Review by Chris Murray
10 October 2016 – London, UK
How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon
By Rosa Brooks; Simon & Schuster, 2016. CAD 39.95
The boundaries between what is war and not war that have been established by international convention over the last 70 years are blurring and eroding. The rise of transnational non-state actors with little interest in territory or territorial based political authority, changing technology (cyber attack) are contributing factors. However, our response to the changing world has also served to blur these lines.
The cost of this blurring is being felt at home and abroad as we struggle with redefining both combatants and the battlespace. As this has occurred we have witnessed an ever-expanding military forced into unconventional or previously unperceived of roles. How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon by Rosa Brooks takes a head long run at these issues. How Everything Became War is already being widely hailed by individuals such as Gen. Petraeus as a hugely significant examination into the functioning of the US military and the US policy apparatus steering the course.
Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University Law Centre and a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. Her career is an immensely impressive and varied one. It has included work for international human rights NGOs and time in the Pentagon as Counsellor to Under Secretary of Defence for Policy Michèle Flournoy. Rosa Brooks was, at one time, one of the Pentagon’s highest-ranking civilians. She is also the recipient of the Secretary of Defence Medal for Outstanding Public Service. Rosa Brooks is a commanding individual who has had a vast career of varied experiences who brings incredible weight to this discussion.
Brooks has lived a life of contradictions. From being born of peaceniks and married to an Army Green Beret to working in roles aimed at critically examining US policy to serving inside the Pentagon Brooks is uniquely balanced and mentally well placed to appreciate the sometimes absurdity of the US military / policy / intelligence cloud. ‘Cloud’ being a useful descriptor in this case. As Brooks points out, a blurry bureaucratic chaos has emerged as the INT and MIL have merged, or moved closer together or as Brooks puts it “ the covert goes semi-overt and the overt goes semi-covert.”
Written with a casual but razor sharp wit Brooks’ is compelling. Her narrative is fascinating and piercing. She draws the reader into a world that one quickly beings to understand is a quagmire of complexity few, even within the highest offices of the land, fully appreciate.
At times it reads as if it is a memoir about life in the bizzaro-world of the pentagon with amusing anecdotes and off the cuff comments and relatable analogies. While you breeze through the amusing monotony of the unremarkable quirks of military life Brooks has experienced you suddenly find the narrative has abruptly jetted out in another direction. Startling clarity will suddenly jump out at the reader from behind a blind corner. It reads as intimate and personable but will suddenly turn and delve deep inside an extremely salient discussion without the reader recalling how they even got there, it’s a seamless read. Brooks can go from the food courts of the pentagon to the high-level detention facility at Guantanamo Bay rapidly with sort of surreal air of the mundane that leaves one aghast, as I am sure was the author’s intention.
The reader is constantly confronted with the authors commanding knowledge of these subjects and reminded, the author is not simply a casual observer but someone who was present inside the heart of the machine. You suddenly find yourself face to face with an intimate insider ‘behind-the-scenes’ view into some of the most critically defining moments of the last 20 years.
Books is uniquely placed to provide an unbelievably comprehensive window into this world. Her legal expertise is world class and also leaves her able to drop in greater context and the implications that lie well beyond what most consider. Doing so underscores the urgency of understanding the changing nature of the US military and getting out in front of events.
Brooks bluntly underscores the importance of defining peacetime and war along with rule of law, demonstrating that the differences are not abstract. These questions are not academic but instead have quite startling real world implications both in the long-term and immediate.
Brooks asks “In a world in which the push of a button can lead, within seconds, to the death of a specific man more than eight thousand miles away, is it possible to define ‘war’ with any clarity?” Conventional thought thinks of war, as Col. Qio Liang and Wang Xiangsui describe in Unrestricted Warfare, as requiring soldiers, weapons, and a battlefield. However, the reality we face, as Liang and Xiangsui go on to discuss, is far different. With bombings, ISIS, YouTube beheadings, pollution, climate crisis, and bioengineered viruses – states and their traditional militaries are now facing more and more competition from smaller decentralized non-hierarchical organizations and networks.
As Brooks put’s it, today’s military has expanded well beyond ‘killing people and breaking stuff.’ Instead, since 9/11 the US has, more and more, come to see the military as an all-purpose tool for fixing everything. This has compelled the military to expand into areas outside of its traditional purview, while usually encroaching upon civilian agencies with arguably greater experience but certainly smaller capabilities and far smaller budgets.
The US military aims to ‘shape the battlespace’ and prevent future conflicts rather than simply waiting for a terror attack, a nuclear missile launch from a rouge state, or a cyber attack. While doing do the US military has seen it’s tasks and budget skyrocket since 9/11 while non-military foreign affairs agencies have seen their budgets stagnate or shrink. In response Brooks warns, when war becomes the norm, rather than the exception both morality and law begin to lose their guiding force.
Everything is open for discussion from drone strikes, to cyberwar, to biological attacks, the coming technology that will ‘individualize warfare.’ Brooks tackles it all with agility and candor, reminding us that we have ventured down a road towards a much broader definition of the military’s role. This need not be dangerous be it done so with open eyes and forward thinking. That, however, is part of Brooks’ concern, thus far this expansion has been somewhat slapdash. There is a need for a more concerted effort to get out in front of it all and chart our direction forward. This involves defining very clear goals, ideas about how to get there, and knowledge of the potential pitfalls we may encounter or indeed create.
After all, the world has changed and as Brooks reminds us, ‘you can win a war against Nazi Germany but how do you win against shifting, inchoate extremist networks with little interest in controlling physical terrain or roving bands of hungry young African pirates seeking ransom money?’
We shouldn’t’ be surprised by this change. As Brooks points out, “US Forces increasingly find themselves fighting nontraditional enemies: pirates, terrorists, insurgents, organized crime networks and other actors who pose asymmetric challenges to conventional US military power. Today, America’s advisories rarely rely engage in battles over territorial control. They’d be fools to do so, given conventional US military dominance. Instead they use kidnapping, hijacking, sabotage, theft, propaganda videos, computer hacking, suicide bombs, and IEDs to cause disruption and damage to US interests.” After all, the weak have always employed unconventional methods of asymmetric warfare against the strong, Brooks points out.
The warning to come from all this is that ‘states can negotiate with states but it’s far more difficult to negotiate with scores of individual pirates.’ We should therefore not “imagine that our world can’t collapse; there is nothing inevitable about progress or peace, and the global and national social and political order we inhabit today is no more immune from catastrophe than the pre-World War Two order.”
Brooks does not stop here, she highlights the ways in which the US has responded thus far have served to further erode the international system and leave us vulnerable to somewhat bleak prophecies. Her judgment is blunt, “when our government embraces legal theories that accept the unilateral use of military force and destabilize principals of sovereignty – when we embrace the widespread use of covert targeted killings, or indefinite detention, or secret mass surveillance – we pave the way for other states to behave in similar ways”
Moving forward, in Brooks view, we must accept that “Trying to jam war back into its old box rests on a faulty assumption about the world we live in. Messy forms of conflict have always been part of human reality, and most likely always will be. Until we accept this, the post 9/11 erosion of human rights is likely to continue”
With this in mind moving forward with efforts to stabilize the world around us “We need to be more realistic; our own society took centuries to develop and stood upon the shoulders of long ago established ideals such as the Magna Carta and English Bill of Rights. So why then should we expect that durable change can come any faster to societies that start with far less – less wealth, less education, less tradition of democratic government, human rights, or peaceful change?”
How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon is simply a must read.
This book can be found here at Simon & Schuster
Feature photo / “The Pentagon, headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, taken from an airplane in January 2008” – Wikimedia Commons, 2016
Inset Photo / “How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon” –Simon & Schuster, 2016
DefenceReport’s Book Watch is a multi-format blog that features suggested readings to provide insight into current and historical events from DefRep editorial staff and writers. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and are separate from DefRep reports, which are based on independent and objective reporting.