Histories of Violence: The Necessity of War (or So We Are Told)

By Brad EvansJune 13, 2022

Histories of Violence: The Necessity of War (or So We Are Told)
THIS IS THE 57th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Samuel Moyn, who is the Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School and professor of History at Yale University. His latest book, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2021 (and Verso in the UK in 2022).



BRAD EVANS: I would like to begin this conversation by asking what you, a distinguished scholar whose work has helped shape and richly contributed to the public debate on war and its all-too-human consequences, mean by the term “violence.” And why has it occupied such a central position in your work?

SAMUEL MOYN: I wrote my first book on Emmanuel Levinas, the French Jewish philosopher whose most classic text begins with a meditation on war and peace. Steeped not just in existentialist philosophy but also Russian literature, however, Levinas may not have been up to the care with which Leo Tolstoy — the hero of Humane, my recent book — both focused on and generalized away from violent corporal practices.

I would follow Tolstoy in this regard: reserving “violence” for bodily depredations, without conceding too much to the popular liberal ethic of reducing physical cruelty. We know from a range of thinkers — Walter Benjamin, Frantz Fanon, Catharine MacKinnon, and so many others — how thin a liberal understanding of harm is that reduces it to intolerable bodily violence. Yet I found that the really useful work Tolstoy does in various texts is both to capture the kinship of forms of such physical cruelty while also putting a moral concern for cruelty in its place.

In his analogies of war as a form of violence to other corporal practices like chattel slavery or nonhuman animal slaughter, Tolstoy showed what they had in common — and, even more vividly, how campaigns to limit violence as such easily go awry. For that very reason, he only wanted to see the kinship among these phenomena insofar as they were forms of a broader domination, which could also take nonviolent form. (Tolstoy counseled nonresistance, not “nonviolence.”) I worry about redefinitions of violence in “slow” or “structural” forms that risk obfuscating the specificity of corporal violence. The truth is that most domination does not take the form of physical cruelty.

These Tolstoyan distinctions have a very real implications for reform, in particular not overstating the priority of containing physical cruelty (in policing or war) while recognizing the depth and force of structural domination. 

I often find myself drawn back to your earlier concerns with the evolution of rights, notably their contested histories, how they have connected to broader influences (notably theology), and their moment of reckoning. Mindful of the way you have always problematized the relationship between rights and power, in your latest book, Humane, you have pushed this even further to address more problematically still the way the humanitarian impulse and its ethical positions can be appropriated by war machines. How do you understand the shift in your work from earlier books such as Not Enough to Humane? And what troubled you the most on this intellectual journey?

I have always been interested in the ways that human rights have become just one sector in a larger humanitarian imaginary that includes not just the regulation of wartime violence but also development and philanthropy. In 2008–’10, some colleagues and I founded Humanity, the journal now run by others that combined the topics of human rights, humanitarianism, and development. More generally, my central interest has been claims (usually false) on the universal in last 50 years, and the prospects for extricating it in the future for the sake of a progressive internationalism that the world has lacked lately.

But there are also distinct features to the new book. In mercenary terms, I wanted to be done with writing about human rights, and the humanization of warfare struck me as a step beyond that topic while not taking too big of a leap. In legal terms, so-called international humanitarian law (which regulates the conduct of warfare) is a mostly separate body of law — one much more accepted by militaries and even by the United States government and its politicians. For that matter, I resolved to make Humane much more about the legal, and not just the moral and mobilizational, which were the focus of my human rights books (those earlier books barely mentioned law).

And I am much harder on the legal project of humanizing war than I ever was on human rights. Where The Last Utopia and Not Enough indicted them as insufficiently aspirational, as I see it the trouble with international humanitarian law is the risk it actively courts of entrenching war. It is a risk that has been poorly controlled and managed, I argue, especially when the legalized “humanity” of the new form of the War on Terror Barack Obama invented legitimated it in the aftermath of the strategy of delegitimating his predecessor’s acts as brutal and illegally so.

Staying with this concern of entrenching war, as you powerfully put it: while Humane offers such a compelling and challenging account of the ways our best intentions can be turned into the next nightmare vision, I would like to ask how you see the role of technology playing out here. Or perhaps to be more specific, does technology today not precisely provide the mask of mastery that allows countries such as the United States to precisely make the ethical case for more humane warfare?

For sure, the evolution of warfare is unthinkable without the technological capacity. “Ought” implies “can,” and armed drones and killer robots open up previously unthinkable possibilities for both license and restraint. But I also think the history of warfare shows that, in a sense, “can” implies “ought”: we devise the weapons we morally want.

Previously, Westerners ordered and used weapons designed to exact maximal harm, including in civilian targeting for the sake of degrading “morale.” And while — as I show in Humane — the aspiration to precision is old, and never particularly widely shared before our time, it is widespread now. It is even a dream that has begun to come true. That is not so much because technology magically provided new possibilities as that moral change demanded a certain direction of change in technological evolution.

In a more economistic rhetoric, the moral demand side is as important as — if not more important than — the technological supply side in history. In the end, technological evolution is strongly conditioned by the imaginative and moral conditions that surround it, even if there are also accidental breakthroughs that no one anticipates and natural constraints that moral aspiration cannot magically eliminate.

Turning our attention more directly to the role of the United States in the world, some may argue that sufficient time has now elapsed to enable us to offer a more viable and considered critique of the presidency of Donald Trump, especially what his term meant for the state of America today. While many will agree that Trump was disastrous for race relations in America, I wonder how you view his term in office from the perspective of global geopolitics and the penchant for international war.

I’m not sure enough time has passed, especially in American debate where complication and nuance have generally been sacrificed to a competition to determine who can hate Donald Trump most vitriolically — and for understandable reasons. I expect it will take many decades before his abnormalized presidency generates the “normal” multiplication of views about its significance. It might even be one of those events — as in Zhou Enlai’s apocryphal comment on the French Revolution — for which it is always too soon to tell what it meant.

At the same time, certain things were clear from the start. It was easy to suspect in advance that he was going to be the worst president for many decades — and this suspicion proved true. But as the beneficiary of a protest vote first against the historic Republican Party and then against the historic Democratic Party, both of which stood for fundamental continuity in domestic and foreign policy, his causes are not easily dismissed. And his own fecklessness, not to mention the containment of his evil both by his own party and “the Resistance” among Democrats, meant a great deal of policy continuity across the years he tried to rule.

There is no doubting that one of the great points of importance of his presidency was to disrupt the pat consensus across partisan lines in favor of militarism and neoliberalism. Not totally, of course, since it is revealing that the new Cold War against China for which he also argued — even while struggling to withdraw troops from various other theaters — has been taken up with great zeal since he kicked it off. Joe Biden responded by finishing the job of pulling out of Afghanistan and making some early noises about a new welfare politics. But both a broader militarism and an enduring neoliberalism remain in place, in part because Trump took little action to undo them, and in part because subsequent events such as the Ukraine War have reanimated some of the main zombie ideas of our age.

This last development has been particularly spectacular. Overnight, the Ukraine War gave new life to some of the most challenged assumptions of the past few years — such as the appeal of arms spending and geopolitical confrontation — while also postponing much left pressure on the domestic policies of the liberal democracies. It’s early days, but no events have more changed the posture of the American left in the last decade, or really nipped its emergence in the bud, as Trump’s win and the Ukraine War.

And out of power, Trump remains the central figure in US politics. In part this is out of fear that, with business as usual continuing, the politicians he backs will help the Republicans retake Congress this year and he or some surrogate will retake the presidency in 2024. I fear the era of Trump — for that is what we have entered — is set to endure for a long period in which both political parties make feints toward becoming more oriented toward the working class (and less toward war) even while neither follow through, leaving many in electorate little to choose between.

Keeping our focus on the world right now, it seems post-pandemic we have be served a deadly reminder once again of the raw realities of geopolitics and the violence that so often accompanies the ambitions of states. I am particularly struck by how one of the perturbing features of the war in Ukraine, as you introduce, is precisely that it appears like a good old-fashioned ground war, somewhat bereft of the high-tech military advancements we often see lauded in nations such as the United States. What is your reading of this conflict? And what are the implications for it in terms of thinking about the international?

It is genuinely perplexing and in large part because — in an information war that all wars have been — it is extremely hard to be sure about facts. Putin’s war, like those in Chechnya and Georgia before, has its atavistic characteristics. It appears to be a war of conquest, unless it was only a war for regime change of the kind of West has fought repeatedly in recent decades. And Putin’s military has descended for sure into extreme and prohibited brutality, though so far the toll of the dead and injured is no comparison to Iraq — because not just ground wars in general but urban wars in particular have so routinely been so costly for those fighting. In these respects, then, the Ukraine War makes for a sharp contrast with the archetypical American form of war lately, which has involved the promise of humanity and precision — at least after Obama’s shift to the combination of troop withdrawal and reliance on armed drones and special forces.

And yet, I think it wouldn’t make sense to portray the Ukraine War as atavistic at its core, even if its aims may have been old-school and the grisly scenes we have witnessed are real and sickeningly so. After all, Russia has also pioneered a kind of new right internationalism that may outstrip even earlier forms of this phenomenon (and has had its own targeted killing program in poisoning enemies abroad). Equally important, the West’s response has been at the highest levels, making the struggle over Ukraine less atavistic than it might seem. One need only mention the role of intelligence in targeting generals and hardware, and the extraordinary militarization of the fight with the highest-tech next-gen equipment the West can send.

To conclude, I would like to bring together two areas you have emphasized here as important when thinking about peace in the 21st century — namely, “laws of war” and the “political imagination.” How might these be more effectively reconciled so that we don't repeat the violence of the past?

Needless to say, as the Ukraine War’s own endlessness began, attention has shifted away from criminalizing or at least stigmatizing starting illegal wars and toward the war crimes of Putin’s forces in the field. Indeed, it has become almost morally impermissible in Western public debate to focus on the conditions for advantageous short-term peace, as politicians have moved to more maximal belligerence, preferring the war aim of degrading Russian power or, as the US defense secretary openly said, making sure it is put in its place forever.

For such reasons, I fear that the Ukraine War mires us in the past. After inroads for the cause of peace in the last five years, it has been remarkable to see it abandoned so quickly, including by a younger generation on the left that previously looked like it might entertain a very different future for the international order. It has been an extraordinary moment for argumentative discipline, in which left views becoming more mainstream have been violently pushed back to the margins. Shockingly, the much-lionized Squad of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other young progressives in Congress voted for full militarization too. And this is not even to mention that the proxy war against Russia is very likely a paving stone on the road to a long Cold War struggle against China.

It is difficult to retain any shred of optimism in the course of this political disaster. Yet in its early days, the Ukraine War catalyzed a reawakening of concern about aggression in the international system — in comparison to one with atrocity in wars that drag on — not seen since the Vietnam War era. No less flagrantly illegal in conception and initiation, the Iraq War caused some stirring of argument in this regard, though next to none in the United States itself. The killing of Qasem Soleimani raised the hackles of some Americans. They were suddenly concerned about the ease with which the American presidency has been empowered to strike aggressively, albeit chiefly because the miscreant Trump had inherited an office whose arbitrary might both parties supersized over generations. Finally, like Obama’s election eight years earlier, Trump’s signaled reservoirs of support for less war among voters, whom some more authentic partisan of a better internationalism might someday tap. But I wouldn’t bet on it being anytime soon.


Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.

LARB Contributor

Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is author of over 17 books and edited volumes, including most recently Ecce Humanitas: Beholding the Pain of Humanity (2021) and Conversations on Violence: An Anthology (with Adrian Parr, 2021). He leads the Los Angeles Review of Books “Histories of Violence” section.


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