The danger of less dangerous combat :

Humane : How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, by Samuel Moyn.

Can we imagine, as Samuel Moyn puts it in ''Humane,'' his smart and provocative new book, ''a future of war beyond killing''? It sounds like a worthy goal. Why wouldn't less killings be anything but better?

Yet Moyn suggests that making war less cruel amounts to a centrist compromise that diverts Americans pursuing the more radical goal of genuine peace.

Spectacular technological advances - weaponry that's more precise and less deadly - have combined with a lack of moral vision to induce a wan sense of complacency. 

When Americans used to think about a future beyond war itself, the forever wars of the last two decades seem to have elicited a fixation on the means instead of reckoning with ends - an anxious discussion of how American forces comporting themselves abroad instead of a substantive debate over what they were doing there in the first place.

Arriving 20 years after 9/11, as the United States has withdrawn its troops from Afghanistan, ''Humane'' encourages readers to ask central questions too often lost amid the chatter of the foreign policy establishment.

Among people favoring a continued American presence, a popular term has been ''light footprint'' - the notion that drones and surveillance technologies can replace large-scale conventional forces.

Moyn, a Yale professor of history and law who has written several books about human rights, makes clear that those technologies have indeed reduced casualties - at least when compared with conventional warfare - but they have also opened up new ethical conundrums.

''Humane'' is divided into two parts : ''Brutality,'' which starts off in the mid-19th century, during the beginnings of a peace movement that aligned with Enlightenment ideals of human perfectibility ; and ''Humanity,'' which starts with the Vietnam War and brings the narrative up to the present day.

Until the last few decades, Moyn says, the idea of making war less brutal and more humane was mostly a fantasy.

International laws may have put limits on abuses [ at least in theory - Moyn makes sure to detail the long history of international law being assiduously ignored], but the horrific bloodshed of two world wars showed how mechanized warfare could be made even more vicious.

Moyn contrasts two pivotal moments in modern American warfare : the My Lai massacre of 1968, when American soldiers murdered as many as 504 unarmed Vietnamese civilians;; and the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, which came to light with grotesque photographic evidence in 2004.

My Lai, Moyn says galvanized many Americans against the Vietnam War and helped end it; whereas the discovery of the horrors at Abu Ghraib led to '' a mainstream consensus'' that gathered ''around the ethics of humane fighting, rather than the immorality of the entire enterprise of war on terror.''

Moyn keeps emphasizing this difference - but is it really so surprising? One war was conducted in the name of a Cold War abstraction; the other in response to [ at least at first ] to an attack on American soil that killed nearly 3,000 people.

You can be an adamant critic of the war on terror while nevertheless comprehending why it became so entrenched.

In ''Humane,'' the figure who exemplifies this entrenchment is Barack Obama, who campaigned in 2008 as a critic of forever wars and then proceeded to rely on drone strikes with startling regularity.

He abhorred torture specifically, but his lawyerly administration placed the overall war on terror on more secure legal footing.

Obama pivoted from being a kind of peace candidate,'' Moyn writes, ''to becoming a permanent if humane war president.''

''Pivoted,'' ''a kind of,'' ''permanent if humane'' - the phrasing reflects what seems to be Mohy's own ambivalence about the famously ambivalent president, who is depicted in ''Humane'' as both a cynical opportunist and a sincere public servant.

On the one hand, Moyn says, Obama ''allowed'' his anti-war supporters to believe he was more of a categorical pacificist than he was; on the other, the president was entrusted with ''protecting the American people first and foremost,'' and couldn't turn a ''blindeye to terrorism.'' But what Obama did, Moyn writes design ''a far bigger and more encompassing form of war than necessary.''

The question of what constitutes ''necessary'' cuts to the heart of whether war can ever be abolished - a question that reverberates through this book, even if Moyn is too searching a thinker to proclaim that he has it definitively figured out.

''Humane'' begins and ends with Leo Tolstoy, a committed pacifist who believed that trying to make war more humane was like trying to make chattel slavery more humane. ''What if reformers humanized an institution they could and should have eradicated?''

Moyn writes, summarizing Tolstoy's argument. In the United States, the monstrous institution of chattel slavery was of course eradicated - but only with the Civil War.

The World Students Society thanks review author Jennifer Szalai.


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