When Humanitarianism Prolongs the Inhumane

"A future of bloodless global discipline is a chilling thing."


Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, by Samuel Moyn, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pages, $30

There is a technology that could radically shrink, perhaps even end, incarceration as we know it. But it might make the whole world a prison in the process.

The tech in question is GPS, which allows the authorities to monitor people in real time. Strapped into an ankle bracelet and surveilled by satellite, a criminal can live under house arrest, traveling only to his workplace and other approved locations, paying a share of each paycheck to his victims. As such sentences become more common, there could come a time when only those convicts who pose an actual physical risk to others would be confined in a more traditional way—and even that might be accomplished in a manner more decentralized than those big, brutal penal institutions.

That would be both more efficient and more humane than the old system, and it would deliver victims actual restitution instead of some platitude about "closure." Sounds good, right?

But the same system that could give greater liberty to people previously confined to cells could also mean less liberty for people who today are unincarcerated. Think of all the victimless crimes that are already on the books, and then imagine how the list might expand if critics couldn't confront new legislation with the argument Are you sure you really want to put people in jail for that? Ever-larger groups of offenders could be put under ever-more-intrusive sorts of surveillance and restriction, walking the streets but not walking them freely.

You can spin scenarios where we get some version of the first option but not the second; you can spin scenarios where we get the second but not the first. But there's also an uncomfortable possibility that the first will enable the second, with the state's hand clasping us more tightly in some ways even as it loosens its grip in others. As Samuel Moyn writes in Humane, "there is no single arc to the moral universe that guarantees that progress comes without regress on other fronts. The one can even facilitate the other."

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Moyn's book is about wars, not prisons. But the dilemma he describes is strikingly similar. Humane tells the tale of two struggles, the fight to end war and the fight to humanize it, and how one gradually came to supplant the other.

When Moyn writes about humanizing war, he doesn't mean "humanitarian interventions" launched with promises to end a genocide or spread democracy—though the same people often embrace both ideas. He means making warfare itself more humane, by shielding the lives of noncombatants, outlawing the torture of POWs, and otherwise eliminating atrocities. Moyn, who teaches both law and history at Yale, offers a well-informed guide to how the laws of warfare were born and how they very gradually grew some teeth. Little bitty baby teeth, but teeth nonetheless.

But his account begins elsewhere, with an assortment of 19th century anarcho-pacifists—Leo Tolstoy, Adin Ballou, William Lloyd Garrison—who saw war itself as an atrocity. Garrison eventually made his peace with warfare, supporting the Civil War in order to bring slavery to an end. But Tolstoy drew the opposite conclusion from the abolition of chattel slavery: To him it showed that an ancient, seemingly permanent injustice was not inevitable after all, and that war perhaps could be eliminated one day as well. Moyn notes here that many reformers had fought not to stop slavery but to make it more bearable, "a project that coexisted comfortably with the strengthening of plantation discipline." Tolstoy would not settle for that sort of reform.

That era's push to humanize the battlefield was led by people with little interest in ending warfare altogether, and their earliest efforts to write their ideas into law had little impact on how combat was conducted. The peace movement had more momentum, helping inspire a series of arbitration agreements and disarmament treaties and, in 1928, the nobly intended if utterly ineffective Kellogg-Briand Pact, in which a host of nations formally agreed to outlaw war.

Those arbitration agreements were particularly popular. "The idea," Moyn explains, "was to encourage or force states into a system in which nonpartisan outsiders would adjudicate all or at least some of their differences." Unlike Kellogg-Briand, this actually got results: The 19th century saw "more than 150 actual instances of arbitrated compromise between states, in circumstances that might otherwise have led to armed strife." It was a more flexible, decentralized version of what later organizations like the League of Nations and the United Nations were supposed to accomplish. In fact, Moyn notes, "it was widely believed that a system of arbitration between states would avoid the trouble of setting up a more formal international organization of nations."

Many pacifists put their faith in the League of Nations as well, and in the broader concept of forming a world federation. But that idea wasn't universally shared. Moyn points out that William Borah, the progressive Republican senator from Idaho, backed the Kellogg-Briand Pact while opposing the League. Borah's was arguably the more consistent anti-war position: Scratch those world-federalist dreams, and you'll often come across calls for a policing arm that keeps the peace by force. The United Nations certainly hasn't been a very pacific organization—and while many world federalists would attribute that to its dominance by a well-armed superpower, a more egalitarian U.N. would still have those blue-hatted troops at its command.

There was less room for the old peace movement in the wake of World War II, but the dream of a world without war stayed alive. And while there's an obvious overlap between the desire to end warfare and the desire to sand away its ugliest effects, there are places where those paths diverge. As the U.S. escalated the Vietnam War—not exactly a conflict free of civilian carnage—it nonetheless announced that it would follow "the humanitarian principles enunciated in the Geneva conventions." Meanwhile, anti-war activists focused on the idea that the war itself was illegal.

The latter, with their sometimes rather creative interpretations of international law, sounded more like attorneys pursuing a longshot case than Tolstoyan radicals. (The law treated a war between countries differently than a civil war, for example—and so, Moyn reports, the anti-war Lawyers Committee Concerning American Policy in Vietnam "spent most of its time arguing that South Vietnam was not truly a state.") But even after the My Lai massacre of 1968 put war crimes near the center of the Vietnam debate, the protesters' ultimate aim was to end the intervention, not to humanize it.

Moyn contrasts the reaction to the My Lai massacre with the reaction to the Abu Ghraib scandal of 2004, which arguably did more to mobilize opposition to war crimes than opposition to war. That's certainly the impact it had in Washington. Barack Obama was widely seen as an anti-war insurgent when he ran for president, but while "the most egregious infractions of the prior administration were disowned," Moyn writes, "Obama's lawyers claimed authority to continue war indefinitely across space and time, devising formal legal frameworks for targeted killings." War would be less grisly but also omnipresent.

The resulting synthesis is still essentially intact today. Even former President Donald Trump, a man who skylarked publicly about targeting terrorists' families, didn't dislodge it: "He mainly aimed to take the policies of his predecessors further than they had," weakening Obama's rules but keeping the basic framework in place.

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Needless to say, modern warfare is nowhere near as humane in practice as it is in the rhetoric of the warmakers. Drone strikes regularly hit the wrong targets, and even a narrowly focused killing can have vast and awful secondary consequences. (If NATO's Libyan airstrikes had killed no civilians, they still would have worsened a gruesome conflict.) But as a thought experiment, Moyn invites us to imagine a day when expertly programmed autonomous drones never hit the wrong man. Even then, he argues, we would have attained "not eternal peace but endless control."

And would those drones limit themselves to blocking terrorist attacks? Or would the control apparatus turn its automated system of surveillance and violence on smugglers, or migrants, or perhaps the leaders of a nonviolent rebellion in an allied state? Just as a carceral GPS system can be applied to an ever-growing list of offenders, so might this new eternal war. Indeed, the two systems could converge.

Wars today are both fewer and less lethal than in the last century, and that is surely a good thing. It is always better for civilians to be spared bombardment and for jailers to renounce torture. We should celebrate the shifts that make anything more humane.

But we can't let such reforms mark the boundaries of our goals. "A future of bloodless global discipline is a chilling thing," Moyn writes, even if bloody global discipline is chillier still. To avoid that fate, we need a "project of challenging hierarchy in all its forms." Otherwise, the same changes that made those hierarchies less brutal might transform the planet into a battlefield without frontiers and a prison without walls.