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In 2016, on the eve of a historic peace treaty between Communist guerrillas and the Colombian government, I interviewed a retired Colombian colonel about the role of the United States in his country’s decades-long conflict. A graduate of the United States School of the Americas in the 1980s, where Vietnam veterans had taught him savage tactics like “zonas de aniquilación,” he was gregarious and charming, if at times a little chilling in his frank discussion of atrocities over the past decades. It had been a brutal war, fought brutally with brutal allies. “We’ll never have paradise,” he told me. “The conquistadores were criminals, bandits, terrorists of Spain, and they are my grandparents, my ancestors. I have that gene in my blood, of wickedness and evil.” And yet when I asked him what sort of military support the United States should continue to offer Colombia, he told me (after a long oration on the importance of our support to Colombian air capabilities) that we should continue helping them with “human rights, that’s important.”
At first I thought he was joking, or pandering to a soft-hearted American. The push to improve the Colombian military’s human-rights record was not considered one of our greatest successes, nor was it especially popular within parts of the Colombian military. “The army of speaking English, of protocols, of human rights is over,” a Colombian general would soon be recorded saying. But my Colombian colonel approached the matter of human rights the same way he approached the issue of partnering with wildly abusive paramilitary groups: pragmatically. “If the peace treaty goes through, we will be responsible for territory where we have committed massacres,” he explained, “and if we continue to do that, over time, it will be bad for us.”
But he might have had another reason to bring up human rights. At the time, the hardline former president was waging a bitterly divisive political campaign against the peace treaty, and “human rights” was one of his talking points. After the head of Human Rights Watch’s Americas Watch division, José Miguel Vivanco, strongly criticized the “justice” provisions of the accord (he claimed they would give perpetrators of human-rights violations immunity), right-wing political figures suddenly discovered a commitment to international humanitarian law. In other words, at that moment “human rights” were a major arrow in the quiver of those opposing a peace treaty. No justice, no peace—literally.
Such perverse employment of humanitarian discourse lies at the heart of Samuel Moyn’s Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, which traces the rise and fall of antiwar movements over the past few centuries alongside legal battles to bind soldiers to humane conduct in war. A fascinating and disturbing book as well as a timely and vital one, Humane gives us a genealogy of our modern illusions about war, and builds a moral case against the style of war-making that America has favored in the twenty-first century.
Moyn begins by carefully disentangling two approaches to the horrors of war. On the one side are those whose primary goal is an end to all war. According to this school of thought, it is fine to publicize atrocities during wars, from My Lai to Abu Ghraib, but the central crime is war itself. Here the seminal figure for Moyn is the novelist Leo Tolstoy, for whom niceties like taking prisoners instead of wholesale slaughter merely put a thin veneer on barbarism. Writing War and Peace around the time of the First Geneva Convention (1864), which codified standards of treatment for injured soldiers, Tolstoy mocked such humanitarian ideas. “They talk to us of the rules of war,” Prince Andrei says in one of several sharp commentaries on standards of military conduct in the book, “of mercy to the unfortunate and so on. It’s all rubbish.” Later in life Tolstoy would compare attempts to humanize war to nineteenth-century efforts to make slavery more politically acceptable by introducing limits on how badly you could treat the enslaved. (The 1826 Slave Code was one such attempt at “amelioration.”) Just as humane slavery had been a sham, Tolstoy thought, so too was humane war. “Where violence is legalized,” he argued, “there slavery exists.”