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How Scientists and Lawyers Shape the American Way of War

Kenneth Anderson
Saturday, November 7, 2015, 10:30 PM

Stephanie Carvin (Carleton University, Canada, and friend to several of us at Lawfare) and Michael John Williams (NYU) are international relations scholars who focus on national and international security. They each write about strategy, but in strikingly broad and interdisciplinary ways.

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Stephanie Carvin (Carleton University, Canada, and friend to several of us at Lawfare) and Michael John Williams (NYU) are international relations scholars who focus on national and international security. They each write about strategy, but in strikingly broad and interdisciplinary ways. Their new book, Law, Science, Liberalism and the American Way of Warfare: The Quest for Humanity in Conflict (Cambridge UP 2015) is a provocative and intellectually imaginative argument that (putting it briskly) how contemporary America fights its wars is a product of its lawyers and its scientists. It is a fine book - useful for scholars as well as policy-makers, deeply researched, but succinct in its presentation. It merits wide reading in national and international security communities.

American warfighting, Carvin and Williams explain, is caught between two imperatives - ensuring American security by destroying threats, on the one hand, and a requirement that America conduct itself in a liberal and humane manner, on the other. Carvin and Williams trace these imperatives back to the American founding in Enlightenment ideals, and in the early chapters they offer a historical summary of the Western, and then the American, conception of warfare.

Among the several elements they discuss, technological innovation is prominent. But there are other core features of the American way of war across the history of the Republic. One is that war is considered an abberation, a rupture of the norm of peacetime. Another is the bringing of overwhelming, decisive force to bear - in part because a nation focused on the pursuits, and fruits, of peace finds it hard to conduct sustained, lengthy warfare, at least if it involves a signficant mobilization of the nation. A third is that historically, America's fortunate geography, situated between two oceans, has allowed it to maintain a remarkably small military; the nation-at-arms that characterized the Civil War and the two World Wars (and perhaps really only the Second) are exceptions. The problem of the Cold War, indeed, was how to reconcile, over many decades, the norms and freedoms of peace with the security demands of a foreign foe, Soviet communism.

Similar tensions have been at the heart of American political and legal struggles over the war against ideologically driven extremists, Al Qaeda and its offshoots and now ISIS and its, as well as the post-9/11 wars of regime change and counterinsurgency - Afghanistan and Iraq. Carvin and Williams offer an impressive analysis of the peculiarly American response to the multiple pressures of strategy, law, and ethics, especially following 9/11: technology to the rescue, technology as a way in which to reconcile what are otherwise competing demands and values. Adversaries violate the laws of war by using civilians as shields, for example, as a defined strategy against overwhelming American power; the US responds with weapons of increased precision, including standoff loitering systems such as drones and ever more advanced surveillance technologies. Ubiquity in surveillance and intelligence gathering, on the one hand, and precision in targeting, on the other - those are (more or less) the post-9/11 technologies by which the US seeks to square the circle of winning, law, and ethics. There are others that go largely unsung - the ability to project force worldwide, sustain military operations over time in ways that no American ally or foe is able to do, and supply airlift to move a modern army.

Carvin and Williams are far from uncritical of the American way of warfare in the post-9/11 period. They start the book with the Anwar Al-Awlaki targeted killing, and in the final chapter - after critical reviews of this American way of war in Afghanistan and Iraq - make pointed critiques of the American reliance and faith in the resort to force as well as the faith of its political class in the new technologies to enable the resort to force to be in accordance with the ideals of security, law, and ethics. They point out the legal and ethical objections made, particularly from outside the United States, against drone warfare. They are far more careful than many others, to their credit, in declining to make simple and easy judgments about the lawfulness, morality, or strategic effectiveness of these new technologies in war.

Carvin and Williams draw mixed conclusions as to this American way of war in the present. They have a pragmatic respect for the requirements of security, and refuse to endorse the (to Americans of nearly all stripes, anyway) otherworldly formalism of so many European legal scholars and their belief that international law is somehow separable from politics and power relations. Also unlike many in the international community, they are unwilling to kiss goodbye the fruits of technology and its gradually growing capacities to make war more precise and less harmful. But neither do they jump on the bandwagon of technology and embrace the entirely too-optimistic view that technology can always provide a fix to the tensions between security, law, and ethics. They believe that American policy-makers are entirely too sanguine on that score.

The book was being finished as the rise of ISIS was just beginning, and so it is focused on a strategic climate that has changed significantly. American technological predominance on the battlefields in which it is engaged cannot be taken for granted - not with the Russians engaged in Syria on Assad's side, ISIS perhaps having been able to bring down an airliner with a bomb and its apparent use of mustard gas in Syria, China pushing at American naval dominance in the Pacific, and NATO seemingly impotent in the face of Russia's annexation of the Crimea. What this book would say about these new developments is only a guess - but one possibility is that the US will push hard for new technological advantages, but it might also find that, in the embedded tensions among America's plural values of security, law, and ethics, the stakes have been raised higher.

(Kenneth Anderson, otherwise known as His Serenity, is the Book Review Editor of Lawfare; his most recent book, with Benjamin Wittes, is Speaking the Law: The Obama Administration's Addresses on National Security Law.)

Kenneth Anderson is a professor at Washington College of Law, American University; a visiting fellow of the Hoover Institution; and a non-resident senior fellow of the Brookings Institution. He writes on international law, the laws of war, weapons and technology, and national security; his most recent book, with Benjamin Wittes, is "Speaking the Law: The Obama Administration's Addresses on National Security Law."

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