The New Yorker: Did Making the Rules of War Better Make the World Worse?

Why efforts to curb the cruelty of military force may have backfired.

On the evening of March 9, 1945, the United States sent an armada of B-29 Superfortresses toward Japan, which for months had resisted surrender, even as a naval blockade brought much of the population to the brink of starvation. The B-29s were headed for Tokyo, and carried napalm, chosen for the mission because so many of the city’s inhabitants lived in houses made of wood. The bombing ignited a firestorm that sent smoke miles into the sky; the glow was visible for a hundred and fifty miles. In six hours, as many as a hundred thousand civilians were killed, and a million others were left without homes. In the words of the raid’s architect, Major General Curtis LeMay, the Japanese were “scorched and boiled and baked to death.” Five months later, the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan surrendered.

If the U.S. undertook such a campaign these days, worldwide revulsion would be intense and long lasting. In the past half century, war waged by states has become more humane. Shifting international standards, codified in treaties like the Geneva Conventions, have mirrored a trend among military commanders to choose targets carefully, and to spare civilians whenever possible. Improvements in bomb accuracy have made it easier to focus on military targets.

Most people would consider this a positive development. Samuel Moyn, a professor of history and of jurisprudence at Yale, believes that we have less to celebrate than we might imagine. In his book “Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), he suggests that this new form of warfare is so civilized that it has reduced our incentive to stop fighting. “The American way of war is more and more defined by a near complete immunity from harm for one side and unprecedented care when it comes to killing people on the other,” he writes. “America’s military operations have become more expansive in scope and perpetual in time by virtue of these very facts.” Ours is an era of endless conflict, whose ideal symbol is the armed drone—occasionally firing a missile, which may kill the wrong people, but too far removed from everyday American life to rouse public objections.

The dilemma posed by Moyn belongs to the modern age. Killing is what armies do, and, in the usual course of things, the more they kill the sooner their wars end. In the first two Punic Wars, Rome and Carthage fought in battlegrounds outside their population centers; in the third, the Romans contrived an excuse to lay siege to Carthage, and slaughtered its inhabitants. There wasn’t a fourth. For Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist, the whole point of fighting was not just to repel the enemy but to destroy it; theoretically, at least, war knows no limits.

In the United States, generals took a page from Clausewitz, applying maximum force to secure military objectives. During the Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman, who set fire to Atlanta, believed he was entitled to do anything in pursuit of victory, because he was fighting against an enemy that had begun an unjust war. He vowed to “make Georgia howl.” In the Second World War, Allied and Axis commanders deliberately attacked civilians, in the hope that they could be terrorized into demanding peace. The Allies’ aerial campaign against German cities like Hamburg and Dresden killed as many as a half million civilians. (It was no oversight that mass bombing was not included among the indictments of Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg trials.)

“Total war is the demand of the hour,” Goebbels declared in 1943, speaking in a stadium below a vast banner that read “Totaler Krieg—Kürzester Krieg” (“Total War—Shortest War”). Even twenty-first-century armies have taken this to heart. In the late two-thousands, the Sri Lankan military, after fighting Tamil separatists at a low pitch for a quarter century, attacked rebel strongholds in full force and killed as many as forty thousand civilians, burning the bodies or burying them in mass graves. The war never resumed. The campaign, or what it represented, became known as “the Sri Lanka Solution.”

As Moyn points out, the idea that war should be unrestrained has drawn support not just from battle-hardened officers but even from self-proclaimed pacifists. Foremost among them was Leo Tolstoy, who had served in the Russian Army during the Crimean War and in the Caucasus. Tolstoy disdained the Red Cross, and believed that making war more humane could make war more likely. In “War and Peace,” the vessel for Tolstoy’s views was Prince Andrei, who had been wounded while fighting Napoleon’s Army at Austerlitz: “They talk to us of the rules of war, of chivalry, of flags of truce, of mercy to the unfortunate and so on. It’s all rubbish! . . . If there was none of this magnanimity in war, we should go to war only when it was worthwhile going to certain death.” If Moyn doesn’t quite endorse this view, he’s gripped by its modern implications. In particular, he believes that the American way of war, as it has evolved in our century, has become precisely what Tolstoy feared: so prettified as to be wageable everywhere, all the time.

Moyn was an intern in the White House in 1999, when nato, without the legal sanction of the United Nations, launched a bombing campaign in Kosovo to stop what appeared to be an almost certain large-scale massacre. At the time, he supported the intervention. “Only later did it seem the early stages of something altogether unexpected,’’ Moyn says. “It has come to be called America’s ‘endless war,’ especially as the campaigns against global terror after September 11, 2001, started off and ground on.”

But the real origins of our predicament, Moyn says, date to the outrages of the Vietnam War, including the My Lai massacre and the devastating bombing campaigns in Vietnam and Cambodia, where napalm was routinely deployed. These horrors, broadcast on TV, made the U.S. military rethink its unrestrained approach to waging war. And they helped lead to the updating of the Geneva Conventions in 1977. The earlier Conventions had covered the treatment of prisoners and the wounded or sick, and had sought to limit such practices as using civilians as human shields. The additional protocols banned indiscriminate attacks on civilians, the targeting of civilian infrastructure, and harm to civilians that was disproportionate to the military objective.

For Moyn, these updates heralded a new era of war. “Before the humbly titled ‘Additional Protocols’ to the Geneva Conventions, one could say with only a bit of exaggeration that there were no laws of war,” he writes. In fact, norms of restraint in war date back to ancient Greece and Rome, even if the norms were not always observed. Bans on torture and wanton destruction have been in place for the U.S. Army since the eighteen-sixties. Violations, such as those committed by Lieutenant William Calley at My Lai, were prosecuted as crimes. What’s more, the U.S. never ratified all of the additional Geneva protocols; American restraint in war, such as it is, had other origins.

Still, the “humanizing” of military action that Moyn describes is a real phenomenon, and does mark a break with the past. These days, when U.S. military leaders are contemplating an action, military lawyers decide whether it comports with humanitarian law. Sometimes the restraint is extreme; in 2010, the rules for air strikes in Afghanistan, tightened by General Stanley McChrystal, were so restrictive that troops complained that they were being put at risk. Moyn bemoans legal standards such as these for another reason: he thinks that they have dampened the sort of public outcry that might induce politicians to end a conflict. “Humane war was a consolation prize for the failure to constrain the resort to force in the first place,” he writes.

Yet Moyn’s argument goes beyond the expected humanitarian critique—the Tolstoyan concern that mannerly military action could promote further suffering. “Americans are proving that war’s evil is less and less a matter of illicit killing or even suffering,” Moyn maintains. Rather, the “worst thing about war” is the assertion of American dominance in the world, which has foreclosed the possibility offered by the end of the Cold War: a “world of free and equal peoples.”

Moyn’s focus on the evils of American power is not exactly new; he belongs to what the historian Daniel Immerwahr has jokingly described as the “menacing eagle” school of American history—so named because books by its adherents often feature, on their covers, an eagle assailing the globe. (“Humane” does not have an eagle on it, but it does have a blurb from Immerwahr.) Yet Moyn’s objective of challenging the legitimacy of American power leads to some unusual choices of villains: the modern-day targets of his book are not the warmongers but the lawyers and the humanitarians who have opposed the violation of civil and human rights.

During the Iraq War, the Bush Administration’s policy of torturing detainees, laid bare by the Abu Ghraib photographs, was met with widespread revulsion. But Moyn argues that these kinds of protests actually had a perverse effect: the “war was cleansed of stigma.” He criticizes Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor who served in the Justice Department under Bush and who tried to impose some legal order on the Administration’s detainee policy. Moyn also chides my colleague Jane Mayer for casting in a good light those in the government who agitated against the use of torture: hand-wringing over abuses and atrocities was all a distraction from the “immorality of the entire enterprise of the war on terror.”

Must one choose between being against torture and being against war? Moyn suggests that opposing war crimes blinds us to the crime of war. If this is an empirical claim, it’s contradicted by the facts. The invasion of Iraq did inspire demonstrations around the world—the public outcry that, in Moyn’s account, could have stopped the war. To judge by survey results, it was only after the revelations of Abu Ghraib that a majority of Americans came to think the war was a mistake.

Moyn’s position might lead us to oppose striking enemy targets with smaller, more accurate bombs because they don’t inspire sufficient public outrage; he is evidently convinced that an effective protest campaign requires a steady and highly visible supply of victims. That logic would favor incinerating entire cities, Tokyo style, if the resulting spectacles of agony lead more people to oppose American power. The difficulty with his “heighten the contradictions” approach is that contradictions can stay heightened indefinitely. Despite Moyn’s chiliastic views, if we plump for greater suffering in the hopes of having less war we may find ourselves with more of both.

Moyn’s analysis is further hampered by a preoccupation with legalism; he largely neglects the fact that much military restraint is attributable less to law than to technology. Allied commanders firebombed cities in Japan and Germany (and Americans did so later in North Korea and Vietnam) in part because they believed that more precise attacks wouldn’t work or couldn’t be safely attempted. Efforts to pinpoint military targets mostly failed; in Germany, despite daily and nightly bombing raids, industrial production rose every year until 1945.

Today, bombing accuracy has dramatically improved. We’ve all seen the slick Pentagon videos showing an aerial bomb picking out one building among many and all but knocking on the front door before exploding. Collateral damage has receded—though only by so much. When civilians are killed, their deaths are often caused by human error. In 2011, in the Yemeni port city of Aden, I examined the mangled limbs of Yemeni children, whose village had been hit by American cruise missiles. An American official with knowledge of the attack told me that the U.S. had struck an Al Qaeda training camp in the village—that he’d seen the evidence himself. That objective doesn’t mean the bombing served American national interests and it doesn’t excuse the killing of innocents. But the contemporary norms of force deployment do make a difference: had General LeMay been confronted with a similar enemy camp, he would have flattened Yemeni villages for miles around. Moyn’s maximalism makes these distinctions irrelevant: if war can’t be abolished, he suggests, any attempt to make it more humane is meaningless or worse. In his desire for a better world, one liberated from American global power, he comes close to licensing carnage.

Amore grounded discussion of the American way of war is set forth by William M. Arkin, in “The Generals Have No Clothes” (Simon & Schuster). Arkin, a former intelligence officer and a journalist for NBC News, lays out the situation we find ourselves in twenty years after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are both lost. The war on terror has spread across the Middle East and South Asia, with the United States in tow. The U.S. military has conducted raids in countries all over the world, killing hundreds of terrorists, but new recruits step forward every day. We now field soldiers in the war on terror who were not alive when it began.

Like Moyn, Arkin focusses on these endless conflicts—what Arkin calls “perpetual war”—but his explanation centers on a different culprit. Combat persists, Arkin tells us, because the apparatus of people and ships and bases and satellites and planes and drones and analysts and contractors has grown so vast that it can no longer be understood, much less controlled, by any single person; it has become “a gigantic physical superstructure” that “sustains endless warfare.” The perpetual war, Arkin contends, is “a physical machine, and a larger truth, more powerful than whoever is president,” and the result has been “hidden and unintended consequences, provoking the other side, creating crisis, constraining change.”

An organizational logic, more than an ideological one, holds sway, Arkin suggests. Secrecy is central to the contemporary military; few people, even members of Congress who are charged with overseeing the Pentagon, seem to know all the places where Americans are fighting. The military operates bases in more than seventy countries and territories; Special Operations Forces are routinely present in more than ninety. Four years ago, when American servicemen were killed in Niger, several members of Congress expressed surprise that the U.S. military was even there. When President Trump started questioning the U.S. war effort, Arkin writes, the Pentagon decided to stop publicly reporting how many troops were situated in individual Middle Eastern countries—and began keeping details of air strikes secret. In 2017, when Trump ordered the Pentagon to withdraw the spouses and children of military personnel from the Korean peninsula, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ignored him. (Mattis says that this is not accurate.) Trump’s order was ill-informed and, as a provocation, potentially dangerous, but ignoring the Commander-in-Chief amounts to a flagrant disregard for the Constitution.

The Pentagon’s skepticism of its civilian leaders is not limited to Trump; it spans the modern Presidency, Arkin tells us. Obama was elected in 2008 on the promise of getting out of Iraq, but his closest advisers, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, resisted; Obama’s skepticism about escalating the war in Afghanistan led to a showdown with the generals that the generals are widely seen to have won. With his counterterrorism adviser John Brennan at his side, Obama presided over a huge expansion of the drone program. Both Panetta and Brennan were marquee players in the national-security establishment—a cadre of several thousand people who circulate in and out of government and who, Arkin argues, keep the perpetual machine running no matter who’s in charge.

That machine hums along despite a record of failure. In “The Other Face of Battle” (Oxford), the military historians Wayne E. Lee, Anthony E. Carlson, David L. Preston, and David Silbey examine the Battle of Makuan, in Afghanistan, in 2010, providing a vivid encapsulation of how ill-adapted the U.S. military was to that country, even after fighting there for nine years. The soldiers in Makuan, overloaded with expensive equipment, moved across a gruelling landscape like a group of plodding space aliens, as the enemy quietly faded away; displaced civilians returned to find their village levelled. The fact that the operation was regarded as a victory over the Taliban was another measure of the generals’ delusion.

America’s sprawling intelligence apparatus, too, has a dismaying record of incompetence; it failed to anticipate the 9/11 attacks, the Arab Spring and the civil wars that followed, the rise of isis, or the succession of power after the death of Kim Jong Il. Arkin quotes Panetta, who said that, after taking office as C.I.A. director, he was “staggered” to learn how many people the agency had working on Al Qaeda, while neglecting issues that an Obama Administration official said “were just as much influencing our future—climate, governance, food, health.” Sometimes, in the war zones, the intelligence services and the military have pursued entirely opposite goals; in Afghanistan, in 2009, as American military officers led a campaign to root out corruption in the Afghan government, C.I.A. operatives were keeping the government’s most corrupt politician, Ahmed Wali Karzai, on the agency’s payroll.

Even though the U.S. military has not won a major war since the Second World War, it remains the most respected institution in American life. It is popular despite (or because of) the fact that, without a draft, only a tiny percentage of Americans will ever be part of it; the ones who do join are disproportionately from working-class families. In recent years, the number of private contractors killed in American wars has begun to exceed the number of those killed in uniform—another factor that helps relegate the wars to the far reaches of the newspaper. As the military comes to rely on computer networks and high technology, even fewer recruits will be required. Arkin writes that the American way is to “make war invisible, not just because counter-terrorism demands secrecy, but also because the military assumes the American public doesn’t want to know because it isn’t prepared to sacrifice.”

Where Moyn is driven by a photonegative of American exceptionalism—a sense that American power is a singular force of malignity in the world—Arkin is concerned that this perpetual-war machine is at odds with America’s strategic interests. He sees the spread of Al Qaeda and like-minded groups across Asia and Africa as a direct consequence of our attempts to destroy them. Every errant drone strike that kills an innocent invites a fresh wave of recruits. The process resembles what happened in the early days of the Iraq War, when the military’s heavy-handed tactics, employed in villages across the Sunni Arab heartland, transformed a tiny insurgency into a huge one.

Arkin is less persuasive when he argues for the creation of a “global security index,” which would serve as “the security equivalent of a Dow Jones Industrial Average.” Judgments about protecting the country are inevitably human—and inevitably political—and can hardly be relegated to an algorithm. A further complication is that war between states has become exceedingly rare; it has been replaced by states fighting insurgents, or states fighting terrorists, or civil conflicts (with states backing their preferred faction). Of course these wars last longer: it’s difficult to bomb your enemy’s government into surrendering when your enemy has no government at all. The fact that insurgencies often operate in ungoverned areas further complicates military operations.

At the same time, Arkin overstates the case that the military has become immune to external control. The reluctance of the military to pull out of Afghanistan and Iraq had less to do with some deep desire to keep the machine running than with an inability to build a functioning state in either of these countries that could outlast its presence. When Obama did try to leave Iraq, in 2011, his generals warned him that things would fall apart; Obama withdrew anyway, and they fell apart. Three years later, with Iraq continuing to disintegrate, he sent the troops back in. They’re still there. You can decry the folly of a neocolonial occupation or fault the military for its failure to build a state in Iraq, but the dilemma that Obama faced was genuine—and, besides, America’s war in Iraq was begun not by the generals but by civilian politicians, backed by overwhelming public support. In 2021, Joe Biden faced a similar conundrum in Afghanistan; his decision to withdraw all American troops before the United States had evacuated its citizens and Afghan helpers led to a calamity that is still unfolding.

In Arkin’s view, the covid-19 pandemic brought the 9/11 era to an end: two decades of misdirected resources bookended by displays of official incompetence. Arkin argues that the time is overdue to pull back—to close some of our overseas bases and bring home many of the troops. Biden’s decision on Afghanistan can be seen as an attempt to temper some of America’s commitments. What lies ahead, as the chaos engulfing Afghanistan suggests, may not be that peaceful era of political freedom and pluralism which Moyn thinks our militarism blocked, and indeed Moyn’s singular focus on American power may come to seem strikingly insular. We’ve spent decades fighting asymmetrical wars, but now there’s a symmetrical one looming. The United States has never faced an adversary of China’s power: China’s G.D.P. is, by some measures, greater than ours, its active-duty military is larger than ours, and its weapon systems are rapidly expanding. China appears determined to challenge the status quo, not just the territorial one but the scaffolding of international laws that govern much of the world’s diplomatic and economic relations. If two forever wars are finally coming to an end, a new Cold War may await.



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