When 'Everything Becomes War,' Call the UN?

Review: Rosa Brooks, 'How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon'

November 20, 2016

America's recent foreign policy failures, notably though not exclusively its inability to win in Afghanistan and Iraq, have prompted a good deal of soul-searching about grand strategy, the role of military versus civilian power, and international versus national interests. A recurring theme in these debates has been the inadequacy of an overly rigid war-peace dichotomy given the importance of non-state actors using non-traditional tactics in endless, asymmetric conflicts. The short-lived euphoria that followed the implosion of the Soviet empire gave way to a New World Disorder, with the 1990s-era hope of peace on earth rudely replaced by visions of forever-war. With that background in mind, Georgetown law professor Rosa Brooks's account of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything is not just a catchy title—it reflects profound and unresolved contradictions in the nation's conception of its place in the world.

Brooks starts by recalling a day in 2010 when she learned of a drone strike against a young man whose photo she had recently seen. Late that night, after waking up panicky and sweating from a dream about death, she was struck that the photo had personalized the event for her. The target was no mere cipher but a human being. She couldn't help wondering: what if we had got it wrong? Though she assumed then, and does now, that the intelligence leading to the strike was "developed in good faith," there could be no guarantee it was correct. The incident still haunts her, as it well should. Questions about matters of life and death are not easy to answer.

Brooks admits she was excited about her job as a senior adviser to an under secretary of defense at the Pentagon, despite her upbringing as the daughter of staunch Vietnam War opponents. While Brooks recognized she  "was part of a vast, bureaucratic death-dealing machine," she, like most Americans, discovered that the machine also happened to work better than any other part of government: "In a world in which fewer and fewer government institutions seem capable of performing with even minimal competence, Americans also consistently say they trust the military more than any other public institution." No wonder they "increasingly treat the military as an all-purpose tool for fixing anything that happens to be broken."

Brooks notes that "nontraditional" military tasks like nation building, sometimes known as "stabilization," are very expensive and hugely inefficient. In a vicious cycle, they can lead to lower budgets for civilian agencies and can displace private efforts that are often far more effective. Brooks laments that the military's involvement in activities beyond the strict domain of war—what may be considered "peace waging" activities—leads to moral and bureaucratic confusion as peace and war coalesce.

Among her well-written and engaging "tales from the Pentagon" is the sorry saga of her attempt to coordinate strategic communications. Her well-meaning efforts quickly turned into a political football between (a) her office, (b) another office in the Pentagon that resented her "brainstorming with the regional policy offices on think tank and press strategy," (c) the State Department's Counterterrorism Office, which proclaimed strategic communications to be its job, and (d) the CIA, which protested that all the others were encroaching on its job. Money was not the main source of contention here, as it often is in government; when Brooks tried to work with the State Department collegially, here’s what happened:

My team spent the better part of a year trying to convince State Department officials to stop griping and just tell us which Pentagon programs they thought should be transferred to the State Department, improved through DoD-State Department collaboration, or simple canned. We got nowhere. We shared reams of budget and program information, struggling to give our State Department counterparts as full a picture as possible of what DoD was doing and why. But they kept canceling meetings with us, requesting more data, and requesting more time to review the data.

She concludes that this sluggish response was the result of State's public diplomacy staff being "outnumbered." But that explanation is too facile; as studies from the American Academy of Diplomacy have shown, staffing is the least of the State Department's problems. More important are its obsolescent approaches to problems, lack of mission-specific training, misplaced performance and promotion incentives, inadequate organizational skills, and, above all, absence of grand strategy. Brooks cites Richard Holbrooke's exasperated outburst that "he didn’t give a damn who was in charge of strategic communication, but could we all kindly get our heads out of other parts of our anatomy and fix the goddamned problem?"

Yet blaming the bureaucracy is no solution, and Brooks should be commended for at least trying to find one. In the end, the daughter of sixties radicals reluctantly opts for knocking down "the walls we've created between our civilian agencies and the military." Because "the military has long been the institution we use to bring talent together," she envisions a "revamped public sector premised on the idea of universal service—an America in which every young man and woman spends a year or two in work that fosters national and global security." Her parents seem not to have impressed upon her the unfortunate lessons of the draft.

More startling is her recommendation that "the United States ... accept some loss of sovereignty in exchange for more just and effective mechanisms for solving collective global problems." Specifically, if the United States can "decide for itself that a single man inside a foreign state poses an imminent threat, and use that to justify deploying military force inside a foreign state, there's no reason for Russia, or China, or North Korea, or Iran not to do the same." Brooks continues: "In an age of globalization, we need, more than ever, a strong global referee committed both to stability and to human dignity—a global referee that could make those difficult decisions about when and where to use force, so it wouldn't be just one state's views against another's."

Unfortunately, actual international organizations like the United Nations do not qualify as impartial referees, replete as they are with representatives of kleptocratic regimes presuming to speak for citizens they despise. More likely to undermine than protect the rights too many of their members routinely violate, these organizations may be trusted only to erode whatever order still remains in the world thanks to what Brooks correctly observes is a pretty efficient, if often ill-used, American military. The military certainly should not "become everything," lest war do so, too. But peace cannot be waged through wishful thinking. At least, not successfully.

Published under: Book reviews , Pentagon