as he takes the reader from the efforts during the eighteenth century to regulate war and make war less brutal as pacifists such as iconic author Leo Tolstoy and activist Bertha von Suttner called for an end to all war. As Professor Moyn stresses, Tolstoy warned that the rules to temper the brutality of military conflict would make war only more acceptable.

Humane also presents an overview of the brutal conflicts since founders of the Red Cross proposed the first Geneva Convention in 1864, while in the United States, Franz Lieber—at the behest of President Abraham Lincoln—developed rules of conduct to govern the Union Army during the bloody Civil War.

Over the decades, the law of war covered treatment of prisoners of war, illegal weapons, civilian targets, and more, but the rules were ignored or forgotten for the most part in colonial conflicts as well as in the apocalyptic twentieth century world wars that left millions dead. In the costliest war in history, the Second World War, the civilian deaths far exceeded the toll for combatants as the martial technology of every combatant nation slaughtered civilians as well as military personnel.

With this historic background in mind, Professor Moyn turns his focus in Humane to American war-making during the Cold War and up to our recent “Forever Wars.” He notes that after US atrocities in Vietnam, such as the My Lai massacre of hundreds of civilians, came to light, the military responded to public scorn and paid special attention to humanitarian law. The post-9/11 wars in the Middle East, although destructive and bloody, led to fewer casualties caused by American troops. The military was scandalized again, however, by atrocities such as the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

In his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize speech, President Barack Obama—as Professor Moyn stresses—acknowledged the “hard truth” war as an omnipresent reality and promised that, rather than ending war, American conduct in war would be more humane by conforming to the laws of war. He said, “I am convinced that adhering to standards, international standards, strengthens those who do, and isolates and weakens those who don’t.” That statement concerned Professor Moyn and prompted his scholarly probing into the effects of more limited and more “humane” wars that employ targeted drone strikes or Special Forces operations against specific perceived foes.

The Obama and Trump administrations pursued a new kind of “humane war” with impunity and without much public scrutiny. Professor Moyn assesses the results for American military and foreign policy as war became an endeavor of sophisticated killing machines and a cadre of highly-trained soldiers. He also dissects the "lawyerliness" of the Obama administration and the sense of recent American policy that “endless and humane war” is “morally wholesome.”

Samuel Moyn is Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and History at Yale University. His highly-regarded writing and teaching consider intellectual history, international law, human rights, the law of war, and legal thought in both historical and current perspective. His other books include The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History; Christian Human Rights; and Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World. He also has written articles for numerous publications such as Boston Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dissent, The NationThe New Republic, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. His books have won the Morris Forkosch Prize of the Journal of the History of Ideas and the Sybil Halpern Milton Memorial Book Prize of the German Studies Association.

Professor Moyn received a doctorate in modern European history from the University of California-Berkeley in 2000 and a law degree from Harvard University in 2001. Before coming to Yale, he was Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Professor of Law and Professor of History at Harvard University, and before that he taught for thirteen years in the Columbia University history department where he was most recently James Bryce Professor of European Legal History. At Columbia, undergraduates honored him with the Mark van Doren Teaching Award (46th Annual).

Professor Moyn graciously responded to a series of questions by email on his background, intellectual interests, human rights, and his recent book Humane

Robin Lindley: Congratulations Professor Moyn on your compelling and groundbreaking new book Humane and on your many distinguished works on the history of law and politics. Before addressing your recent book, I had a few questions about your background. You have a doctorate in history as well as a law degree. What inspired you to study history?

Professor Samuel Moyn: I had fantastic professors at Washington University in St. Louis, where I went to college, who convinced me that studying history meant you could study anything. I was interested in literature, philosophy, and social thought, but I could combine my interests in them by learning how they developed and were related to one another.

Robin Lindley: What did you focus on in your graduate studies on history?

Professor Samuel Moyn: I trained in modern European intellectual history at Berkeley, where I became a specialist in twentieth-century European thought, and the history of moral philosophy in particular. But I also learned a lot from the start about the history of Western Europe in general, and focused like many people in the 1990s on Holocaust memory (which was going to be my dissertation topic before I switched to something on the history of philosophy).

Robin Lindley: And you also earned a law degree from Harvard just a year after receiving your history doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley. That’s amazing. How did you come to study law? Did you have dreams of becoming an attorney?

Professor Samuel Moyn: No, I dropped out of grad school after three years because I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a scholar, but I liked the first year of law school even less. I don’t really have a convincing response to why I committed to finishing either or both degrees. But at a certain point I realized that if I wanted to write my doctorate, being in the latter stages of law school was a good time to do so: the coursework is only as hard as you make it, and summers are free if you choose. That said, going back to finish law school proved consequential. I met some of my most influential teachers as a result, and I doubt I would have become a law professor later had I not done so.

Robin Lindley: You worked as an intern in the Clinton White House and had a role in foreign policy regarding Kosovo and Serbia. How did you come to work at the White House, and what was your job?

Professor Samuel Moyn: Most law students do things over summers to explore possible careers, and at one point I was interested in working in government—so I gave it a try. I worked formally for the European directorate of the National Security Council, under Antony Blinken (now secretary of state). But in a very short-staffed office, I was quickly assigned to the subdirectorate on southeastern Europe, then occupied with the bombing of Serbia to protect Kosovo from its assault. It wasn’t planned. I was actually supposed to work the summer before but wrote some of my dissertation then because my security clearance took too long, and by the time I arrived at work in Washington, the Kosovo bombings had begun.

Robin Lindley: Your writing on human rights law is thought-provoking and at times controversial. I hope I get this right, but it seems you argue that human rights law only took hold beginning in the 1970s despite earlier laws based on Enlightenment thought, and laws since then to abolish slavery and torture, and even the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, to name a few examples. I apologize for this huge question, but why do you think that human rights law only originated or was recognized about a half century ago? Does your view come out of US atrocities committed in Vietnam such the My Lai massacre in 1968?

Professor Samuel Moyn: I don’t deny that there are early sources for human rights: human universalism in different versions teems in the moral annals of humanity, and certainly the basic idea that individuals enjoy “rights” against the community and state in virtue of their humanity is old (though how old remains controversial). I was struck, though, by the mythmaking that came out of the 1990s around how old human rights were as an active and widespread political cause. Clearly, they underwrote Atlantic revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century—but only in the sense that they justified founding or refounding a state by means of violence if necessary.

The newer idea of human rights and the politics around it were absent from the Vietnam war, when different forms of politics were available, such as peace agitation or socialist internationalism. So, the real story, I realized, had to be how those evaporated and human rights ideals and movements took their place.

Robin Lindley: In your challenging book on human rights and inequality, Not Enough, you argue that human rights law privileges the rich while ignoring concerns for social justice and economic equality. You critique neoliberal globalization and market fundamentalism as well as nationalism. Another large question, but how does human rights law further inequality?

Professor Samuel Moyn: I don’t argue that human rights law privileges the rich or ignores all economic concerns. Indeed, Not Enough tries to provide one of the first histories of the idea that human beings have not just civil liberties but also rights to welfare and work. But I do contend that human rights have ended up focusing on a floor of provision, lacking any confrontation with the victory of the rich in our time, in particular by directly requiring a ceiling on economic unfairness.

Robin Lindley: Sorry for my gross misinterpretation on Not Enough. Thanks for clarifying. And now, in your new study of the law of war Humane, if I understand it, you posit that US policies that make war more ethical and more humane—less cruel, less barbaric, perhaps less lethal for noncombatants, more tolerable—also make war more inevitable. Is that the core of the historical problem you’re addressing? I apologize if I’m misstating your view.

Professor Samuel Moyn: It’s hard to establish the exact connection between the endurance of war and its changing form. But I embarked on Humane struck by the fact that Barack Obama’s main speeches on how he proposed to transform the war on terror — first in Oslo in 2009 when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize and then in 2013 when he rolled out his targeted killings program — emphasized the exceptional humanity of American war. Of course, it had to be corrected, with torture of detainees edited out of the equation and civilian death in drone strikes and other targeted killings contained.

I wanted to show that the campaign to make war more humane (which originated in the nineteenth century) was far more regularly challenged at the start by people who called for not having war than it is today. And I hoped to understand how our own experience of “endless war” has coexisted with a serious concern — even within governmental and military circles — to provide humanity in war rather than peace instead of war.

Robin Lindley: Your new book on war and peace follows your major works on human rights. Did Humane grow out of those works? What inspired your book now?

Professor Samuel Moyn: It is definitely a sequel of sorts, but also an attempt to step beyond the theme of human rights, about which no one needs to hear more from me. Most of all, it reflects on our recent political experience, as an attempt to reckon with the continuation of the war on terror, by placing Obama’s presidency in a long historical arc that may not have bent towards justice.

Robin Lindley: You are very aware of the history of the extreme violence of US wars and are obviously interested in policies that promote peace. Do you see yourself as a pacifist or as somewhere else on the peace-war spectrum?

Professor Samuel Moyn: I offer a distinction between an antiwar and a pacifist stance in the book. You can get pretty far by declaring yourself against wars that set your country or humanity or both back, without condemning all wars. And as a law professor, while I wanted to give pacifism a great deal of attention in the book, I also wanted to chronicle the star-crossed attempt to build institutions and pass laws that control war, both keeping it from starting and trying to ensure it is less brutal if it starts.

I conclude from my survey that there is a great deal of nobility in striving for more humane wars, but even more in cutting off wars that are generally better not to have. I think a lot of Americans and others share my views, since it’s very hard to find “good wars” in history, and practically none in our lifetimes.

Robin Lindley: In Humane, you highlight the work of several individuals as the laws of war and peace evolved over the past 160 years or so. The legendary novelist and pacifist Leo Tolstoy looms large in your book. What did you learn about Tolstoy’s view of war and laws of war?

Professor Samuel Moyn: As the most famous pacifist in his time, Tolstoy fit with my agenda to give the aspiration for peace attention—but I also discovered he developed a set of disquieting worries about making war humane that have turned out to be prophetic of our partial success in doing so in our time. So, I spend the first chapter of Humane reconstructing Tolstoy’s qualms about what might happen, not if wars continue to be brutal (which they do), but if people succeed in making them less so (which they also do sometimes).

Robin Lindley: It seems that modern law of war or “humanitarian law” has grown from the work of Henry Dunant, Swiss founder of the Red Cross. How did he come to address the inhumanity of war and what were the major issues he outlined in the Geneva Conventions?

Professor Samuel Moyn: That treaty (it was originally one convention) dealt with protecting wounded soldiers. The goal of successor treaties was to strengthen protection for combatants (especially in cases of their internment) and to extend it to non-combatants. There was a separate branch of later treaty known as “Hague law” that exempted targets and controlled weapons. What was of most interest to me was how Dunant (the first Nobel Peace Prize co-winner in 1901 whom Obama actually name checked in Oslo himself) was conscripted into the peace movement when he won, and how most of the laws of war between his first Geneva Convention and the 1970s did not do a great deal to humanize war. I spend most of the book substantiating this claim.

Robin Lindley: And in the US Civil War, Francis Lieber developed a code for wartime conduct for the Union Army that was more permissive about military actions than what Dunant proposed. How do you see the Lieber Code?

Professor Samuel Moyn: It came from a different tradition. A Prussian émigré to the United States, Lieber was, as recent historians have shown, a disciple of Carl von Clausewitz who believed that war is good for us, and licensed lots of brutality in the course of it. The current consensus is that Lieber is best seen in counterpoint to the aspiration of humane war rather than one of its founders. He did follow Clausewitz in claiming that short wars conducted with massive violence would end more quickly, and thus end up being less cruel in the long run than humanized wars might.

Robin Lindley: Another pacifist who I didn’t know much about was Bertha von Suttner. She advocated for an end to war and raised concerns about air war early on, I believe. How does she fit into the history you present? Why did she disagree with Dunant’s nomination for the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901?

Professor Samuel Moyn: She was once the most famous woman in the world, and epitomized how fundamental women were to early peace activism. She contested the goal of making war humane, and — because she was horrified he won the Nobel prize — got Dunant to say he was actually part of the peace movement.

Robin Lindley: Western powers completely ignored any rules of humane or more ethical conduct in colonial and imperialist conflicts, usually against nonwhite populations, such as the Indian Wars in the US and the wars of European empire in Africa and Asia. What did you learn about “humane rules” in these wars?

Professor Samuel Moyn: There is an ongoing debate about this, though I think most every historian agrees that law and international law were racialized to their core in the century from Dunant to Vietnam. As a result, what constraints there were tended to be applicable in principle or practice to transatlantic wars of white Christians with one other, rather than imperial or other global wars. Part of the reason was that the laws of war long allowed irregular combatants to be shifted onto a second track of conflict on which with fewer or no rules applied— and enemies in the colonial wars more frequently were treated that way. And, of course, aerial bombardment, which became grievously unregulated everywhere in the middle of the twentieth century, was invented for the sake of controlling subject peoples. It also lasted longest in places like Korea and Vietnam even when America had signed up to provide the transatlantic “white” peace after 1945.

Robin Lindley: You note that the Korean war was the most brutal war of the twentieth century in the intensity of violence and per capita civilian deaths. I was surprised. What did you find?

Professor Samuel Moyn: It used to be known as the forgotten war, but the data we have clearly show that death and injury in Korea were far worse per capita than any subsequent American war. I was amazed that, after Vietnam when Americans finally began to complain in large numbers about such brutality, one marine responded that Vietnam was nothing compared to what he had seen in Korea. And he may have been right.

Robin Lindley: The Vietnam War, a war involving a nonwhite population, was extremely brutal with enormous civilian casualties. And it was a US defeat. And US soldiers committed war crimes. What were the lessons of Vietnam for the US military and the application of law of war? How did this experience and others lead to law of war changes in the 1970s?

Professor Samuel Moyn: The reason that even the American military after Vietnam resolved to take steps to make American war more humane — and a lot of American citizens insisted on it — was because political consensus broke down like never before on the propriety of a foreign war.

The consequences remain enormous. But the aftermath also led to new humanitarian and human rights movements that forsake the antiwar aims of the Vietnam era in order to monitor crimes of war alone. Self-evidently, those in the military who take the laws of war more seriously than before Vietnam have less serious a foe than movements that challenge American war-making as such.

Robin Lindley: You have described a “Nuremberg reversal” in recent decades. What does that mean?

Professor Samuel Moyn: At Nuremberg the gateway crime the Nazis were charged with committing was “crimes against peace.” And no wonder: if you commence an aggressive war, you are likely to commit atrocity illegally too. Not to mention that aggressive wars allow the legal killing of combatants in large numbers, and civilians too up to some limit, as well as the allocation of resources to war rather than welfare and the cascade of unintended consequences around the world that no one can foresee but which are generally regrettable.

Our moral consciousness and political movements tend not to proceed in the way Nuremberg did. You might say that instead of prioritizing keeping war from starting or stopping it once it starts, we prioritize making it clean if we can and picking up the pieces in the aftermath. It’s a crucial set of tasks, but not if we can criminalize, deter, or punish starting illegal wars. Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine suggests the same lesson.

Robin Lindley: In his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, President Barack Obama seemed to concede that war is inevitable but promised that the US would follow the laws of war and ethical principles to somehow make war less brutal and more humane. How do you see President Obama as a former peace candidate who became a wartime leader?

Professor Samuel Moyn: He’s a fascinating moralist and rhetorician who, as I said earlier, inspired this book. I wanted to show how many people took him to be a peace candidate and reconstruct how shocking it was that he became one more endless war president. At the same time, I wanted to explore how he understood that replacing George W. Bush’s form of the war on terror with a new “humane” form could provide it legitimacy in some quarters.

Robin Lindley: In America’s “War on Terror,” you note the use of novel tactics that involve US Special Forces and drone warfare. With drone warfare, it seems that attacks can be more precise and the “combat” more clinical and sanitary. More “humane” than traditional warfare. It seems that the public is generally unaware of most Special Forces operations and drone attacks. Can you give readers a sense of how many of these far-flung operations have taken place in the past decade or so? I was stunned by some of the statistics.

Professor Samuel Moyn: They are stunning. Drones are obviously new, and Obama (who ordered them to strike hundreds of times) built a drone empire infrastructurally, with new bases across a big swathe of the earth. Special Forces are older, but their deployment escalated even as Bush, Obama (especially after his Afghan “surge”) and even Donald Trump showily withdrew troops from some theaters. The escalation in the use of Special Forces meant they were touching ground in seventy percent of all countries on earth by the time Obama’s term ended — and eighty percent by the time Trump’s did.

I merely wanted to show how this new light- or no-footprint form of the war on terror was also placed under more humane controls, notably in a 2013 Obama policy guidance document that required that no targeted killing take place if there was any expectation of civilian death or injury — a requirement Trump retained. Of course, that rule wasn’t followed, but what interested me is that it was propounded in the first place.

Robin Lindley: Did our “Forever Wars” end with President Joe Biden’s withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan?

Professor Samuel Moyn: Clearly not. In his speeches on the withdrawal (which Obama commenced and Trump struggled to complete), Biden made very clear that he retained the power to kill over long distances. And, even while the drone program has been under some kind of review, several drone strikes have taken place, in Somalia and Syria.

In fairness, Biden has reduced the overall number substantially. But American counterterrorism globally is not a thing of the past, nor have new constraints been introduced on it.

Robin Lindley: Your book focuses on US policy, but I’d be derelict if I didn’t ask about the brutal war in Ukraine now. Thousands of war crimes have been reported and Russia’s unprovoked attack itself violates the constraints on “aggressive war.” Russian leader Vladimir Putin has demonstrated that he cares little about international law. How do you see the war in Ukraine: the atrocities, the demolition of civilian targets, the stubborn defense by the Ukrainian military? How do you see the end of this war?

Professor Samuel Moyn: Actually, Putin made his case for invasion by arguing that the West broke international law first. Far from cynically dismissing international law, Putin rhetorically embraced it. Obviously, two wrongs don’t make a right, and the Ukraine war has been sickeningly brutal. Most at stake, once again, is how to keep great powers from engaging in aggressive war and facing no consequences other than military defeat, and how to organize a fair and rapid peace instead of allowing great power confrontation to devolve into endless wars around the world.

Robin Lindley: In closing, I wanted to ask about the future of world peace. I was chair of the Washington State Bar Association’s “World Peace through Law Section” a few years ago. We presented programs on war crimes’ tribunals, international forensic investigations, human rights, law of war, peace movements, and more. Do you see a future where ending war will be favored over making war more humane? Are their models from history we can use to achieve a more peaceful world? What can average citizens do?

Professor Samuel Moyn: I don’t see any immediate future in which peace movements suddenly materialize, but it is heartening to me that only a couple of hundred years ago people accepted the inevitability of war, much as they accepted poverty and slavery. I don’t mean at all to minimize or trivialize the agenda of making war more humane, but I do want to call out its potential risks so long as people give up hope on constraining states from wars they should not be allowed to wage, no matter how humanely they do so.

Robin Lindley: Humane is already influential. I understand that your book Humane has been referenced by members of Congress in communication with President Joe Biden on counter-terrorism and other issues. Congratulations.

Professor Samuel Moyn: I’m sure it wasn’t referenced that often! And the book has inspired a good bit of legitimate pushback that I have found valuable in the continuing discourse about how to think about our morality and politics between our past and our possible futures.

Robin Lindley: Thank you for bearing with me Professor Moyn. It’s an honor to hear from you on these life and death issues. I appreciate very much your thoughtful comments. Congratulations again on your groundbreaking new book Humane and on your body of work on history and law. Your words deserve a wide readership.

Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based attorney, writer, and features editor for the History News Network ( His work also has appeared in Writer's Chronicle, Bill, Re-Markings,, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His writing often focuses on the history of human rights, conflict, medicine, art, and culture. Robin's email:

comments powered by Disqus