December 2, 2021

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.