ON AUGUST 29, 2021, an American MQ-9 Reaper drone stalked a white Toyota Corolla as it drove through the streets of Kabul. At about 4:50 p.m., the remote operator launched a Hellfire missile at the vehicle, which was then parked in a courtyard in a dense residential area. In an instant, the car was eviscerated, and the walls of the courtyard were splashed with blood and flesh. The Pentagon described it as a “righteous strike” killing two ISIS-K targets believed to be planning attacks against United States forces conducting the final evacuation efforts in Kabul.
Almost immediately, however, serious doubts emerged. A New York Times investigation revealed that the driver of the vehicle was Zemari Ahmadi, who had worked since 2006 as an electrical engineer for Nutrition and Education International, a United States aid group. The courtyard in which the Corolla was parked was Ahmadi’s family home, where several of his and his brother’s children met him upon arrival. Ahmadi and nine other members of his family, including seven children, were incinerated. Family members and neighbors were left to collect the fragments of human remains scattered across the compound. In a BBC interview conducted the following day, Ramin Yousufi, a relative of the victims, described the family’s experience as “hell in our life.”
This was the closing salvo of the United States–led war in Afghanistan, emblematic of the wider trajectory of the so-called “War on Terror”: an exercise in political theater leaving blood, disorder, and incandescent grief in its wake. It also offered a bleak window into the contours of modern counterinsurgency warfare, in which war is waged almost exclusively from the skies.
There are two branches to the international law of war. There are the laws governing the right to use armed force, known as jus ad bellum, with a history that stretches back at least to ancient Roman conceptions of just war. And there are the laws regulating the conduct of war once hostilities have begun, known as jus in bello, or international humanitarian law, which seek to humanize warfare and limit atrocity.
The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, convened in the aftermath of the most horrific war in human history, was concerned principally with crimes against peace. Violations in the conduct of war were regarded as a matter of secondary importance. It is in this vein that the tribunal declared that “a war of aggression” must be regarded as “the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
In the contemporary imagination, however, Nuremberg has come to be regarded as a trial of atrocity, representing the ideal of humane war more than the ideal of peace. Samuel Moyn’s compelling and authoritative new book, Humane, tells the story of this transformation. In a narrative of sweeping scope, Moyn charts the origins and growth of the project of humanizing war, from the 18th century to the present, and its occasionally tumultuous relationship with the ideal of peace.
Moyn offers a simple proposition: Might the project of humanizing war have the perverse effect of legitimating and sustaining it? Might we find ourselves waging a war so humane that it need never end? A recurring theme of the book, prompted by the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, whose presence hovers quietly above every page, is the historical comparison with slavery. For Tolstoy, attempts to humanize slavery by introducing slave codes to regulate the treatment of slaves did little more than entrench and legitimate the institution of slavery itself. The point was not to humanize slavery, which was something of a contradiction in terms, but to abolish it. Anything else was a distraction. The same, Tolstoy argued, was true of war.
The narrative is gripping and panoramic. It traces the development of the parallel projects of humanizing and ending war through the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–’71, the Boer War of 1899–1902, the so-called “Indian wars” waged by American settlers against Indigenous peoples within the ever-expanding frontiers of the United States, the imperial wars of the European powers waged across the ends of the earth, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, and the contemporary “War on Terror,” to name a few.
A central touchstone is Moyn’s argument that the laws regulating the conduct of war were always discriminatory in their scope and application, operating on a sliding scale of extremes.
In wars between “civilized” European states, the laws of war in principle applied equally to all sides but were easily co-opted by militaries and governments who appealed to them as a basis for licensing, as opposed to constraining, their conduct of hostilities.
In contexts of counterinsurgency and occupation, states turned to the laws of war as a means by which to give maximum control to militaries to establish order in newly occupied territories. Rights of belligerency (that is, the right to use force) were restricted to official armies, thereby criminalizing anything resembling civilian or irregular resistance to invasion and occupation. This is what the political theorist Karma Nabulsi characterizes as the Grotian tradition of war, which, by removing civilians from the framework of armed conflict entirely, at once protected and disenfranchised them. As Moyn puts it, in relation to wars of occupation and counterinsurgency, “[t]he point was to protect soldiers from enemy civilians, not the other way round.”
Finally, colonial war fell beyond the scope of the laws entirely. This was either because such wars were waged against “uncivilized” communities, which were said to have no understanding of law and could not therefore benefit from its protections, or because these wars were characterized as “internal” operations against criminals and terrorists, to which international law simply did not apply. These arguments are not the relics of a bygone imperial age either — the Bush administration adopted this same logic to justify the indefinite detention of so-called “unlawful combatants” in Guantanamo Bay.
Barack Obama emerges in some respects as the final villain of Moyn’s story, the principal architect of the sanitization and quasi-legalization of the War on Terror. It was Obama who oversaw the astronomical rise of extrajudicial assassination by drone, the development of a complex web of rules and policies to guide the conduct of a new war unconstrained in either time or space, and the production of weekly “kill lists” to be pored over by the president to decide who lives and who dies on any given day in a remote village in Pakistan, Somalia, or Yemen. The same “legal-ish” architecture then landed comfortably in the lap of the incoming Trump administration. In January 2020, it threatened to provoke war on a staggering scale after an American drone strike assassinated Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Iraqi territory.
The central premise of Moyn’s argument, that an all-encompassing concern with humanizing war appears to have come at the expense of efforts to address the scourge of war itself, is a powerful one. The result is a kind of “situationism,” a culture of moral disapprobation of atrocity divorced from any interrogation of the structures of global ordering and hierarchical international relations within which atrocity takes place. We arrive at a world in which human rights organizations can issue reports at regular intervals accusing “all sides” of war crimes while failing to engage at all with logically prior questions of aggression, exploitation, or foreign domination. In the words of Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, “We weren’t against war per se. We never took up the issue of who is the aggressor, who is the defender, who was at fault for starting the war, who’s in the right, who’s in the wrong.”
But Moyn’s analysis of this phenomenon often treats it as a matter of good intentions producing perverse outcomes. This is most apparent in his treatment of the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, which extended the protections of international law to liberation movements “fighting against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes in the exercise of their right of self-determination.”
Moyn describes how Douglas Feith, a Reagan administration official, characterized the Additional Protocols as a “pro-terrorist treaty masquerading as humanitarian law,” but goes on to explain that “opposition to the new rules of less-brutal war dealt those rules only a temporary setback — mainly because so many in the military wanted to obey those rules.” Despite some early resistance, then, the overall trajectory was one of well-intentioned “self-humanization.”
What this narrative misses is the critical ideological function served by military powers embracing the language and rhetoric of humane warfare. It is no coincidence that American authorities began to accept the unprecedented intrusion of legality into the conduct of war at precisely the moment that they aggressively disavowed attempts to extend the rights and protections of international law to movements of national liberation and insurgency. Unlike its insurgent adversaries in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere, the United States could develop sophisticated technological abilities for precision-guided missiles and other “humane” instruments of war. It could therefore boast of being “the most humane [army] that ever waged war” while dismissing any irregular resistance to military operations as prima facie unlawful.
Adopting the same logic, the Israeli state will claim to have “the most moral army in the world” — and will designate prominent Palestinian human rights organizations as terrorist institutions — precisely as it oversees what Human Rights Watch describes as a regime of apartheid and persecution involving the dispossession, confinement, forcible separation, and subjugation of Palestinians by virtue of their identity.
In other words, the effect of humane war is not only to inadvertently legitimate the state of war in general but also to legitimate certain kinds of wars fought by certain kinds of actors.
As the subtitle of his book suggests, Moyn’s analysis is focused on “how the United States abandoned peace and reinvented war.” But that must itself be viewed as part of another, larger story: the decline and fall of the project of global reordering in the wake of decolonization and independence.
This is what the political theorist Adom Getachew refers to as the project of “worldmaking after empire,” the efforts of the newly independent states of the Third World Revolution to challenge and dismantle a profoundly unequal global order so as to create the conditions for real self-determination. At the heart of this movement was an understanding of imperial domination not simply as a matter of bilateral relations between the colonizer and the colonized but as a constellation of legal, political, and economic practices and institutions whose effect was to entrench and sustain relations of hierarchy and dependence. From this it followed that sovereignty and self-determination demanded nothing less than a fundamental reorganization of the international political order.
Seen in this way, the retreat of jus ad bellum can be regarded as a corollary to the wider decline of the principles of sovereignty and self-determination. When there are no longer any challenges to the structures and hierarchies of international relations, the need to “look behind” a conflict to identify an underlying relationship of domination slowly subsides. All that remains to be done is to sanitize matters — to take the world and its inequalities as given and do what we can to humanize brutality.