in the Forever War
pp. Simon & Schuster. $26.
Greeks, we have known of blood feuds of violence and vengeance that repeat in
endless cycles, with new rounds only taking the catastrophe further out of
control. And since the Greeks, escape routes have been identified and sought —
Aeschylus hoped law could provide reconciliation; Jesus later claimed this
power for love. But in his disturbing new book, “Spiral,” Mark Danner worries
there is no way out of today’s “forever war,” which continues unabated after 15
spares no analogy, classical or modern, to raise awareness of this predicament.
In our spiral, he says, we are both like Cadmus sowing dragon’s teeth — our
victories produce new adversaries — and like the madcap inventors of a
perpetual motion machine that continuously recreates the problem it was
designed to solve.
who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, Danner sounds the alarm
in hectic prose, relying on a somewhat hazy concept of the war on terror as a
“state of exception” normalized by our wartime presidents George W. Bush and
But it is
not clear how “normal” America was in the first place. Our descent into torture
was certainly appalling, but the country’s commitment to fight in accordance
with the most humane standards was not that old to begin with. As of Sept. 10,
2001, the country still retained considerable autonomy to go it alone when
events warranted. The Cold War, though a distant memory for many by then, had
also been a forever war not long before. Indeed, in some ways the damage
wrought and crimes perpetrated during those four decades make our response
since the turn of the millennium seems a dramatic improvement.
his name publicizing torture under Latin American dictatorships in the 1980s.
It’s a crime he considers to be the “signal attribute” of our current state of
exception. Obama may have banned torture, but Danner is clearly and
understandably angry that the president has not advocated punishment for those
who ordered the crimes and that he went on to expand the war in new directions,
especially when it came to drones.
closes the book with the mournful realization that human rights activism seems
to have reached its limits. “What if you tear off the veil,” he plaintively
asks, “and no one gasps, no one cringes, no one even blinks?” The moral pressure
and legal accountability for crimes of state in Latin America is not repeating
itself, Danner notes, now that our democracy has aggressively sought its own
security. But perhaps this is because the forever war today is in fact distinct
from those prior campaigns in which violence spiralled and the condemnation of
atrocity worked tolerably well to rein in the state.
war on terror is not like ancient or modern parallels. Counterinsurgencies from
Rome through the Cold War years of decolonization and Vietnam involved sharp
descent into barely restrained ferocity. For all its excesses, our version have
involved far more protections for our enemies and safety for civilians than any
fought before. According to the Senate report, the United States tortured some
40 individuals (not counting those whose interrogations were outsourced to
other nations), while our quagmire in Vietnam involved endemic atrocity and
millions of civilian deaths — in half as many years as the war on terror has
lasted. And its end is not in sight. No one should minimize the human costs of
our search for security, but perhaps its horror is not a familiar kind.
is far less, then, one of “exception” and torture than a new form of humane
warfare simultaneously without boundaries in time and space. In turn, it is
easier for this form of war to continue indefinitely because it has been
brought within law governing the conduct of hostilities to a remarkable extent.
What, in other words, if torture was not the signal attribute but a dispensable
mistake in the invention of the endless war of our time? What if stigmatizing
atrocity, making military sprawl less offensive to many even as it transcends
all known chronological and territorial limits left the conflict harder to rein
in? Indicting dirty war by itself does not reach the core of our spiral —
indeed; doing so may help it continue to spin.
Samuel Moyn, who teaches law and history at
Harvard University, is the author of “Christian Human Rights.”
Why the War on Terror May Never End,
because those waging war on terror are supporting means of terror one way or
Ask me and I will tell you how.