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Lessons from a war zone Naked geopolitical ambition now trumps human rights

Welcome to the age of necessity (BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images)


December 2, 2021   7 mins

To have been a war reporter over the past ten years is to have worked under the shadow of the modern American way of war. From Libya a decade ago to my last reporting trip in Syria in 2019, the outcome of the wars that followed the Arab Spring have been decided by the presence or absence of American air power. 

I owe my life, no doubt, to an American pilot I’ve never met, who dropped a bomb a couple of years ago on ISIS fighters in the garden of the surrounded farmhouse in rural Deir Ezzor where I and SDF fighters huddled, waiting to be overrun. In these modern wars, the bombs that come hurtling out of the sky, rending the air like a bolt of lightning, land with pinpoint accuracy, transforming the course of a battle in an instant, like the judgment of an angry and invisible god.

Over the years, in battles across northeastern Syria, I watched the US Air Force rain down death on ISIS fighters, and then wandered, hours or days later, through the carnage that ensued: mangled bodies in their dozens, grey with cement dust or black with putrefaction, hurled by the explosion into all manner of strange and inhuman shapes.

In Raqqa five years ago, I embedded with Arab fighters of the SDF as they called in airstrikes against ISIS militants, which would level entire apartment blocks to dislodge one sniper. A year later, I followed local volunteers as they dragged the shrivelled, stinking bodies of airstrike victims from the city’s rubble: ISIS wives or local civilians, identifiable only by the detritus of a life suddenly cut short — passport photos, purses, makeup bags and soft toys. 

The devastation of Raqqa after the battle, its apartment blocks crushed by the pinpoint precision of American military technology, looked hardly less total than that of rebel-held Eastern Aleppo, levelled by the wantonly imprecise barrel bombing of the Syrian regime, whose helicopters hovered unbearably over the city like flies over a dining table, disgorging their bombs at random. Yet even if the effect, in destroyed buildings, seemed much the same, surely the morality of the two approaches was different? 

By emphasising precision and at least making a concerted effort to avoid civilian casualties, surely the American way of bombing is an act morally distinct from the indiscriminate punishment dealt out by the Syrian regime? If the intentions are good, can the results be evil?

It is, in part, to answer this question that the Yale legal scholar Samuel Moyn has written the new book Humane, an exploration of how the West’s effort to conduct wars while minimising harm has had the unintended consequence of creating a world of forever war. He takes his cue from a speech Tolstoy puts into the mouth of his character Prince Andrei in War and Peace, in which the Russian aristocrat notes that war should be kept as brutal as possible, otherwise the temptation to keep waging it will become too great. As Moyn notes, “humanitarianism led advocates to compromise in pursuit of humane war and publics to feel good enough about themselves in the bargain to permit it to go on and on”, with the result that “endless war has become part of the way Americans live now”.

Rattling through the twin strands of the initially European effort to impose humanitarian rules on war, and the parallel American effort to abolish war altogether, Moyn assembles the evidence for his thesis: that from the Clinton era onwards, the mantra of Never Again has led the United States into an endless mission to bomb more and more of the earth in pursuit of global harmony. As he observes, “of all the peoples in the annals of warfare, Americans are the ones who have invented a form of war righteously pursued as superior precisely for being more humane, and one tolerated by audiences for that very reason”.

A non-interventionist of a strain once dominant in American politics and only now slowly becoming the hegemonic worldview once again, Moyn is a critic of the process by which the postwar American empire legitimated itself through war for humanitarian ends. After World War Two, as he notes, “self-styled internationalists
 insisted that America had to commit to a globalised peace ‘scheme’”, yet “it would only emerge slowly that this option meant committing the country to global war”. 

Victory in World War Two and then in the Cold War both stood for Moyn as roads not taken, as American leaders refused to give up the prospect of global domination. Following the Vietnam War, as American military elites committed themselves to eliminating its indiscriminate bombing and targeted war crimes, the new discipline of International Humanitarian Law fused with the fact of America’s sudden global preeminence to create the logic for liberal interventionism.

As Moyn notes, in the decades following Vietnam, the Western popular memory recentred the Holocaust into the war’s retrospective justification: “Peripheral in moral consciousness before, ‘ethnic cleansing’, culminating in genocide, became the defining evil of war past and present.” Coupled with unchallenged American hegemony, “the new Holocaust memory coincided with the aftermath of decolonisation, and a skepticism along with it that others were up to the challenge of ruling themselves. The result was not a demand for peace but for interventionist justice.” 

With the postwar taboo on initiating wars obscured, America was now morally entitled — encouraged, even — to launch its own wars in contravention of international law, as long as it could be argued that they prevented genocides: yet “no-one asked at the time whether that implied that war itself — especially if it could be purged of its cruelty — was not that bad”. For Moyn as for Realist scholars, the two notionally distinct strands of interventionist thought, “foreign policy neoconservatism and liberal internationalism”, found themselves “closer to each other than their followers liked to admit”.

From the Clinton era, which “did the most to drive the drift into militarism, no matter the legality of the wars involved”, through to the advice of scholars like John Yoo, who famously provided legal cover for the Bush administration’s use of torture against captives in the War on Terror, Moyn traces the humanitarian and legal steps by which the American empire committed itself to endless, global war. Yet it was the Obama administration which really committed America to constant war, in a process by which the President elected on a peace platform became “a permanent if humane war president”, the architect of a massive expansion of drone strikes — a means to avoid the moral cloud of torture, by instead simply assassinating perceived wrongdoers — and of special forces operations on the ground. 

Moyn’s central thesis is that the well-intentioned humanisation of war functioned “as a spoonful of sugar intended to help the medicine of endless war go down”; and that the push to forever war was driven by the liberal interventionist pressures of human rights activists, who demanded “even more humane war than the good guys were willing to offer”. It is a neat argument, but surely an incomplete one.

It is primarily the vast disparity of power, and the almost total absence of risk to American pilots and drone operators that allows these wars to rumble on forever, not the minimising of harm to foreign civilians. It is only if American casualties were higher, and not civilian ones, that we would sooner see an end to America’s wars of choice. The pinpoint accuracy with which a missile can be sent to its chosen target does not mean that, in the fog of war, the target was well chosen in the first place. 

The recent extermination by drone of a blameless family in central Kabul only hit the headlines because it happened in the capital: if it had happened in the countryside, as has happened thousands of times in the past two decades, it is doubtful that anyone would know about it; and fundamentally, even in such a high profile case, few people in America cared much even then.

As for the push Moyn discerns by liberal interventionist commentators to drag American power into distant wars, a more cynical interpretation would be that moral causes only initiate American wars when the potential targets are already American foes. There was no clamour in Washington for a campaign against Saudi Arabia for its bombing of Yemen, for example, or against Bahrain for its lethal suppression of demonstrations, or against Turkey for its scorched earth suppression of armed revolts in the Kurdish east and invasions of northeastern Syria, or against Azerbaijan for its aggression against Armenia and beheading of captives. When the human rights oppressor is a US ally, advocates and journalists either tend not to make the case for intervention, or it is ignored.

Ultimately, for all his focus on the humanitisation of war, it is empire that Moyn is against: if America were militarily incapable of intervening in tangled squabbles at the other end of the world, it would feel no moral compulsion to do so. That compulsion may be the moral justification for empire, but fundamentally it is its product. Where there is no capacity to act, there is no moral compulsion. There will be no American war for the Uighurs, because it is not in America’s power to launch or win one; human rights abuses like Xinjiang are deployed as a diplomatic tool to delegitimise China in the international sphere rather than as a call to arms.

Civilians will always die in wars, and Moyn does observe that it is better on the whole that fewer die, even if he is against wars in general, and American wars in particular. But did unipolarity foist on America the moral obligation to intervene in distant wars for humanitarian ends? Slightly unsatisfyingly, Moyn evades answering this question, but then it is perhaps an unresolvable one. He observes that the initial humanitarian cause in Libya morphed into “an illegal regime change, with deplorable consequences for that country”. Yet the later intervention against ISIS improved the lives of many Syrian and Iraqi civilians, even if it extinguished the lives of many others. 

But at this point, balancing this difficult central dilemma may already be a historical question. The 2015 Russian intervention in Syria marked the end of the unipolar moment by showing that a rival power, by committing itself to a cause peripheral to the United States’s core concerns, can call the fading superpower’s bluff. And contrary to Moyn’s assertion that we may be entering an era of total US global policing, the rise of China has vastly accelerated the end of unchallenged unipolarity.

A war with China where the US may lose tens of thousands of personnel in the first day is a qualitatively different prospect from vaporising a defenceless presumed enemy at the push of a button, and the Biden administration does not seem in a hurry to enter into it. America’s responsibility to protect was only ever a function of its capacity to do so. Now that capacity appears in doubt, the question is already moot.

We are back to a world of wars of necessity, for naked geopolitical advantage, and not wars of choice, driven by moral compulsion. The results, over the coming decades, may yet answer Moyn’s unanswered question of whether America’s attempted humanisation of war was really so bad after all.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

It is indeed interesting that the only U.S. President in recent memory who didn’t get involved in war was not the one who received the Nobel Peace Prize days after he was inaugurated, due to the prospect of the coming world peace, but the one who was widely predicted, by many in the liberal press, to initiate WWWIII if he were to be elected. Yes, it was the evil orange man!

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

And what’s more he did exactly what he said he’d do – which also makes him almost unique

Charles Mimoun
Charles Mimoun
2 years ago

This idea that a hegemonic and overwhelming power, by the fact that it does not suffer substantial losses, is the cause of more and more wars seems sensible and allows us to look at events differently. This state of mind, this desire to act, but not for the primary purpose of being effective, but to be good, is also a central problem in civilian life.
A very nice article.

JP Martin
JP Martin
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Mimoun

A version of this argument has been made against the principle of proportionality in international law. The idea is the same. By preventing short, intense wars, this just perpetuates conflicts over time because there is no end and no decisive winner.

Charles Mimoun
Charles Mimoun
2 years ago
Reply to  JP Martin

It is a totally new framework for society which is based on principles and not on reality. The most evocative instance is, I think, the Western obsession with the 1948’s border in Israel, which doesn’t mean anything in today’s world, and that cripples international institutions not to do anything sensible to settle the Palestinian problem. And there are many other examples …

JP Martin
JP Martin
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Mimoun

Yes. The comparison is usually made to the resolution of Germany’s borders and population transfers after WWII. No one speaks of the Sudeten Germans these days. That has been settled because the winners were able to dictate the terms of its resolution.

JP Martin
JP Martin
2 years ago
Reply to  Bill W

Irredentism masquerading as human rights.Thanks for sharing this.

Jim Cooper
Jim Cooper
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Mimoun

Yes it is. As usual

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Mimoun

Yes interesting insight on conflicts that’s new to me.
Applying it practically – could the Syrian civil war have been brought to a quick close, without the endless agony and loss, if the USA had adopted a shock and awe approach against Assad instead of ‘humanitarian’ war? Could the poor people of Afghanistan have kept a modern civilisation of some kind if the USA just brutally occupied the place, British empire style with the support of local leaders?
Is the much maligned empire, Pax Britannica, the way to wage war and ensure peace, with losses minimised?

Charles Mimoun
Charles Mimoun
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

I’m not sure the British Empire was more brutal and faster therefore more skilled. Regarding Afghanistan, it’s a geography issue, so it was a desperate attempt. In Syria, the problem is different because the USA should not have intervened.

Lee Jones
Lee Jones
2 years ago

I always find your writings to be utterly depressing, not because they are bad (quite the opposite) but because you expose the moral hypocrisy of the western mass (or perhaps the media’s bastardised version of such), although it Is dismal, it is honest. Your last UnHerd article (that I read) talked of your intentions for your family and it’s future in your plans. This was, at last reading condemned by the same moral hypocrites, as if saving yourself and your family were somehow reprehensible (I stopped reading after the 3rd comment). I’m not sure I have a strong opinion of either, but should the world indeed collapse (has it has done for many), are you a good man if you anticipate and plan for it or are you good if you pretend nothing is happening and carry on as normal? I know which path I would chose. Dead men can’t help anyone.

William Hickey
William Hickey
2 years ago

Many conservatives criticize the lack of consequences for those progressives who engage in social engineering from safe enclaves. Those conservatives correctly claim that if elites had to suffer the results of their dreamy schemes and policies the way ordinary folks on the ground do, the elites would be more sober and judicious.

But that is exactly how our military works today — from afar and virtually immune to consequences — and conservatives are all in favor of “bombing the shit out of ISIS.”

And then after some terrorist attack they wonder “Why do they hate us? They must be evil.”

Why, that’s exactly what America’s insular elites think about Middle Americans.

Last edited 2 years ago by William Hickey
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
2 years ago

First class article, if sometimes harrowing in its observed details. Thanks very much Aris

Janko M
Janko M
2 years ago

As always, superb article from Aris. Two thoughts to add:

1. In the West, we don’t like to think about war, but it also makes us extremely naive about the future. What already started happening during the Cold War is that weapons proliferate easier than ever and any group sufficiently motivated can compete through violence. The rest of the world, outside authoritarian countries are already well on this path, but in the West, this is now also slowly emerging – I recommend the book “Out of the Mountains – Rise of the Urban Guerilla” for this. As bonds of citizenship fray, violent competition will emerge, but we currently seem to take citizenship for granted, responsibilities included.

2. I used to think Americans are militarists, but now I see them as having a mostly infantile notion of the armed forces. Most of them do not serve, the civilian-military gap is massive and the rituals of “Thank you for your service” are empty. Past that, there are those who openly criticise the armed forces without a shred of understanding that their own comfort is predicated on the sustained engagement of those uniform worldwide. This is also a trend to some extent across the West, but is all the more striking in the US for how insular it is. Fundamentally, the population is happy to send their troops to some corner of the planet, leave them there for 25 years and then forget about them, without any real strategic goal or purpose. It’s not a genuine affection for those who serve, rather a set of vague and ultimately meaningless rituals.

Last edited 2 years ago by Janko M
L Walker
L Walker
2 years ago
Reply to  Janko M

If I never hear “Thank you for your service” I’ll be very happy. I always want to ask, where were loo you.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Who jumped onto the bandwagon when the Yazidis, who were being raped and slaughtered were chased by Isis and Sunni militants to the mountains with nowhere left to run? The world clamoured for something to be done by someone and was that ‘someone’ assumed to be the USA? I assumed it to be the US – rightly or wrongly.

Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago

I got the distinct impression the US took a long time before deciding to do something about ISIS.

JP Martin
JP Martin
2 years ago

I am sure that Samantha Power will write a new book about how sad this made her.

rick stubbs
rick stubbs
2 years ago

The US/allied liberation of Kuwait in 1991 altered the ‘never again’ thinking of Democratic party politicians. Only a handful voted for this successful international police effort. They and the press played the ‘another VN’ narrative up to the end. However, Iraq was quickly expelled from Kuwait and US forces immediately returned home or back to Europe. Precision bombing played a big role for the first time.
The Clinton democrats thus started warning up to the human rights angle. They were also horrified by the Rwandan massacre and the absolute failure of the UN to mount any military effort to prevent it.
Next comes the Balkan wars/genocide. Since European powers were militarily incapable of managing their own backyard, it becomes a NATO peacekeeping effort featuring US precision bombing, ground forces, logistics, etc. Fast forward to the Lybia affair and another European cry for intervention help to protect their oil concessions? Obama consents reluctantly to air support under NATO auspices. Subsequently the Arab spring arrives in Syria with ISIS, etc. These become forever wars when Russia and Iran intervene.
The US is certainly capable of disastrous and deadly foreign interventions on its own. Only two senators voted against the 2003 Iraq incursion. However, Europeans have never been reluctant to employ the US military when their interests are a stake and no one should overlook this fact. Even as Macron bangs on about EU military independence from NATO, he accepts US logistic/intelligence support in Africa. Is there more than a little hypocrisy here??

Last edited 2 years ago by rick stubbs
Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago

It feels like a lot of reports and discussion mentioning war recently. China and Taiwan, and Russia and Ukraine. Or is it just me?

Janko M
Janko M
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

These are the places where the Western world order ends and competeing orders begin.

William Hickey
William Hickey
2 years ago

I’ve long said that the unstated motto of the Democratic Party is “A nice agenda for nice people.”

After reading Aris’ interesting review of Moyn’s thesis I now extend it to the neoliberal elite: “Nice wars for a nice empire.”

Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago

An interesting and thought provoking piece. I for one have had a great deal of difficulty trying to make sense of Western/US foreign policy since the fall of the Berlin Wall so anything which sheds light on what to me has seemed like an almost complete inversion of the rules/standards/criteria I was taught about and witnessed pre 1989 is to be welcomed.

JP Martin
JP Martin
2 years ago
Reply to  Bill W

There is nothing to understand. I have several former classmates who advise government on foreign policy and they are complete idiots. We would be in much better hands if we outsourced foreign policy to the comment section of UnHerd.

Janko M
Janko M
2 years ago
Reply to  Bill W

The crazy thing is Kissinger in his book “Diplomacy” back in the 90s already identified that the US will struggle with excessive idealism and the constraints of reality. Without any rival, it seemed unable to put together any grand strategy, would fly into fits of idealism then into bouts of indifference, then be swept up by the consequences of those very actions.

Even today, only out of necessity, are the roots of a grand strategy being assembled, but it is too late. The US cannot face both Russia and China at the same time whilst being in debt worse than WW2 before even a single shot being fired plus consumed internally by a bizzare ideological zeal that is wokeness.

Last edited 2 years ago by Janko M
Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
2 years ago

Great piece. Is the new humanitarian war, the war on Covid and especially those that contest the mainstream narrative & solutions? These dissenters are dealt with in ways that should be an anathema in a free world but it is acceptable to throw human rights & freedoms out of the window to protect our loved ones and the NHS.

David Pinder
David Pinder
2 years ago

A fascinating, if somewhat disconcerting, essay. Thank you. The idea that remote, precision munitions actually extend wars is a really scary one. It feels like a flipside of the coin of 1960s MAD (mutually assured destruction) nuclear warfare. Mind you, today, there’s another popular, scary way to carry on horrifically – the proxy war.

GA Woolley
GA Woolley
2 years ago

The major flaw in this article is the insinuation that, if the US weren’t involved, the wars wouldn’t happen. Certainly, without US intervention many wars would reach a faster conclusion, but the resulting situation would not exactly equate to ‘peace’ for the vanquished; the victors could simply go about ‘cleansing’ their enemies without fear of retribution.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
2 years ago

This is a truly outstanding piece of journalism. Thank you.

The idea that a supposedly liberal democratic power acting on the basis of falsely self-evident rational scientific or humanitarian ethical truths can, and perhaps can only, make a radical violent intervention without material harm and without moral ambiguity is greatest conceit, deceit, and evil of our day. There is not, and can never be, any love, justice, truth or beauty in war, however it manifests itself. It’s always humans substituting means for ends, trying to impose their feeble ideologies and worthless theories against an impassive, hard reality, further enslaving themselves in a futile and misguided bid to make themselves free.

If only we could all just let it be.

Chris Eaton
Chris Eaton
2 years ago

“Naked geopolitical ambition now trumps human rights”
As it has always been. Were you born last night?

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

The greatest liberal intervention by America over the last sixty odd years has been its policing of the high seas in all the world’s oceans. No big American navy, no world trade, no relief of poverty worldwide.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago

All very plausible, and once again, the USA finds itslef accused and condemned. Wars have always been appalling and shocking, whether for soldiers at the lowest level or hapless civilians who find themselves in the way, and yet it never stopped yet more wars. Even the inhibition against war caused by the ghastliness if the first world war didn’t last long, and indeed was unfortunate in that the effects and thus enthusiasm for disarmament manifested itself unequally.
Let me put another point of view; did not the absolutely enormous volume of manufacture and distribution of the AK47 and the RPG not change things much more dramatically than precision bombing, and continue to do so?

Peter Mott
Peter Mott
2 years ago

We are back to a world of Great Powers and territorial disputes, especially revanchist ones. Not sure that “wars of necessity” really fits.

Last edited 2 years ago by Peter Mott
Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

This idea is new to me – the principle of provoking a lot of small, humane wars in order to prevent a large war. You can see that the USA has been doing this for a long time.

But….the author of the article and the book he is reviewing seem to find this idea OK in principle. Would they also find it OK if China and Russia were fighting these continuous wars as well? I suppose that Russia has been doing this since 1991 with Chechnia and the Ukraine and others. In theory, China can’t be a superpower until it does the same so it would be sort of normal if they attacked Taiwan?

Creates a lot of refugees though.

Last edited 2 years ago by Chris Wheatley
hugh bennett
hugh bennett
2 years ago

I am no fan of this writer. I have outlined my reasons for that in other comments, I find his style just over complicated for the sake of it. He portrays his scribbles as offering new insight when most often they provide little but a vison of himself running around in ever decreasing mental circles failing to digest and spew out other peoples work.
Its almost embarrassing the way he tells us about his tough experiences, what the heck do expect if you are a war reporter, its as if he wants a little pat on the head all the time. Also, there is always the whiff of an anti America hovering in the air.
Simply put there are pure types of war are distinguished – absolute war, instrumental war, and agonistic fighting. Nothing has changed in millenia
No-one will ever convince me that few if any Western political leaders were/ are clever enough to even comprehend the concepts outlined in this rambling.

Julie Blinde
Julie Blinde
2 years ago
Reply to  hugh bennett

Brave reply, and correct IMHO
We must not forget that journos use the expereinces
You should be top of the list of comments Hugh

GA Woolley
GA Woolley
2 years ago
Reply to  Julie Blinde

The idea that a war reporter is remotely knowledgeable about ‘the way of war’ is a conceit they award themselves. They see the immediate, and local, effects of a single action, but the big picture of strategies, planning, intelligence, major operations of all sorts, diplomatic and military negotiations, and all the other currents swirling around conflict, remain well outside their comprehension.