When is a war not a war? When it is undertaken in the name of democracy, against the forces of racism, sexism, and religious and political persecution? This is the new world of warfare that Neda Atanasoski observes in Humanitarian Violence, different in name from the old imperialism but not so different in kind. In particular, she considers U.S. militarism—humanitarian militarism—during the Vietnam War, the Soviet-Afghan War, and the 1990s wars of secession in the former Yugoslavia.
What this book brings to light—through novels, travel narratives, photojournalism, films, news media, and political rhetoric—is in fact a system of postsocialist imperialism based on humanitarian ethics. In the fiction of the United States as a multicultural haven, which morally underwrites the nation’s equally brutal waging of war and making of peace, parts of the world are subject to the violence of U.S. power because they are portrayed to be homogeneous and racially, religiously, and sexually intolerant—and thus permanently in need of reform. The entangled notions of humanity and atrocity that follow from such mediations of war and crisis have refigured conceptions of racial and religious freedom in the post–Cold War era. The resulting cultural narratives, Atanasoski suggests, tend to racialize ideological differences—whereas previous forms of imperialism racialized bodies. In place of the European racial imperialism, U.S. settler colonialism, and pre–civil rights racial constructions that associated racial difference with a devaluing of nonwhite bodies, Humanitarian Violence identifies an emerging discourse of race that focuses on ideological and cultural differences and makes postsocialist and Islamic nations the potential targets of U.S. disciplining violence.