At first glance this book seems to state what gets parroted frequently namely that war is being fought by a fraction of the population and an even smaller portion of the military itself. The oft-cited gulf between civilian and military personnel is alluded to in this book repeatedly. However, the book provides a unique perspective on this issue by pointing to the changing nature of war itself and focusing on technological changes and legal challenges that make war increasingly impersonal and far removed not only from civilians but also from many service members.
To provide some context on the author, Rosa Brooks, she is a contributor to Foreign Policy, a legal scholar and Georgetown law professor, who spent several years working at the Pentagon under Michele Flournoy, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. Additionally, Ms. Brooks met her husband, an Army Colonel, while at the Pentagon, and became immersed in the culture of the military as a spouse. Due to this fact, the book provides an exposition of military culture and reads like an epiphany of the difference between civilian and military life. This should appeal to civilians reading the book, but not so much to active service members. Although I did enjoy the statistics on military recruiting and I hadn’t thought about the correlation between geography of military bases and the geography of recruiting trends.
This book’s strength occurs in its focus on war in the twenty-first century under the umbrella of the overarching and seemingly unending war on terror. The author suggests that military actions like drone strikes against suspected terrorists have far reaching implications which we have not fully begun to appreciate. The most obvious implication is what might happen when other nations adopt their own equally capable drone technology to carry out similar attacks all over the world under the banner of their own “war on terrorism.” This is where the author draws on her legal background to make the case that a clear legal framework, right or wrong, needs to be established for this kind of ever increasing activity. She also focuses on detainee detention at Guantanamo Bay, and makes a clear and strong human rights case for shuttering the base.
The second point of her book is that over the past fifteen years of counterinsurgency campaigns the military has been asked to take on a range of tasks that are traditionally reserved for the State Department, USAID, and NGO’s. But, as the American response to the war on terror has been overwhelmingly a military one, the DOD budget has ballooned and has vastly eclipsed that of any other government agency. Thus, the military is asked to do tasks that it is not trained to do nor is it truly prepared to do. She mentions everything from infrastructure building and public works projects included but not limited to countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. Her description of the military as a “Wal-Mart” for policy makers is provocative, yet when one considers the number of missions the military conducts across the “range of military operations,” it seems to be a fair assessment.
The book touches on a lot of issues beyond the central thesis of “how everything became war and the military became everything.” Some parts of the book seem to be disjointed from the thesis and are included as one or more of her “tales from the Pentagon.” I am thinking of one of her earlier chapters on piracy. She alludes to a clear historical precedent for the Navy’s anti-piracy campaigns, but I don’t think that this means that fighting piracy has to fall under the “everything becoming war” taxonomy. I think this vignette simply becomes one of those juicy little “tales from the Pentagon” as she recalls the entire episode surrounding the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama. On the other hand, I found this history to be interesting, and there are a few other historical vignettes to wet the military historian palette. The tales from the Pentagon are well written too, and occasionally build her case for the military becoming everything. For example, a White House national security staffer called to order immediate drone surveillance in Kyrgyzstan. When she raised practical questions about the utility of the drone surveillance, the staffer blasted her for not getting some “CentCom [Central Command] Colonel” to order the drone immediately. This is one of the more eyebrow raising examples of the civilian and military disconnect not to mention civilians putting unreasonable expectations on military capabilities.
Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the current state of the American military and with an interest in thinking about the role the military should play in American geo-political strategy.