The Forever War and the Ever-Expanding Military

Is the Pentagon too powerful for its own—and our—good?

The Pentagon.
Rosa Brooks is the daughter of anti-war protesters who has worked at the Pentagon.

Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Rosa Brooks’ experience at the Pentagon, where she was a counselor to the undersecretary of defense for policy, serves as the foundation for her new book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales From the Pentagon. Brooks traces the military’s growing role in American life, and the dangers it presents for law, accountability, and international relations. As she writes in the book, “Most of the institutions and laws designed to protect rights and prevent the arbitrary or abusive exercise of state power rest on the assumption that we can readily distinguish between war and peace.” Especially after 9/11, this ability to distinguish between the two has faded away, with what Brooks sees as profound consequences.

Brooks is the daughter of anti-war protesters (her mother is the journalist and writer Barbara Ehrenreich) and has had a career as a columnist, lawyer, human-rights worker, and government official. (Her husband is an Army Green Beret.) Together these experiences shape the book, which is both an account of her own experience in government and a history of how the military became so dominant an institution.

I spoke by phone with Brooks recently. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how the military has seized territory from other departments of the government, the problem with America’s drone policy, and the tricky politics of reforming the military.

Isaac Chotiner: What was it about your experience in the Defense Department that made you want to write about its growing role in American life?

Rosa Brooks: I think it was seeing in action all the contradictions that I talk about in the book. Just being at the Pentagon, with both this incredible idealism of so many people in the military and the incredible talent, and, yet, at the same time, this sense of this enormous institution that has come completely unmoored from any clear sense of purpose. It is simultaneously raining missiles via drones down on people, preparing for major wars, trying to launch micro-enterprise programs for Afghan women, training parliamentarians in Iraq—it really just crystallized for me that we don’t know what war is anymore. We don’t know what the military is anymore.

What worries you most about this state of affairs?

What I worry about most, maybe from being a law professor with a background in human-rights law, is not so much something to do with the military as an institution. It has more to do with the implications, often I think sort of invisible to us, of choosing to view so many types of threats through the framework of war.

Human societies throughout history have tried to draw really clear lines between war and peace, between warriors and civilians, and they’ve done it in a zillion different ways: elaborate war paint and initiation rituals as men turn into warriors, and reintegration rituals when they came back, all that kind of stuff, and they’ve done it for a really simple reason that we sometimes forget, which is that the things that are morally acceptable and legally permissible in wartime are radically different, and in some ways opposed, to those that are permissible and legally acceptable in peacetime. To put it in its bluntest form, in peacetime, if you kill another human being, you will probably be arrested, and charged with murder, and tried and put in jail. In wartime, if you’re a combatant and if you kill an enemy combatant, you might even get a medal.

When the Bush administration decided, for instance, to view the 9/11 attacks almost entirely through the framework of a war on terror, that had legal implications as well as political implications, and the legal framework for war, for armed conflict, is much more forgiving of state uses of violence, coercion, and much more forgiving of secrecy, much more forgiving of practices that lack any kind of checks and balances and external accountability mechanisms than ordinary peacetime law. If you view every possible terrorist everywhere through a framework of the law of armed conflict, then U.S. drone strikes are completely lawful and unproblematic, and the fact that they’re secret, we don’t disclose them, and we don’t disclose the evidence, is just fine. If you don’t view them through the lens of war, then they’re just murders. There’s no due process.

How much does the military’s expanding role worry people inside the institution?

I think it does worry a lot of people, because we now have this complete disjuncture between the way we recruit and train people in the military versus the way we use them in the world. Already, 85 percent of military personnel are not in combat occupational specialties at all. They’re in various types of support noncombat functions, and even for those in combat functions, the 13 percent in combat functions, we’re not necessarily putting them into types of roles they’ve been trained to play. They’ve been trained to have tank battles, or they’ve been trained to be infantrymen, or trained to pilot fighter planes, but we are increasingly deploying them to do completely different kinds of things, and I think inevitably, for a lot of people in the military, they start looking at themselves in the mirror and they look at their colleagues, and they think, Wait, I don’t quite understand how this happened. I’m doing things I wasn’t trained to do. I’m not necessarily doing them very well, because nobody ever trained me how to do them.

How much do other Cabinet departments resent the military moving in on their turf, so to speak?

I quote in the book a great line from retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, who talks about the military having become a kind of super Walmart, and just as when a Walmart opens up on Main Street, all the little mom-and-pop stores go, “Uh-oh.” They go belly up, because Walmart is so big. It sells so much. It’s got such incredible efficiencies that it squeezes out everything else, even though all the everything else might actually be more interesting, more creative, more unique, and the military has had the same kind of effect on the mom-and-pop stores of the U.S. government, which from a budgetary perspective are the State Department, USAID, and so forth.

The bigger the military gets, the more we turn to it and ask it to do things that we used to ask the civilian agencies to do. The more that happens, the more those agencies get marginalized, and I think many people in the State Department—I did work at the State Department years ago as well—think we’re seeing this gradual militarization of the U.S. foreign policy and a gradual squeezing out of the capabilities that we traditionally associate with civilians, and that’s not going to be a good thing for us, and it’s not going to be a good thing for the world.

So why is this happening if people both inside and outside the military are worried about it?

It’s happening because nobody has enough interest in it to put serious political capital into changing it. Early in the Obama administration, then–Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were essentially running around doing a little tour saying we both think that we need to put more money and more authority back in the civilian sector. The military can’t do its job if you don’t have civilian agencies able to do their jobs, and President Obama made plenty of speeches talking about it, but the real job of changing this would have to be done in Congress, and nobody, President Obama included, was really willing. Granted, he had other priorities, like health care and so forth, which were important, but nobody really wanted to put political capital into doing it.

The committee structure, and the incentives, and the politics of pork on the Hill, also mean that nobody has the incentive to do it. Nobody has giant factories producing foreign service officers in their districts, but lots of people have giant factories producing military hardware, so nobody has the structural incentive to change it. Everybody says we ought to change it. Nobody is doing it, and, frankly, I think the more complicated question for us to face now is I don’t think it’s going to happen.

So you think Obama did care about this, but it just wasn’t a high enough priority?

Yeah. I think he cared about it. I think he didn’t care enough about it, and maybe given the competing priorities he had, that was right. I wouldn’t have wanted to be in his position, but he certainly did not care enough to be knocking on doors, metaphorically speaking, on the Hill and saying, “This is my No. 1 priority,” and I think changing this would have taken a presidentially lead campaign on the level of getting health care reform.

If 9/11 hadn’t happened, how much do you think we’d be where we are?

It’s a good question. Some of this, I think, would have happened no matter what. I don’t think 9/11 created the world we’re in now by any means, but it probably did accelerate it. Because of changed communications and transportation technologies and so forth, individuals and small groups of people can now cause harm and disruption on a scale that we used to associate essentially with states and their organized militaries, and that was changing even without 9/11: the emergence of complex cyberthreats, the rapidity with which financial instability, epidemic diseases can all spread around the globe.

It still would have happened anyway, and I think the U.S. military would have felt under pressure to develop responses. But I definitely think that 9/11 sure accelerated it, as did the fact that it was George W. Bush in office rather than Al Gore.

Another wonderful consequence of that election. What is your view of drones, and why are they problematic?

I think the problem is that we have a binary legal framework. We have one set of laws, and rules, and norms for war. We have another set for peace. They’re diametrically opposed. As the boundaries around what we think war is get blurry, we no longer know how to categorize different kinds of things, so it becomes kind of arbitrary. Do we stick it in the war box? Do we stick it in the peace box? Do we stick it in the war box?

As we shovel more and more into that war box, larger and larger parts of U.S. foreign policy and U.S. domestic policy enter a world into which there are just far fewer constraints on state power, state secrecy, state uses of force on every possible level, and that’s pretty scary.

At the end of your book you lay out a couple options about how to deal with this growing military role. The first is to rein in its power and reach. The second is to kind of universalize the military in a way. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Yeah. Is the answer to this that we should go back to a much narrower range of activities, very clearly defense-related, or is the answer to this that if this is the stuff the United States needs [the military] to do and it’s not just combat, then we need to actually recruit and train and spend money on things that make us good at that, rather than just pretending that we’re all still going to go fight on the plains of Europe in big tank battles?

I think at the end of the day, the solution both to the institutional dilemmas that we’re experiencing as the military expands its activities more and more, and the legal and political dilemmas as we shovel more and more into the war box, ultimately has to lie not in turning back the clock and saying, “OK, military, stop doing all this development in micro-finance and governance stuff. Just fight. That’s all you should be doing, and meanwhile stop defining cyber and counterterrorism and everything else as war. Just call that crime or call that something else, and let’s just remember, war is for good old-fashioned interstate conflict between armies.”

I don’t think that’s realistic, because the world has just changed. Technologies have just changed. I think what we need to do is a lot harder. It’s going to be the work of generations frankly, in saying we have a legal framework, domestically and internationally. We need a lot of institutions for the space between war and peace, [institutions] that recognize both that the threats are different than they were 50 years ago, but also that the ability to have checks and balances that protect rights is much greater.

Do you have confidence we can and will make these reforms?

I do think that the pressures to adapt, to develop laws and institutions for that space between, are already there, and there’s already an increasingly lively debate, particularly within the military about what that might mean institutionally. I think there is less of a debate about what it might mean legally, either on the domestic or international level, so I don’t think there is some sort of magic solution.

I think it’s going to be messy. I think it’s going to be a couple decades at least, but I do think circumstances are going to force us to take this stuff more seriously, whether we want to or not.