‘Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War’ review: From wars to endless battles

Despite futile U.S. interventions around the world from Vietnam to Afghanistan, Washington’s policies have not changed, contends Samuel Moyn

Published - February 12, 2022 04:10 pm IST

Literary review

Literary review

Since 1945, four disastrous United States interventions have transformed the way Washington conducts war — but, as Samuel Moyn shows in this remarkably direct, focused and yet passionate analysis, the new approach amounts to endless war.

Moyn is blunt: the Vietnam War was pivotal, and it was as racist as the American founders’ near-extermination of Native Americans, the U.S. annexation of the Philippines, and the Korean War. In Korea, U.S. troops used racist terms they had used about the Japanese during World War II, but in Vietnam their pervasive racism rapidly became worldwide knowledge from news reports, troops’ accounts, and films (during that war, over 57,000 Americans and over 5,00,000 Vietnamese died).

The United Nations approved the Korean War — the 20thcentury’s worst in per capita civilian deaths — but in Vietnam the U.S. never declared war, and the destruction was both military and political. On a vast scale, the U.S. used napalm and torture, plus the ecocide Agent Orange, and ensured that its corrupt, brutal favourites held power in South Vietnam.

The Iraq invasion, which was also illegal, involved its own form of political destruction. The U.S.-led coalition’s at best minimal plans for the post-Saddam Iraq created chaos, in which various local leaders instigated terrible sectarian slaughter. In Afghanistan, the longest, though legal, U.S. war, Washington never knew what it intended.

Distorted view

In all four cases, Washington officials progressively distorted accurate field reports so as to exaggerate local stability and military capability. In Vietnam, it was media coverage — the greatest exposé of modern wars — that helped end the U.S. military-ideological disaster; an iconic and damning image is the photograph of the small child Kim Phúc running, terrified and screaming in agony, with napalm searing most of her body.

The Vietnam coverage revived discussion about the conduct of war, and Moyn gives a commanding account of the ideas involved. Mighty 19thcentury thinkers — like Leo Tolstoy, who in War and Peace retold his experience of fighting in the Crimea and who later influenced several major political leaders, and the American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison — saw the problems involved in moderating war or slavery without ending either. Campaigns to regulate war have given rise, for example, to the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention, but antiwar protests are now rare.

The Vietnam draft, which Moyn covers thoroughly, included military lawyers in devising rules for war. Many draftees’ experiences are known, but other groups’ stories vanished, including those of African-Americans who joined the military for jobs and an income. Regulation is, however, highly selective; early versions excluded Native Americans, the peoples of the Philippines, and all nonwhite imperial subjects. Today, counterinsurgency is globally excluded.

Ideological motivations

Moyn also shows, if indirectly, powerful motivations behind U.S wars abroad. In Korea and Vietnam, the delusion was that countries in Southeast and East Asia were both victims and propagators of communism. Equally deluded were claims that Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat; the U.N. had eliminated Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and its WMD plants. In Afghanistan, the assertion that the invasion would democratise the country and liberate Afghan women has proved to be little more than a forlorn hope.

Yet the new U.S. approach is worse. Remote-control killing has replaced ground troops overseas, and under the 2001 Authorisation for the Use of Military Force, Washington can declare ‘any person’ as being close enough to Al Qaeda to warrant preemptive attack. This could cover anyone — a targeted U.S. drone attack murdered the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in 2020; Moyn also cites Hugh Gusterson, who witnessed the scale of civilian deaths in U.S. drone attacks in Waziristan.

By opening the Guantánamo Bay prison outside U.S. territory, George W. Bush assumed detainees’ guilt; his successors Barack Obama and Donald Trump pursued an endless war using drones and special forces. By 2016, the latter had been deployed in 138 countries.

For Washington this kind of war, driven by what looks like self-righteousness rather than arguable ideological claims, needs no justification. In 2000, Condoleezza Rice, following many earlier officials, said that In pursuit of its national security, the U.S. is ‘on the right side of history’ and therefore no longer needs to follow international law and norms, or bodies like the U.N.

A central issue arising thence is that of the U.S. political culture’s susceptibility to what Moyn calls a ‘messianic sense of purpose’. That may well have originated with those who wrote the constitution. They acted in part from revulsion at the condition of late-medieval European monarchies, but stated that their independence, their new order, was founded in self-evident, even, in Hannah Arendt’s phrase pre-rational, truths. Those kinds of themes would take us elsewhere, but Moyn demonstrates throughout why war itself is the continuing problem.

Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War; Samuel Moyn, Verso, ₹1,420.

The reviewer is a former Visiting Professor at IIT Madras.

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