hat renders bodies killable and maim-able on today’s ‘battlefields’? Craig Jones’ The War Lawyers: The United States, Israel, and Juridical Warfare (Oxford University Press: 2020) comes as close as any author to date in unraveling this question through a captivating study of the legal-necro-political practices that drive the modern ‘kill chain’. In this analysis, the eponymous ‘war lawyers’—bar-certified military officers—serve as the lead actors in a spectacle of bureaucratized and disaggregated martial violence. Jones compellingly demonstrates that the participation of law and lawyers in the kill chain is as instrumental to modern warfare as psychiatrists are to Michel Foucault’s account of 19th-century criminal proceedings[1].

The War Lawyers is formally organized around two queries: “when and why did war lawyers become involved in the provision of legal advice in aerial targeting operations” (p. 2) and “what material and discursive effects do the laws of war and war lawyers have on aerial targeting specifically, and the way we understand war more generally?” (p. 3)  Jones answers that the increasing complexity of international law in war and concern with civilian casualties over the last fifty years has forced commanders to integrate lawyers into decision-making processes. These war lawyers have then translated the law into an operational technology by exploiting indeterminacies to both constitutively enable ‘juridical’ violence and reshape the law itself.

The preface and introduction draw the reader into the world of the war room lawyer, while also holding onto the dire human stakes of ‘juridical warfare.’ Chapters 1-3 trace the rise of war lawyers in the US since the end of the US-Vietnam War, highlighting how the increased complexity of the law and scrutiny around civilian casualties pushed military lawyers from administrative to combat roles. The fourth chapter serves as a pivot, both geographically and thematically, by switching the focus to the Israeli military, which both followed the US’s lead and developed their own techniques of war lawyering through decades of military occupation and innovation in the area of ‘targeted killing’. Chapters 5-6 use the presence and absence of military lawyers as threads from which to unveil the inner workings of the US ‘kill chain’. The conclusion then steps back to reflect on ‘juridical warfare’.

In addition to the book’s central research questions, The War Lawyers makes two other key claims about recent entanglements of law and violence. First, Jones argues that the ‘kill chain’, often portrayed by critics as an arbitrary exercise of power, is actually a highly bureaucratized system governed by disaggregated techno-legal expertise. Second, the book sets up a critique of projects that seek to render war more ‘humane’ by arguing that war lawyers turn such projects on their heads. The military lawyers and their critics, he points out, both envision a world where war is conducted with the barest minimum of bloodshed, and that this point of consensus leaves undisturbed the question of whether we should be at war in the first place. Both insights are urgent and compellingly constructed. However, their impact is somewhat dulled by the book’s relative silence on what is left of the law once the war lawyers have gotten their hands on it—a point I return to later in the review.

Throughout its twists and turns, The War Lawyers manages to be both astoundingly detailed and eminently readable. This is a testament to Jones’ skill in using an immense quantity and variety of data. In particular, his knack for leveraging key insights from sensitive interviews enables a rich and persuasive explanation for the rise of the ‘war lawyers’ and their role in contemporary targeting. This capacity for providing vast detail without losing the central thread is most evident in his treatment of the US ‘kill chain’ (Chs. 5-6). Jones’ portrait of the US military’s “accelerated mode of bureaucratic death” (p. 34) uses the figure of the lawyer in the room to reveal not only the hidden levers of this deadly assemblage, but also how mandatory procedures of moral, legality, and political reflection—which Jones describes as the “military gaze” (pp. 32-33) of ‘juridical warfare’—grease the gears rather than gum up the works.

This state of affairs, Jones argues, is a historically contingent one. “[W]ar lawyers,” he explains, “[came] to be seen as a solution to a host of military anxieties that were on the one hand about killing the ‘right’ number of the ‘right’ people in the ‘right’ way, and on the other, about doing—and being seen to do—the ‘right’ and legal thing” (p. 2). Late modern warfare, he explains, has elevated the status of international law in war. As a result, “the kill chain allocates and distributes death and does so through a series of calibrations—legal [and] technical… the ‘smart’ application of force and the minimization of unnecessary violence” (p. 241). Yet the ‘smart’ application of force, he notes—following Samuel Moyn and others—is also the modus operandi of many of the humanitarian lawyers and activists who release scathing condemnations and exposes of these same kill chains. As a result, ‘juridical warfare’ traps both combatants and their humanitarian into providing legal answers to eminently ethical and political questions.

As such, Jones’ concluding call for a return to ‘anti-war’ politics as a true challenge to ‘juridical warfare’ is a compelling final turn, especially for a reader who shares these concerns and critiques. However, on this point—and the claim that the law legitimates killing—the book gets tripped up by its own portrayal of what war lawyers can do with legal ambiguity. Jones explains that “juridically conditioned violence is far more alluring and persuasive than arbitrary forms of military violence untouched by law” (p. 96). Yet The War Lawyers provides virtually no examples of this legitimation at work. This is not only an empirical issue but a conceptual one as well. Jones persuasively demonstrates that war lawyers work tirelessly to render martial violence congruent with their own highly permissive form of legality. But who else is persuaded by these accounts? The billions spent on this ‘juridical warfare’ apparatus have failed to render the military actions of the US and Israel legitimate in the eyes of most of the world.

A similar issue arises in Jones’ portrayal of the legal field. He states early on that “the laws of war both enable and constrain violence” (p. 8) and that military operations are, quoting Pierre Bourdieu, “the site of competition for the monopoly of the right to determine the law” (p. 21). Yet his account of these operations depicts a form of law that almost exclusively enables. Similarly, questions of legality, as portrayed in the book, are resolved by military lawyers in isolation from the rest of the legal field. As a result, the determination of the law feels less like a competition than an internal monologue. This begs the question of for whom the techno-legal spectacle of the kill chain is performed. If the reader must be persuaded that the US and Israel’s practices are not, in fact, contrary to (certain interpretations of) the law, what does it say about the effectiveness of the war lawyers?

Jones hints in the conclusion that this entire apparatus might be self-referential, designed to soothe the consciences of those who pull the trigger. However, the point is made quickly and as a finishing flourish rather than an answer to a critical question. Perhaps the story of the war lawyers and ‘juridical warfare’ reveals that the law is soaked to the core in blood, and that the issue is not whether the U.S. and Israel’s legal justifications are effective, but that this same logic co-opts the language critics employ to oppose them. If that is Jones’ assessment, moving from a critique grounded in humanitarianism to one of anti-war does seem a compelling intervention.

These are difficult questions, and the fact that they remain unanswered does not take away from the many important achievements of The War Lawyers. It is a captivating text. Jones not only takes readers through a meticulously-researched historical account of the emergence of legal experts into key positions of influence the US and Israeli militaries but also embeds them deep in the internecine workings of the ‘kill chains’ that facilitate the martial violence of forces. Without question, it offers a stellar contribution to the study of international law and warfare.

[1] Michel Foucault Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974-1975.

Tracey Blasenheim is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the University of Minnesota and a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Human Rights Center. His dissertation examines the 'lawyerization' of the armed forces of the United States as a site for exploring the workings of law in war today.