Samuel Moyn

America Is Giving the World a Disturbing New Kind of War

In a speech last week, President Biden identified his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan with his desire to end the “forever war.” But he also promised that America will “maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and in other countries.” The reality today, he said, is that “we don’t need to fight a ground war to do it.”

In this, Mr. Biden’s speech made explicit what was already obvious. With the last American troops now out of the country, it is clearer what America’s bequest to the world has been over the past 20 years: a disturbing new form of counterterrorist belligerency, at once endless and humane. This has transformed American traditions of warmaking, and the withdrawal from Afghanistan is, in fact, a final step in the transformation.

The desire to fight more-humane war would not have made sense to prior generations of Americans. Originating in constant and pitiless wars against Native people, American fighting was brutal even before it went abroad. Similar violence was later extended against Filipinos in the country’s first overseas imperial counterinsurgency. Air war only intensified American traditions of brutality, and in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam, few limits were respected, either in principle or practice. Asian foes were regularly compared to Native Americans — and were legitimate targets of the same violence — by commentators and soldiers.

Those traditions hardly evaporated after Sept. 11, 2001. The Middle East was sometimes treated as a new frontier; Osama bin Laden was reportedly code-named Geronimo by the forces who killed him in 2011. But by that point American culture was already giving rise to a newer tradition — one that continues to characterize the war on terror.

The groundwork was laid after the Vietnam War, which had left many Americans ashamed of their country’s overseas violence. At the same time, global activism pushed to make the laws of war, either ignored or permissive before, more humane in content and honored in practice. In the 1970s, for the first time, the obligation not to target civilians — especially in aerial bombardment — was put on paper, along with a new requirement to strike only when the expected military advantage outweighed collateral damage.

Humanitarian groups began to monitor the ethics and law of fighting. Human Rights Watch, for example, began to do so in 1980s conflicts in Latin America. Even more important, the reputational damage caused by Vietnam led some within the US military to conclude that fighting more humanely and legally was vital. Law became more and more central to the warrior’s code. As the political theorist Michael Walzer remarked, our armed forces had discovered “the usefulness of morality,” which was “something radically new in military history.”

By the end of the Cold War, the die was cast. The 1991 gulf war was the first international conflict that Human Rights Watch examined for violations of the law of war and the first in which military lawyers helped pick targets.
But these developments occurred as antiwar energy, which Vietnam inspired, dissipated. And the rise of legal probity restricted humanitarians and militaries to bickering about whether the United States was following the rules well enough, rather than whether the wars should be fought in the first place.

More humane war became a companion to an increasingly interventionist foreign policy. Earlier wars had not needed to appear humane to win legitimacy from the public, but new ones returned in an altered moral climate. By the post-Cold War era, both American political parties were committed to a more principled use of American power. Doctrines like democracy promotion and human rights became elaborate rationales for doubling down on militarism.
Then came the years after Sept. 11. The specter of torture, like the treatment of detainees at black sites and the detentions at Guantánamo, crystallized a moral sensibility according to which it mattered most to dissidents within George W. Bush’s administration as well as a growing chorus of critics outside not where war went and how long it lasted but whether the laws governing the conduct were respected.

In the wake of the release of the Abu Ghraib photos in April 2004, humanitarian concern helped remove the bug of torture and other indignities from the program of endless war, thereby rebooting it: After all, a critique of a war focused on its egregious conduct can lead to a different and improved version of that war, rather than its end. That is precisely what happened.

In the first years of his presidency, Barack Obama capitalized on the emphases of the years just before. After running as a peace candidate in 2008, he promised in his critical first months to treat prisoners well and earned plaudits for doing so. His administration deleted noxious memos permitting torture and left the ones permitting war.

But it is easier not to mistreat prisoners if you no longer capture them. Mr. Obama vastly expanded the war on terror in scope, taking it beyond the two countries on which Mr. Bush had focused to more than 10, relying on drone strikes and special forces raids. He also went beyond Mr. Bush in formalizing a humane framework for endless war, announcing in policy that it was not the brutal war of the past but one corrected by the new sensibility.

Astonishingly, Mr. Obama even went beyond what the new laws of war required, promising never to strike off battlefields if there was any risk of collateral damage, a standard that was revealing of a new moral sensibility even if it was — like so many such rules — never adhered to in practice.

In his Nobel Peace Prize address at the end of his first year as president, Mr. Obama offered an almost metaphysical case for America fighting forever, while promising to do so humanely: “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes,” he explained. But its humane conduct was “a source of our strength.”

To a striking and unanticipated extent, the humanization of American might is something even President Donald Trump was forced to retain. True, he called in 2016 to “bring back waterboarding,” but to the extent that he tried, he was held in check. (“He better bring his own bucket,” Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA, remarked.) And while Mr. Trump decreased transparency around drone strikes and loosened top-down authority, other humane requirements largely remained in place.

It is natural to think that humane war is an oxymoron, and understandable to indict “dirty wars.” But that is to miss that a “humane” form of control and surveillance is taking place beyond America’s borders, with death and injury increasingly edited out of public view. And the improved humanity of our wars, ostensible and real, is not without its vices. Old empires justified brutal acts in the service of human civilization and progress. Our version of “humanity” helps compensate for our wars’ extension in time and expansion in space.

When defending withdrawal from Afghanistan, Mr. Biden made clear that he has no plans to give up counterterrorism. The infrastructure of drone and missile strikes and special forces raids is indeed ramping up again after the fall of Afghanistan, an antiseptic Frankenstein monster loosed even as the gory laboratory that birthed it closes down.

The continuation of America’s war on terror — with strikes from afar and from overhead and in visits to Afghanistan and many other places for the indefinite future — has many authors. But the attempt to make America’s military ways less obviously brutal has contributed decisively to making our wars more acceptable to many and difficult to see for others. That is a syndrome we are only pretending to stop.

The New York Times