CMS lecture: Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War

Bookcover: Humane: How the US abandoned peace and reinvented war

In the years since 9/11, we have entered an age of endless war, with the United States exercising dominion everywhere. In this lecture, based on his recent book (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Samuel Moyn asks a troubling but urgent question: What if efforts to make war more ethical—to ban torture and limit civilian casualties—have only shored up the military enterprise and made it sturdier?

To advance this case, Moyn looks back at a century and a half of passionate arguments about the ethics and law of using force. In the nineteenth century, the founders of the Red Cross struggled mightily to make war less lethal even as they acknowledged its inevitability. Leo Tolstoy prominently opposed their efforts, reasoning that war needed to be abolished, not reformed—and over the subsequent century, a popular movement to abolish war flourished on both sides of the Atlantic. Eventually, however, reformers shifted their attention from opposing the crime of war to opposing war crimes.

In the post-9/11 era, the U.S. military embraced the agenda of humane war, driven by both the availability of precision weaponry and the need to protect its image. The battle moved from the streets to the courtroom, where the tactics of the war on terror were litigated but the war’s foundational assumptions went without serious challenge. These trends have only accelerated since. Even as the Obama and Trump administrations spoke of American power and morality in radically different tones, they ushered in the second decade of the “forever” war.

Humane is the story of how America went off to fight and never came back, and how armed combat was transformed from an imperfect tool for resolving disputes into an integral component of the modern condition. As American wars become more protracted, they are also becoming more humane. This lecture argues that this development might not represent progress at all.


Portrait of Professor Samuel Moyn

Samuel Moyn is Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and History at Yale University. His forthcoming book is “Liberalism against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times” (Yale University Press).


The lecture is moderated by Professor Kevin Jon Heller (CMS).

Time: Monday, June 12 from 18.00-19.30

Place: CSS, Øster Farimagsgade 5, 1353 København K, room 1.1.18

Register for the event here, no later than June 11.