Careful Killing

Humanitarian Warfare and the Politics of Precision Violence

Here’s the intro to a chapter set to appear in the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Critical Philanthropy and Humanitarianism edited by Polly Pallister-Wilkens and Katharyne Mitchell

In recent decades, the world’s most advanced militaries have largely avoided engaging in massive industrial-scale military operations in favor of “light” or “no” footprint interventions like kill/capture raids and unmanned aerial drone strikes. Accompanying this strategic-technical turn has been an expanding suite of international legal norms that marginalize those engaging in wars for direct territorial gain or ethnic or national domination. While still maintaining their abilities to engage in cataclysmic total wars, one result of this shunning of “crimes against peace” (United Nations 1945, Art. 6) is a now-pervasive form of militarism in which states incorporate humanitarian concerns—concerns about the wellbeing of specific populations on or near the battlefield—into their military activities. States and military planners have long claimed that there is a world at stake their side’s use of force, that theirs is a form of “war for humanity.” In this contemporary context they now also argue that theirs is a war carried out “with humanity,” (Zehfuss 2012, 864) a targeted distribution of lethal force that minimizes civilian casualties and is, broadly, humane.

The impacts of this shift are legion. It is undeniably true, for instance, that fewer civilians have died as a direct result of recent acts of military aggression informed by this highly instrumentalized form of humanitarian concern. But rather than herald an end to war or a privileging of peace, the increased utilization of the techniques of humane war has meant that states are more likely to deploy lethal force in more places rather than pursue other forms of conflict resolution. That is, the reduced costs—financial, human, and political—that martial states carry when they deploy violence for-and-with humanity diminish the perceived barriers to using lethal force in the first place (Moyn 2021).

While the spatial and temporal extents of this violence are quite fluid and ambiguous, one of the chief facilitators of this humane killing is the paradoxical centrality of automated precision weaponry. This chapter seeks to outline the tensions at this nexus of humanitarian care and precision military lethality. In highlighting a 2020 drone strike in Libya, the first part of the chapter sets out to frame the ethical stakes of warfare in which digital algorithms potentially enact the decision to kill human beings and the technical accuracy of lethal tools serves to substantiate claims to their humanity. The next section explores the foundational imprecisions that sit at the core of this form of humane killing, first in the history of international humanitarian law and next in the pages of military doctrine.

Building on these two narratives, the closing sections of the chapter return the focus to the lethal tools of humane war to caution against erasing the complex politics of precision that shape the contours of humanitarian military interventions. Uncritically associating a device’s technical accuracy with the humaneness of the deaths it produces conceals both the massive transfer of the bodily risks of war (Shaw 2002; 2005) and the uneven ways that certain people in certain locations are made vulnerable to war’s spectacular and suspended violences (Ophir and Azoulay 2005). Improved accuracy does not erase these asymmetries.

Moyn, Samuel. 2021. Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Ophir, Adi, and Ariella Azoulay. 2005. “The Monster’s Tail,” in Against the Wall: Israel’s Barrier to Peace, edited by Michael Sorkin, 2–28. New York: New Press.

Shaw, Martin. 2002. “Risk-Transfer Militarism, Small Massacres and the Historic Legitimacy of War.” International Relations 16 (3): 343–59.

____ 2005. The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and Its Crisis in Iraq. Cambridge ; Malden, MA: Polity.

United Nations. 1945. Agreement by the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Government of the United States of America, the Provisional Government of the French Republic and the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics for the Prosecution and Punishment of the Major War Criminals of the European Axis. No. 251. Government Printing Office.

Zehfuss, Maja. 2012. “Contemporary Western War and the Idea of Humanity.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 30 (5): 861–76.

____ 2018. War and the Politics of Ethics. Oxford University Press.