Each year at my university’s academic commencement, there’s a portion of the ceremony that I never quite know how to respond to. At some point, once all the faculty are up on stage and we’ve sung the Alma Mater and maybe after the awarding of the degrees (everything tends to blur together after a while) the graduating class of ROTC officers are sworn in. Upon walking onto the stage, before even a word is spoken in explanation, these young men and women invariably receive a standing ovation from the audience. Then, when they have taken their oath, the crowd is again on their feet with applause. This happens every year, and every year I remain seated in the back of the faculty seating with a few other junior faculty members, unsure of what to make of this. Surprised? Dismayed? Affronted?
I’ve been trying to puzzle out my reaction to this for a few years now. Part of it, I know, is simply my reactionary nature: I don’t like going along with spontaneous acclamations, and giving a group of anyone a standing ovation when nothing in particular has happened yet seems silly. But in addition to this, there’s a feeling of wanting to resisting a creeping militarization of everything. This is an academic ceremony, I find myself arguing. We’re not giving special recognition to the class of new pastors or nurses or teachers or engineers or social workers. Churches can have jingoistic fourth of July services waving the flag over the altar and equating love for God with love of county if they like, but I would prefer the culminating academic ceremony of my university to try to keep these things separate. How can you train young thinkers to evaluate and critique the military-industrial complex when we’re all so quick to jump to our feet and cheer the brave, young, new soldiers more loudly than we cheer anything or anyone else?
I thought this book would help me understand my own reaction better and that perhaps even give me ammunition in arguing against the militarization of everything in a post-9/11 world. Of course, to the author’s credit, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything was a good deal more complicated than that and forced me to evaluate my own feelings toward the military and its role in the world.
The best way to explain this book might be to talk a bit about the author’s background. Rosa Brooks was raised by two anti-war activists. She was trained in international law, spent time working with human rights groups around the world, and has written columns and articles on public policy. She worked as a civilian in the Pentagon and so has first-hand experience both with the functioning of the military. Finally, she married a career soldier and so has even deeper insights into the strange and somewhat insular world of the military. If this sounds like a complicated background that would make it hard to pin a simple “pro-military” or “anti-war” label on her, that is exactly correct—and it’s one of the things that make this work so compelling. Despite the book’s title, this is not a polemic either for a US interventionist policy or against war and the continued growth of the military.
Brooks does two separate but related things in this work. First of all, she’s providing perspective from her time spent working in the Pentagon to offer insight into the military’s expanding role in the world today. From building infrastructure to combating pirates to conducting drone strikes of dubious legality in nations at which we are not formally at war, she makes the point that actual fighting, the classical view of what the military does, is in reality becoming a very small portion of its mandate. The role of the military is expanding into policing and nation building, often at the cost of other civilian government agencies. Underfunded civilian agencies like the State Department are often passed over and their work given to the only agency whose budget has remained constant. More and more often, the military is given broader and larger tasks.
This is symptomatic of the post-9/11 world, and Brooks gives perspective not just on the dizzying administrative military complex and the bloated and often inefficient realities it entails but also a sympathetic image of a service trying to cope with a broader and broader mission in the new grey area between peace and an enduring state of war.
This portion of the book is not a memoir, though portions of it read like one. Brooks writes about her experiences in Uganda seeing the results of the Lord’s Resistance Army’s conflict on villagers and children. She gives a fascinating view of how things function (or don’t function) in the Pentagon and the relationship between military and civilian officers in the government, a tour of Guantanamo Bay, and stories of Iraq from just after the invasion. She talks about what it’s like living on a military base and the surreality of a separate society esteemed and valued but also misunderstood by the rest of the population. All of this though, while fascinating, seems partially intended to build credibility for what she wants to argue in the second portion of the book.
In the second portion, Brooks is making a legal case that the laws governing international conflicts need to change to address the changing nature of war. Laws are created to serve a certain purpose, and the laws of war have been created to keep war “boxed off” from the rest of life. But war since globalization and 9/11 puts us in a new era, a grey zone between peace (which, she says, is arguably as artificial a construct as the idea of sovereign states) and war, and we as a global society have the responsibility to change our laws so that they make conflict against a stateless enemy possible but also protect and enshrine human rights. She doesn’t make this claim immediately though. First she has to build up to it with some history.
Along the way, for instance, Brooks spells out the origins and the implications of the international law that has been in place in the UN Charter since the conclusion of World War II. This set of laws was designed to keep atrocities like the Second World War from happening again and is built around concepts of national sovereignty with a Security Council as a check against conflicts between states. She argues that this has been, despite notable exceptions such as Rwanda and Syria, largely successful but that it is beginning to fail in light of the new realities of warfare. In particular, Brooks examines the historical development of the concept of sovereignty and points out that often this is an artificial construct, imposed upon nations that never actually had cohesive boundaries or the ability to effect policy within those boundaries. Failed states, she argues, are more often examples of states that were never truly states to begin with, proxy states propped up by external colonial powers. More problematically though, she claims there is a contradiction at the heart of the UN Charter: the enshrining of sovereignty on the one hand and the protection of human rights on the other. This, she says, gives rise to contractions when a sovereign state is violating human rights. Do you respect sovereignty or human dignity?
Even more problematically, Brooks argues that since 9/11 the United States has been continually undermining the spirit of the UN Charter by either ignoring it or justifying US actions by legally stretching the laws of war into actions that are not against sovereign states, for instance striking combatants of a stateless enemy within the territories of states at which we are not formally at war. The problem is that this continually blurs the line between warfare (during which things like execution or detention without trial are legally permissible) and policing (where such things are not). As Brooks points out, the reaction to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 was not a given. Our leaders chose to respond to it as an act of war, perpetrated by a stateless enemy but giving rise to all issues in which we find ourselves as a nation embroiled today. But it could have been responded to as a crime, in which an entirely different set of legal paradigms would have come into play.
In the end, the book doesn’t offer any easy answers about what to do about the fact that everything is becoming war and the military is becoming everything, that we’re sliding down a slope toward more intervention and further blurring of the lines between police action and military operations in the nebulous, expanding, and un-winnable war on terror. She offers no clear solutions. Rather, her pragmatic response may be off-putting to those who were hoping (like me, I admit) this book would be a call to arms to resist the creep of the military into all aspects of life.
This is the new reality, Brooks admits. The nature of warfare is changing, and for better or worse she believes the military is going to continue to expand into new roles. But Brooks argues for a more difficult solution than simply resisting this. For one thing, she argues the military needs to change to become more adept and more effective at navigating its new roles. If it’s going to be about more than soldiers carrying guns, it needs to change how it recruits and how it operates. Secondly, and more compellingly, Brooks argues that the laws governing international conflicts need to change. If we’re going to live in a new world where technology and globalization have created a spectrum between peace and all-out war that includes grey areas like the war on terror or cyber-attacks, then we need to build new laws to guide us through this, new laws that focus on accountability and protecting human rights, instead of simply bending or disregarding laws that no longer fit the realities with which we’re faced.
Some might see this as a grim account, but Brooks is a law scholar, so she puts a great deal of faith in the nature of law itself. At its best, laws are meant to define and protect what we value. Brooks feels that the thing that should ultimately be valued are globally-defined human rights.
Yet as much as I value her argument, I feel she makes a large interventionist assumption in her work. She takes it as a given that the United States will have an invasive presence around the world, that we will continue to be active to protect our own interests and to police and enforce human rights abroad. It’s not clear why this is a given though, why we couldn’t have an approach that was active in international policy and law-making but that lacked a large military force. Do we need to have a defense budget larger than that of the next seven nations combined to lead the way in transparent international law that values human rights? Or does our extremely big stick undermine any attempt to do so? As she argues herself, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And when all you have is the world’s largest military, than every problem looks like one to solve with military intervention (read: war).
Which brings me back to commencement and the standing ovation for the ROTC students. I love some of these students. I respect them all. I’m sure they’ll be great officers. And if the military will have a larger and broader role in the world in which we live, don’t I want its officers trained in a liberal arts setting, given tools for cultural literacy and understanding diversity and history and critical thinking? If nothing else, Brooks’ book makes a compelling case for the diversity of situations and challenges these young men and women will face. The audience is not just applauding potential “boots on the ground,” Brooks would say. They’re applauding officers who are going to be called upon to do tasks yesterday’s military never even considered. Whether or not that’s a good thing is irrelevant, Brooks would argue. It’s the way things are now, so the best response is to make sure we’re creating effective international law that can help guide them in their work.