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The Historical Origins of Modern American War Crime


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The Historical Origins of Modern American War Crime

Last month I reviewed Samuel Moyn’s Humane (New York, 2021) but discussed only a few topics in it. Owing to the book’s great importance, I’d like in what follows to address another issue as well, and this is something with which many readers will already be familiar. The principal theme of Moyn’s book, it will be recalled, is that effor


11/01/2021 David Gordon

ts to make war humane can detract from, or even impede, the more important task of bringing war to an end, or at least drastically curtailing it. In arguing for this view, Moyn points out that it is only in recent times that regulations and treaties to limit war have been taken with any seriousness, and often even now they are not. Before that, they had little or no “bite” and allowed all sorts of atrocious behavior.

This leads to the point that many readers will already have encountered. In the American context, a great deal of horrendous conduct stems from the Civil War, and one thing Moyn bring out is the role of the “Lieber code”, a guide to conduct for the American armed forces written by the German immigrant Francis Lieber, in this matter. Moyn says, “Lieber refused to pity victims of war. Lieber’s code went in a different direction, legalizing shock and awe, with humanity a fringe benefit rather than a true goal…. Erected as one of its founding fathers later, Lieber was not really part of the tradition of making war humane. He condoned horrendous acts such as punishing civilians and denying quarter—which meant that, when enemies surrendered in hopes of avoiding death, you could kill them anyway” (pp. 19–20). :snip: 

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