In 2008, many of Barack Obama’s supporters hoped he would bring the global war on terror to a close. Instead, he expanded it – and his successors have done nothing to change course

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 US 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 US’s military operations have become more expansive in scope and perpetual in time by virtue of these very facts.

Related: Forty years on from the fall of Saigon: witnessing the end of the Vietnam war

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