On 23 May 2013, the peace activist Medea Benjamin attended a speech by President Barack Obama at Fort McNair in Washington DC, where he defended his administration’s use of armed drones in counter-terrorism. During his speech, Benjamin interrupted the president to criticise him for not having closed Guantánamo Bay and for pursuing military solutions over diplomatic ones. She was swiftly ejected by military police and the Secret Service. The Washington Post later dismissed her as a “heckler”. Obama himself had been more reflective at the event, engaging with her criticisms, which led to even deeper self-criticism of his own. It was the moment of greatest moral clarity about war during a presidency that did more than any other to bring its endless and humane American form fully into being.
For all its routine violence, the American way of war is more and more defined by a near complete immunity from harm for the American side and unprecedented care when it comes to killing people on the other. Today, there are more and more legal obligations to make war more humane – meaning, above all, the aim of minimising collateral harm. Countries like the U.S. have agreed to obey those obligations, however permissively they interpret them and inadequately apply them in the field. Absolutely and relatively, fewer captives are mistreated and fewer civilians die than in the past. Yet, at the same time, the U.S.’s military operations have become more expansive in scope and perpetual in time by virtue of these very facts.
The very idea of more humane war may seem a contradiction in terms. The U.S.’s conflicts abroad remain brutal and deadly, but what’s frightening about them is not just the violence they inflict. This new kind of American war is revealing that the most elemental face of war is not death. Instead, it is control by domination and surveillance.
Obama had run as a kind of anti-war candidate in his fairytale 2008 campaign, and when it turned out that he was a hard-bitten pragmatist, in this and other areas, many of his supporters were surprised. Obama expanded the “war on terror” to an awesome extent, while making it sustainable for a domestic audience in a way his predecessor never did – in part because Obama understood the political uses of transforming American warfare in a humane direction.
Read the full article in The Guardian.