War and Caprice: How Leo Tolstoy Predicted 21st-century Warfare

Author Samuel Moyn can’t help wondering whether ‘cleaner’ warfare is really more humane, and whether we want robots to be the ones doing the fighting

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"Drones and Dove" illustration by Anastasia Shub.
"Drones and Dove" illustration by Anastasia Shub.Credit: Shutterstock / Tam McDonald / Royal Air Force
David Green
David B. Green
David Green
David B. Green

Leave it to Israel to have pioneered the use of an artificial intelligence-controlled robot in its ongoing shadow war with Iran. That is apparently what happened in November 2020, when Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed during a roadside ambush on the outskirts of Tehran. Though the attack was directed from Tel Aviv, the New York Times reported after a year-long investigation, the actual shots that hit Fakhrizadeh were fired by a robotized machine gun that used artificial intelligence to adjust its aim in real time in response to such factors as its own recoil and the weather.

Israel may have been the first, but there’s no doubt that other states are rushing to integrate automated technologies into their own military toolboxes. Which raises the question: Will it be an advance for humanity or a major step toward a dystopic future when states are able to surveil and kill – with minimal collateral damage or harm to their own personnel – targets that may not even be aware they are on the battlefield?

This is roughly the question with which Samuel Moyn concludes his book “Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War.” To his credit, he does not presume to offer a definitive answer. As a historian, however, and legal scholar at Yale University, Moyn does sound a warning more generally about the concept of “humane” warfare that has come to dominate America’s military actions across large swaths of the globe, in the decades following September 11, 2001.

In the contrarian spirit that characterizes much of his work (he often focuses on the unintended bad consequences of good intentions), Moyn argues that an American trend toward greater concern for the ethics of warfare has come at the expense of the effort to prevent wars altogether, a once popular societal mission.

Moyn does not dispute that more sophisticated weapons can be more precise, so that fewer non-combatants need be sacrificed, but he argues that they also make it easier for countries to go to war. Nations can tell themselves they are fighting “cleanly,” with minimal collateral damage –though that is not always the case – and even less risk to their own forces. He does not have to look further than America’s “forever war” against Islamic terrorists, which is far from over today, even after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The aftermath of the AI-controlled attack that killed leading Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, outside Tehran, last year.Credit: /AP

As bookends to his study, Moyn posits two individuals who struggled, in different eras in very different ways, with the question of whether “humane war” is a contradiction in terms. In recent years it was President Barack Obama, who, despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, probably did more than anyone to deepen the “forever” war, with the help of a team of lawyers providing legal cover every step of the way.

At the other end, Moyn posits Leo Tolstoy – that’s right, the author of “War and Peace” – who early on believed that the only way to end wars was to fight them as brutally as possible. This would not just expedite quick decisions on the battlefield, but also force societies to confront the bloody reality of what they were doing.

As a soldier in the Crimean War during the 1850s, Tolstoy “acquired a skepticism of making war humane that matters even today. Especially today,” Moyn writes. After himself serving in a besieged Sevastopol for six months, Tolstoy watched as the siege was interrupted by a brief truce during which both sides could tend to their dead and wounded. He was not impressed, and in his “Sevastopol Sketches” (1855), railed against this feeble show of humanity, a mere pause in the slaughter, following which, he wrote, “The white flags are lowered, the engines of death and suffering are sounding again, innocent blood is flowing and the air is filled with moans and curses.”

"War and Peace" author Leo Tolstoy.Credit: AP

As he had Prince Andrei intone in “War and Peace”: “They talk to us of the rules of war, of chivalry, of flags of truce, of mercy to the unfortunate. It’s all rubbish.”

Tolstoy was convinced that only by allowing wars to play out in their fullest brutality could humans be coaxed to bring them to an end. Nonetheless, with time, Tolstoy evolved from holding this “cruel to be kind” approach to preaching a radical Christian “nonresistance” that even waived the right to self-defense.

Ironist and idealist

The first half of Moyn’s book is a thoughtful and revealing survey, beginning in the 19th century, of the history of the parallel efforts to end war altogether and, alternately, to subject it to certain rules intended to reduce human suffering. Although he acknowledges the noble intentions behind trying to make war more humane, Moyn clearly would prefer to see the world’s leaders working to end war. Though he writes with irony and a cynical view of human behavior, he is at heart an idealist.

Following World War II, which saw the deaths of an estimated 75 million combatants and civilians, writes Moyn, “the creation of a peace architecture [became] a first priority, for Americans and others.” The punishment of Nazi Germany’s criminal aggression in going to war (as opposed to the specific atrocities it perpetrated), and prevention of such acts of war in the future, he says, was the main purpose of the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-6. Indeed, Moyn argues, it was only during the Vietnam War, more than two decades later, that Nuremberg “was rehabilitated in memory – falsified, really – as an atrocity trial.”

He is correct that the indictments at the International Military Tribunal included charges of waging “wars of aggression,” but they also included “crimes against humanity” (against groups of individuals) and, for the first time, the charge of “genocide” perpetrated on entire groups. Moyn himself acknowledges that it was the scenes of barbarism that Allied armies encountered on liberating the German camps, and subsequent revelations of the scale of murder and torture they employed, that branded the Holocaust on humanity’s collective mind as the worst manifestation of the war, much more than the excuses used by Hitler to embark on a war of global conquest.

A Yemeni boy walking past a mural of a U.S. drone and the question "Why did you kill my family?" Credit: MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP

Whatever constraints emerged from the horrors of World War II, Moyn notes that they applied only to the white people of the West. Even as the colonial powers relinquished their empires in Asia and Africa (as well as the Caribbean), that didn’t mean that they began to count the non-white civilian populations of the developing world, for example in the three-year Korean conflict, where more than half of the nearly five million dead were non-combatants.

It took the massacre of Vietnamese civilians in My Lai village by U.S. troops in 1968 for the public focus to move from wars being “just” to their being “humane.” “Before My Lai was revealed,” writes Moyn, “most of the controversy had raged over … whether the war should have even taken place. … News of atrocity added fuel to a campaign against an American war that was already increasingly unpopular.”

It was the sickening and shameful descriptions of carnage at My Lai, a South Vietnamese village where the American troops killed between 350 and 500 unarmed people on wholesale and unsubstantiated suspicions they were affiliated with the communist Viet Cong, that, according to Moyn, led to the rewriting of the Geneva Conventions on war in 1977, even if the United States never actually ratified all of the new rules.

Moyn is determined to demonstrate that the impulse to rein in the way wars are fought has come at the expense of the effort to end war altogether. He doesn’t go so far as to suggest that more killing, even of innocents, is better than less (à la early Tolstoy), but does say that by accepting limitations on, say, the way we choose targets, we relieve ourselves of responsibility for more comprehensive measures, while easing our consciences about the immorality of warfare in general. He also warns against “a future of bloodless order,” and postulates that the real aim of endless war “is not the death of enemy soldiers but rather the potentially nonviolent control of other peoples.” Moyn does not elaborate on what he means – this ominous but vague scenario is mentioned only on the book’s last page – but he seems to be alluding to the type of omniscient state surveillance imagined by George Orwell in “1984” and in whose direction current-day China is rapidly striding.

The uses to which increasingly smart technologies can be put in the realms of security should be keeping us awake at night. But the threat of all-encompassing civilian surveillance, or even the image of a world under the control of an America employing “a form of decreasingly violent policing,” merits a book of its own. When it comes to positing more humane warfare against solving conflicts with nonviolent means, however, it is not self-evident that these are mutually exclusive goals. To Moyn, they are: He makes the case that more humane fighting not only diverts attention from the more virtuous goal of laying down our arms, but also that it encourages us to fight more.

Exhibit 1 for Moyn is Obama, who, writes Moyn, “turned to armed drones more times in his first year alone than [George W.] Bush had in the entirety of his presidency. … Introduced in secret and then normalized in public, targeted killings transformed the war on terror so that it stretched across a widening arc of the earth. Soon it was to be advertised as a humane enterprise, conducted with concern for the innocent in harm’s way.” The same thing for American use of Special Forces, “which operated in or moved through 138 nations – or 70 percent of all countries in the world – in Obama’s last year in office. Actual fighting took place in at least 13, and targeted killing in some of those.”

Barack Obama greeting U.S. troops during his presidency.Credit: REUTERS

Certainly, it’s eminently legitimate to ask whether Americans stopped paying attention to what their forces were doing in Afghanistan, for example, when their own casualties, as well as collateral damage, were reduced to a minimum. It’s also legitimate to wonder to what extent America’s “war on terror” actually contributed to increased radicalization and terror in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

‘Israel got there first’

The themes addressed by Moyn in “Humane” are clearly of more than passing interest to Israelis, who have been fighting a forever war of their own since before independence, against some of the same enemies the U.S. is now up against in the region. The Israel Defense Forces have their own ethical code that has undergone regular revision, and gross violations of the code, at least when they become public knowledge, can spark intense debate – a sign that the public is engaged with these issues, even if a very wide range of opinions exist regarding what is permissible.

But when we Israelis boast of having the world’s “most moral army,” have we lost sight of the forest for the trees – by which I mean Israeli society’s unwillingness, or inability, to consider the larger mission they are charged with carrying out, namely, perpetuating the occupation? Is this the local equivalent of focusing on the specifics of the rules of engagement while losing sight of the ultimate strategic goal? (One could argue of course that the settlement movement has never lost sight of its ultimate goals.)

What does it mean to follow the letter of the law, when two different sets of laws are in effect in the same place for Israeli citizens and Palestinians? I’m not saying anything new by suggesting that not deciding is also a form of decision, and that it’s not enough to excuse a bad situation by calling it “temporary,” if no serious effort is underway to thrash out what the permanent arrangement is to be.

Samuel Moyn is Jewish, has written about the Holocaust and its connection to the human rights movement, and follows events in Israel with care. I wanted to ask him what parallels, and what differences, he saw between Israel and America’s “forever” wars. He spoke with me from New Haven, Connecticut, about these and several other issues raised by his book, and the excerpts that follow have been edited for clarity and space.

Samuel Moyn and the cover of his book "Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War." Credit: Farrar, Straus and Giroux/ Harold Shapiro

I suspect that your book reads differently to Americans than it does to Israelis. How do you view Israel’s use of targeted assassinations and, in general, the way we comport ourselves in our own war against terror?

“I just think Israel got there first. Israel’s endless and ‘humane’ occupation antedated the United States’ ‘humane’ and endless war on terror. I didn’t talk about this in the book, but I think that after 9/11, even as some American lawyers were calling for shirking the restrictions of the law, I think others were thinking about Israel, and going there and consulting, because it was a country that had already been in a war on terror and strove to make it legal.

“In that sense, my book is anxious about someone like former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, who similarly said, ‘Well, we need this war [on terror] to be legalized, rather than to be fought outside legality. Its humanity matters.’ So, he’s very much parallel to the Obama administration. And I would say he was subject to the same worries.”

When I said that things look different from Israel, I was thinking about how Israelis see themselves as being in an existential situation, and have always done so. Whether we’re going after Hamas activists or Iranian nuclear scientists, we’re doing it because – we say – our existence rides on it. But I wonder if you would say we have tunnel vision.

“There are debates about this. I’m an old-school liberal Zionist: I believe in the two-state situation. It may be unavailable now, but then, if that’s your view, then you [should be] condemning the occupation. And I think, for example, we can condemn certain aspects of how Gaza has been formally separated [from the West Bank] – [and remains] functionally, perhaps, occupied. At the same time, once you get over the wild-eyed pacifism of Leo Tolstoy, you’ve got to set up peace and allow self-defense as a justification for force. And then the question is: What are the countries that are abusing their right to self-defense, and how can the world push back? I would say that Israel has a much more credible basis for asserting the right to self-defense than the United States did after 9/11 – but both countries have abused it.

“I don’t think that the U.S. has ever been under existential threat, from anybody really, for at least 100 years. So then the question is, were there better ways it could have responded to the terrorist strikes? I hope so. It might not be analogous, but when in 1967, if the whole region declares war on Israel, of course you have a self-defense claim to fight back. That’s just very different from the American experience. At the same time, episodes of Israeli militarism in the decades since have tracked America’s abuse of every country’s need for safety.”

The burned-out wreckage of a car being driven by Al-Qaida operatives in Yemen following a drone strike. Credit: AFP

But hasn’t the American war on terror, and the risk-averse attitude of Obama that you describe in the book, particularly after “the underwear bomber” [Islamist terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who unsuccessfully attempted to detonate a bomb during a Detroit-bound transatlantic flight on Christmas Day 2009] – didn’t this imply that America did regard terror as an existential threat?

“It certainly reacted [as if it did], and no one can deny that there have been and are and will be threats. But part of the discussion has to be: what level of permanent security do we demand? How fundamentally do we change the powers of the state to respond? Obama was fascinating to observe in this regard, and I try to give a lot of attention to him in the book as a moral thinker. He sort of said everything and its opposite. He was motivated by the risk of terror and the electoral risk of not interdicting terror, but he also said that fewer people die from terror than from slipping in the bathtub [in an interview with the Atlantic magazine]. Now, that [last remark] was at the end of his presidency, when he’d successfully interdicted a lot of threats.

“I guess the question is: Do we want to have societies in which the lure of permanent security leads us to create a framework that imposes no limits on endless uses of force? I say no. But that would require concluding that we don’t want to become the kind of society that empowers the state to kill in our name without limitation. And we shouldn’t just accept humanizing that killing, and promising that there won’t be so much collateral damage either.

“But we haven’t had this kind of discussion. And I think that Obama was tempted to have it.”

Is the United States capable – even if were to have another leader with the intellectual ability and moral qualms of Obama – of having such a discussion? The United States, where people can’t agree on the necessity of vaccines?

“I know. It’s a fair question. But, if there’s so much division in America, it’s because the voters are in revolt, because the elites have made so many mistakes. So, it’s not as though you have perfect wisdom on one side and utter ignorance on the other.

“You have had three presidents in a row now who have run against the elites’ warmongering. Because they know that that speaks to the masses, who are at least smart enough to know that some wars were mistakes. And then, once in power, these same three presidents have had to reset the wars, and salvaged the salvageable parts.

“I think we’re at a point in history where we can keep faith with our decision to abandon the idea of enlightened despotism in order to operate democratically instead. If we had enlightened despots, we could keep that system. But we don’t, so … but it’s undeniable that it is hard to imagine a sophisticated discussion in public on lots of issues anytime soon.”

A woman with facial injuries following a drone attack in Idlib, Syria. Credit: OMAR HAJ KADOUR - AFP

In light of the remote, automated Israeli attack last year on Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, it seems appropriate to wonder about the meaning of robot-driven wars. Do you think that the use of AI-based weapons ratchets up the war on terror in a significant way?

“There are a couple of different questions to be asked about the turn to autonomous weapons systems. Are there, for example, classes of weapons we should attempt to prohibit in advance? People had that view about the airplane. I think that drone use rose quickly enough that when America began using them, I don’t remember any kind of debate being initiated [on their use] – something like Stop Killer Robots [the international coalition of NGOs pushing for international agreements to prevent deployment of autonomous weapons]. Maybe there was such a debate in Israel.

“With autonomous weapons systems, there is still a chance to have that discussion before it starts. I believe that Israel has used autonomous weapons systems once and once only, and no one else has, to date. And in the book’s epilogue and footnotes, I mention that there are actually a lot of discussions going on about these questions, in principle. If these systems are to be used at all, for example, what are the situations in which we think they ought to be prohibited? And do we run a risk of playing even further into the ‘humane’ syndrome, whereby this more trustworthy technology ends up paving the way for more war than we might otherwise have tolerated? I think that’s a very real concern.”

On another note entirely, I’d like to ask you about China. Has China taken itself beyond a need for war, because it’s shown that it’s possible to “take over” the world, in a sense, without needing to kill anyone, except maybe internal dissidents? And additionally, does China, or do other authoritarian states, really worry about international law?

“I’m anything but a naïve legalist, and part of my point is to show that law is legitimating and permissive, so it’s very useful to the powerful. Even to the extent that law constrains, even powers like China and Russia have to care about it to some extent. [For example], we could look at the [second] Chechen war [between Russia and separatists in Chechnya], and the way that, while it definitely wasn’t fought humanely, it may have been fought more humanely than otherwise – and certainly was litigated more for violations of humane standards after the fact – because Russia is part of the European human rights regime, and there are a number of cases that came out of the war.

“As for China, for decades it has really been interested in how to make international economic law, such as investment law, useful to its state project. And that’s why for the Chinese, getting into the World Trade Organization was such a huge win for them. We shouldn’t neglect that fact that China is militarizing, even if nowhere near to the extent that America has done. And there have been these skirmishes around Taiwan.

“But if the new cold war with China is anything like the old one, I think there will be more sporadic violence in lots of different places, rather than conventional, transpacific warfare. And I think those small wars are likely to remain, for both sides, subject to humane concern – precisely because they’ll be small and localized. If there’s a World War III, all bets are off, of course. It would be existential again, and you can imagine a lot of unregulated violence.

“But China has understood, and I think it has learned this from the West, that global hegemony is mainly about economic power. You could argue that each of the leading empires in modern history – British, American and Chinese – has ascended based on that truth, and that there is declining military violence along the way. And so China, if this trend holds, would deploy that violence least, because they can do cyberwar instead of the war with which we’re familiar.”

Samuel Moyn’s “Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War” is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, priced $30, and is out now.

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