Understanding the integral role of endless war in liberal empire is crucial to grasping what is and isn’t novel about war today. Tracing the tension since Tolstoy’s time between the American movement to end war and efforts to make war less brutal, Samuel Moyn’s new book, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, argues that with the advent of drones, the latter has vanquished the former, inaugurating an era of endless humane war akin to policing. Moyn is right to call our attention to endless war and to drones’ role in suppressing antiwar sentiment but misunderstands how they do so.
Drones follow in a line of technological and bureaucratic innovations that have enabled imperial conflict to endure in an increasingly anticolonial and antiwar world: drones have defused demands to end war not so much by making war humane but by reducing American casualties and allowing political elites steeped in liberal orthodoxies to enshroud war in secrecy designed to marginalize questions about its purpose and justness. Accepting elite perceptions of drones’ humanity, Moyn minimizes both their continued inhumanity and the persistence and strength of American antiwar sentiment despite elite efforts to thwart it.
The endlessness of American war is not new to anyone familiar with American history: the long expropriatory and genocidal conflicts with Native Americans, the Civil War, wars of expansion abroad, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, wars of humanitarian intervention, the War on Terror. To this, Moyn responds that with the end of superpower competition and the United Nations’s promise of global freedom, “it was legitimate in 1989 to expect a different path.” Not so for anyone who has grasped the centrality of racism to the United States’s past and perceived the presumed vindication of liberalism with the end of the ideological contest of the Cold War. The Persian Gulf War did not smash hopes for a post–Cold War pivot toward peace for any who understood the reality of American imperial and military-industrial power. There was little reason to expect anything different from the earlier era of liberal hegemony when Britain was the world’s preeminent power, constantly at war in the name of a Pax Britannica.
Indeed, in the early years of the Iraq War, the “false pretext for the invasion, the direct economic interests of many of the masters of war, the atrocities” reminded the historian Nicholas Dirks of a pattern dating to the 18th-century British Empire, when reformers focused on particular scandals, such as slavery and massacres, rather than question the form of rule that routinely enabled them: the scandal of empire itself. Moyn’s argument that today’s reformers have prioritized eliminating war’s worst abuses rather than the abuse of war itself is similar but misses how the current American way of war, like the earlier British one, is bound up with the scandal of empire.
The “War on Terror” — the American political elite’s updated term for imperial war — relies on a novel technology to extend the type of “control without occupation” that the British aimed for as they invented aerial policing in Iraq in the 1920s. These techniques built on older naval practices that also collapsed war and policing: policing created pretexts for and provoked war, and that belligerence in turn underwrote British policing power. Spreading to British India’s North-West Frontier (today’s “AfPak”), Aden (present-day Yemen), and beyond, aerial “policing” was immediately implicated in conversations about humanity in warfare, not least because the Air Ministry imagined the space between the Mediterranean and Afghanistan as one of “continuous […] warfare” (making it one themselves). In this region, a Royal Air Force official admitted, bombardment did the work typically performed “by policemen and sticks.” “From the ground,” explained officers, “every inhabitant […] is under the impression that the […] aeroplane is actually looking at him […] that all their movements are being watched and reported.” In Iraq, this forever war lasted until the revolution of 1958 finally overthrew the British-backed Iraqi government that tolerated and enabled it. This past deeply informed US strategy in the same region decades later, as I explained at length in 2014 in the journal Humanity (then edited by Moyn).
In short, Moyn’s proposition that war has newly come to resemble policing rests on a misunderstanding of how policing has always worked in liberal empire. As the historian Dirk Moses explains in The Problems of Genocide (2021), the liberal idea of permanent security justifies the extension of power to secure the world in the name of “humanity” while itself producing violence against civilians. The rubric of “security” has long bridged policing and military action under a single umbrella of endless aggression (war on communism, on drugs, on terror). The line between policing and war was blurry well before President Obama expanded drone warfare. In tolerating endless war as a “metaphysical necessity,” Obama affirmed the liberal imperial view since the Enlightenment.
When the ex-imperial policeman George Orwell illustrated the dystopic centrality of permanent war to modern empire in Nineteen Eighty-Four (published in 1949), he highlighted its reliance on constant management of public opinion to allow elite control affairs — thought-policing (and militarized policing at home) is another way in which it blurs war and policing. Tolstoy, who recognized the way liberalism’s great-man understanding of history abetted its immorality, was already on to this in War and Peace: in an epiphany, Prince Andrei realizes how constant harping on the rules of war distracts from the reality that war is inescapably about killing and plundering — “the vilest thing in life.” Likening the pretense of humanizing war to the meat enthusiast’s offense at the bloody sight of a “slaughtered calf,” Andrei recognizes that, like the banishing of animal slaughter to stockyards at the margins of towns, “humbug” about making war “polite” aims not at reducing violence but at enabling it by removing it from view. Though war should be undertaken only “when it [is] worth going to certain death,” by prettying its image, his contemporaries have “gulled” themselves into choosing war without sufficient cause. Moyn’s judgment that Tolstoy’s views went “too far” “too soon” and remained long “inapplicable” misunderstands the “syndrome” Tolstoy perceived: not that actual humanity would enable more war but that talk of humanity in war would do so. (Tolstoy, notably, deplored the retrospective judgment by which historians represent “all the past as a preparation for future events.”)
Competing 19th-century transatlantic movements for peace and humane warfare emerged against a backdrop of intense colonial violence. Finally giving Europeans and Americans technological superiority over “others,” machine guns were used to devasting effect in colonial wars from the 1860s; pacifism was “mainstream” in the United States while Americans waged relentless war against Native peoples. These racial limits were not merely an unfortunate relic of the time: as social Darwinism stoked fears that violence between Europeans and/or Americans risked white survival, these movements promoted peaceful adjudication of their differences partly to ease their colonization of other parts of the world. They rested partly on racist understandings of “civilized” warfare, which simultaneously underwrote constant “small wars” against colonized people represented as collectively militant, devoid of civilians, and thus beyond the scope of efforts to “humanize” war. While speaking of peace and humanity among themselves, American and European imperialists defended spectacular violence as the most efficient way to discipline others in the name of peace. A brutal technique like blowing rebels from cannons was upheld as “an impressive and merciful” act “calculated to strike terror into the bystanders,” as the British lieutenant-governor of Punjab put it in 1872.
Such violence remained controversial among broader metropolitan publics, but limited enfranchisement helped insulate the powerful from dissent. It was precisely because British public opinion acquired new purchase with the advent of mass democracy in 1918 –– clamoring especially for “democratic control” of foreign policy –– that the British state invented new strategies to evade it. We may think that World War I had a clear end unlike today’s forever war, but it went on well beyond 1918. In many theaters, British demobilization was slow, relying on new technologies to replace boots on the ground. Aerial policing’s infrastructural leanness and discretion allowed conflict in the Middle East to escape the check of Britons concerned about taxes, demobilization, and imperial expansion and violence.
When the public remained suspicious, cynical after a calamitous war that had both enhanced and exposed the state’s formidable capacities for censorship and propaganda, the state ramped up secrecy, tightened censorship, and pushed propaganda that dehumanized Arabs, exoticized “Arabia,” and affirmed the “great humanity of bombing” given its foundation in “terror” — the familiar logic of colonial violence. Orwell observed the way that media and government abuse of language enabled what he called the “defence of the indefensible”: “Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air […] this is called pacification.” Sanitized language that obscured violence was part of the policing — the limiting — of thought critical of that violence.
Drawing a curtain around imperial violence, precisely because of growing public interest in curtailing it, thus stymied the push to end war. Tactics of secrecy, propaganda, and repression that allowed closeted elites to defy democratic will — the tactics of what I call “covert empire” — suppressed antiwar sentiment and its expression. Even in 1914, the surge of patriotism that swamped opposition to war did so partly through coercion: those who put pacifism above national loyalty faced jail and ignominy.
The Pax Americana that succeeded the Pax Britannica when the United States took over the burdens of global policing after World War II extended these dynamics, partly through intensive military collaboration between the United States and Britain during the Cold War. The effort to make war more humane flourished not because “fewer and fewer” in the world demanded “no war,” as Moyn argues, but because colonialism and elite management of public opinion about its violence were not over. McCarthyism made it difficult for Americans to complain about the Korean War, which one of its architects, General MacArthur, understood as a continuation of his father’s 19th-century violent project to spread “the white man’s brand of law and order” in the American West. On the heels of British departure from the Middle East, the United States began interventions there, through the clandestine mechanism of the Central Intelligence Agency, whose Middle East section was headed by Kermit Roosevelt Jr., son of a veteran of Britain’s World War I invasion of the region. The CIA took over inhumane practices like torture to evade American and global public opinion.
After the televised brutality and high American causalities of the Vietnam War provoked a popular antiwar backlash, the end of the draft made it more difficult to mobilize antiwar movements by immunizing well-off Americans, as Moyn notes. This structural cause of greater ignorance of and thus secrecy around military affairs ought to make us question the diagnosis that peace sentiments were superseded by commitments to humane warfare. Formerly entangled concerns for inhumanity and the justness of war became delinked partly because post-Vietnam cynicism about American imperial wars provoked greater opacity about war that made it harder to resist. The illusion of humanity cast doubt about the meaning of war in precisely the way Tolstoy perceived. Militaries made a show of following the rules out of concern for public relations. By the 1990s, partnership between the legal profession and the military even allowed the United States to openly launch wars in the name of forestalling the brutality or savagery of “others,” whether aimed at stopping genocide or spreading Western democracy.
Still, in 2001, the American consensus in favor of war was forged in an oppressive atmosphere that demanded proof of patriotism, as Patriot Acts, blacklisting, mass surveillance, and hate crime made it especially difficult for those most likely to question the war, such as Muslims and racial minorities, to do so. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the only lawmaker to vote “no” against war in September 2001, was denounced and physically threatened. Some senators confessed to feeling pressured to fall in line with the Bush administration’s actions. Mass antiwar sentiment was “decentralized, local, and ignored by media,” as the historian Brad Simpson, then a radio producer for Democracy Now!, recently documented. Susan Sontag called out “the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators” whose task was “a manipulative one.” It was not that the public was uninterested in “the propriety of going to war,” as Moyn suggests, but that many were cowed about speaking up or systematically ignored when they did. Moyn overlooks how the United States’s emergence as “the most omnipotent snooping power in world history” shaped the scope of public debate.
In the run-up to the Iraq War, too, American media docilely purveyed false government claims in favor of invasion, breeding the mistrust in mainstream media that plagues our time. But antiwar sentiment persisted, especially among racial minorities. February 2003 saw “the largest antiwar movement” in world history, with tens of millions marching around the globe. Under this public pressure and the influence of myths about the success of earlier British aerial control in the region, the Pentagon began dreaming of replacing troops in Iraq with airpower. Its officials understood that American opinion turned first on concern about the loss of American life and that aerial violence would more easily escape the check of even those concerned with Iraqi life. And so, even after Abu Ghraib, ordinary Americans without risk of conscription could afford to remain ignorant, especially as covert agencies came to handle major aspects of the war (including drones). Those more invested, often by virtue of connection to the region, could not speak freely — and, when they dared to, were sidelined.
The racism and bigotry that drove suspicion of critical minorities’ Americanness and marginalized their criticism as special pleading also dehumanized those in drone pilots’ sights. Just as the British considered the entire male Iraqi population “potential fighters,” Obama counted “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.” Humane itself treats “Muslim terrorism” as an ahistorical phenomenon without cause or context, introducing Tolstoy momentously as the great writer whose last novella was about “a declining empire facing Muslim terrorism on its fringes.” The very resonance of this echo undermines Moyn’s claim that American drone warfare risks expanding without limit. Far-reaching as it is, it strikes only nonwhite regions, contained by the colonial axes of racism, bigotry, and economic dominance. Drones updated an established pattern of finding ever new means to keep imperial conflict on the down low.
As in Orwell’s time, a media establishment cozy with the political elite has been complicit in silencing criticism, adopting CIA, Pentagon, and White House narratives and terminology of “militants,” keeping drone strikes off the front page, and focusing on the low American death toll rather than high civilian casualties elsewhere. The sheer novelty of drones facilitated more persuasive claims of humanity for a generation more skeptical of conventional bombardment than the British in the 1920s. Claims of “no collateral damage,” despite ongoing civilian death, enable the war to persist. The myth of “light-footprint” drone warfare (which Moyn, too, indulges) elides the existence of the massive locally recruited armies supporting it.
To be sure, today’s war is objectively less massively lethal than the Korean or Vietnam wars, but that neither means that it is not still massively lethal nor that it has become objectively humane. Moyn offers as evidence of the dawn of humane war the unsourced claim that most of the 200,000 Iraqi civilian deaths since the invasion in 2003 were due to “civil war and disorder,” a breathtaking minimization of the United States’s role in a conflict between a US-backed regime and its opponents. (Even The New York Times recognizes that the United States helped create “a political system along sectarian and ethnic lines that haunts” Iraq.) According to Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, the United States’s post-9/11 wars have killed over 929,000 and displaced 38 million people, not to mention the accompanying inhumane environmental, economic, and cultural devastation (following crippling prewar sanctions). Recent revelations of the military cover-up of a devastating 2019 bombing of Syrian civilians show how secrecy and the manipulation of language have enabled high civilian deaths and systematic undercounting of them.
Moyn concedes that Obama’s time in office left “many thousands dead,” and that similar practices expanded under Trump, along with war against ISIS and bombings in Syria. How can all this square with the claim that we have entered an era of humane war? If many of those struck have “never struck at the United States, and the threat they posed was debatable,” the announcement of the arrival of a humane era in which drones might strike only “a confirmed militant” is confusing at best. An unjust war, by definition, cannot be humane, and a humane presence, by its nature, would not provoke “militancy.”
By insisting on the “humanity” of this new form of warfare, Moyn centers and validates the American political elite’s defense of the war — which is designed to enable the very endlessness that concerns him. Secrecy; repression; and humbug about rules, the less-than-human nature of the war’s victims, and the claimed “end” of war in Iraq (and now Afghanistan) took in influential segments of the American public, smothering public interest in drone use, whose control by covert agencies also keeps it beyond public oversight. This secrecy is precisely why the world’s formal adjudicators of humaneness, such as the UN Human Rights Council and the ACLU, have condemned United States’s drone use.
That American pacifism has nevertheless remained palpable and popular enough to support the election of both Obama and Trump on antiwar platforms (however false their promises proved) further belies Moyn’s elite-centered claim that we made a “moral choice to prioritize humane war, not a peaceful globe.” Obama’s first drone strikes — three days into his administration — were the subject of international investigation, but the conversation struggled for momentum because of the way drone strikes, by design, escape democratic oversight.
Obama realized that it would be difficult to shift Bush’s policies, notes Moyn. He was, as the late antiwar lawyer Michael Ratner put it, “one man on top of a huge national security establishment” — the elite establishment invested in liberal empire. This institutional inertia suggests that the feebleness of American pacifist sentiment is not the real problem. If Obama actually convinced us that endless and humane war is “morally wholesome,” as Moyn claims, why did Trump’s 2016 antiwar stance appeal? What the Obama administration actually did was envelop the war in greater secrecy, partly to shield his failure to end it; drones remained in the control of the CIA despite even military concern — out of sight and thus safely out of American minds.
Lamenting the disappearance of American pacifism, Moyn asserts that “no one complained” about intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq — missing the rich, American pacifist traditions that remain with us and that, like Tolstoy’s pacifism, draw from well beyond the white, Christian thought that is Moyn’s focus. The 19th-century transatlantic peace movement’s failure to extend legal protections to “racialized foes” was a feature, not a bug; later, more anticolonial American pacifist sentiment drew fresh inspiration from African, Asian, and Indigenous thought, including Muslim American thought. The American Civil Rights movement did not keep American pacifism alive because of the “American Gandhi,” the white minister A. J. Muste, as Moyn would have it; Gandhism directly influenced Black civil rights struggles earlier when, building on older mutual influences, figures like the Black minister Howard Thurman went to India to meet Gandhi.
It is partly by ignoring non-Christian and nonwhite American pacifism (like the media itself) that Moyn arrives at the impression of American pacifism’s vanishing and misses the mechanism by which drones actually thwart antiwar feeling: quarantining foreign and military policy as the purview of elites still attached to liberal justifications of empire — whose false morality Tolstoy and other anticolonialists exposed long ago. In an increasingly antiwar and anticolonial age, the United States’s always endless wars are fought so discreetly that Americans are often unsure whether there is war. That we have “withdrawn” from Afghanistan while also keeping undercover troops in place and drones within reach demonstrates both the strength of antiwar sentiment and the state’s habitual availing of techniques to evade it.
Indeed, the withdrawal was accompanied by a horrific drone strike that killed only innocents (whose timing drew the attention of otherwise negligent media) and followed Iraqi demands for a real troop drawdown instead of the Pentagon’s deceptive redefinition of American troops’ role there (akin to British practice a century ago). The idea that terrible violence is critical to peace also endures in the fear of mutually assured destruction underlying nuclear armament and the “shock and awe” mindset of American intervention. The lower lethality of American warfare today is a side effect of innovations driven by a concern for keeping war as unnoticeable as possible; its alleged humanity appeases only those who do not question the United States’s imperial prerogative. The presence of lawyers in the military enables American war to continue in a climate in which pacifism has yielded not to concern for humanity but to policy elites stoking enduring faith in liberal empire.
War has not suddenly become endless because Americans have prioritized its humanization; the obstacle to peace is not weak pacifist sentiments but empire — including antidemocratic state secrecy and repression in the United States. It is because empire is so easily normalized and obscured that Gandhi called nonviolent resistance to it “satyagraha”: insistence on truth. As media and political elites lambast the withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Biden’s acknowledgment that attempting to “deal with the rights of women around the world by military force is not rational” reflects popular skepticism of the liberal idea of addressing violence with violence. The rub is in extending that common sense to the violent covert presence that persists under cover of withdrawal.
Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History at Stanford University, focusing on the history of Britain and its empire. She is the award-winning author of Spies in Arabia (2008) and Empire of Guns (2018). Her newest book, Time’s Monster: How History Makes History, was published in 2020.