Magazine | September 12, 2016, Issue

Mission Creep

How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon, by Rosa Brooks (Simon & Schuster, 448 pp., $29.95)

In 1992, an Air Force lieutenant colonel named Charles Dunlap published an essay in Parameters, the journal of the Army War College. Titled “The Origins of the Coup of 2012,” the article, which Dunlap described as a fictional “darkly imagined excursion into the future,” takes the form of a letter from an officer condemned to death for opposing a military coup that has taken place in the United States. The letter argues that the coup was the result of trends that were already observable in 1992. The condemned letter writer’s thesis is that after years of being handed the tough jobs the rest of the government seemed incapable of handling, the U.S. military, with the acquiescence of the American people and their government, simply took over.

Dunlap’s protagonist writes: “Faced with intractable national problems on one hand, and an energetic and capable military on the other, it can be all too seductive to start viewing the military as a cost-effective solution. We made a terrible mistake when we allowed the armed forces to be diverted from its original purpose.”

Of course, there has been no military coup in America. But in many other respects, Dunlap’s essay is amazingly prescient regarding the consequences of the trends he identified, exacerbated by 9/11 a decade later. These consequences are among the subjects of Rosa Brooks’s remarkable new book. Echoing Dunlap’s doomed author, she writes: “Americans increasingly treat the military as an all-purpose tool for fixing anything that happens to be broken.”

Subtitled “Tales from the Pentagon,” this interesting work is not exactly a memoir (although the author tells many interesting stories) but rather a reflection on war, the military, and national-security law in our time. On one hand, Brooks’s perspective is that of a somewhat amused outsider trying to make sense of the Pentagon’s competing organizational cultures and bureaucracies; on the other, that of an advocate of strict U.S. adherence to international law.

Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and a columnist for Foreign Policy, served from April 2009 to July 2011 as counselor to the undersecretary of defense for policy, Michele Flournoy (who is almost certainly a lock to become secretary of defense if Hillary Clinton wins the 2016 election). During her time at the Pentagon, Brooks also headed a Pentagon office dedicated to rule of law and humanitarian policy. Her previous work for George Soros’s Open Society Institute led some conservatives to denounce her Pentagon appointment.

Brooks has an interesting background. The daughter of radical parents, she was raised in the hothouse of anti-war politics but came to appreciate the military as a force that could be utilized on behalf of humanitarian causes, such as ending genocide and enforcing international law on behalf of human rights. Along the way, she married an Army Special Forces officer and spent time as a military wife in Fort Carson, Colo.

Brooks begins by introducing the tensions and dilemmas that arise as “war bursts out of its traditional boundaries.” She cites Unrestricted Warfare, a 1999 book by two Chinese officers that predicted that the battlefield in future war will be everywhere: “The boundaries lying between the two worlds of war and non-war, of military and non-military, will be totally destroyed” in a world of global interconnectedness and omnipresent social media. She then addresses the ways in which the U.S. military has adapted to these new conditions. Here, Brooks offers many useful insights regarding U.S. civil–military relations. She observes that although the U.S. military has been at war for a decade and a half, most Americans know as much about the U.S. military as they know about the surface of the moon. At the societal level, the civil–military “gap” that observers identified in the 1990s has only gotten worse. At the level of policy and strategy, civilian and military leaders tend to be distrustful of each other. Civilians often believe that the military leadership is trying to box them in on policy decisions — for example, troop levels in various theaters. Military leaders all too often believe that civilians don’t want to hear the advice they are obligated to give. The key to healthy civil–military relations is mutual trust, something that Brooks shows is sorely lacking today. Her observations about U.S. civil–military relations are by far the most interesting part of How Everything Became War.

Brooks then takes a look back at how societies have tried to “define, contain, and tame” war. Great cataclysms have often led human beings to try to make war less frequent or costly. The Thirty Years’ War led to the Peace of Westphalia, which established state sovereignty as a way of taming the excesses of religious war. World War II led to the creation of international institutions such as the United Nations and the Bretton Woods system in an attempt to prevent the conditions that led to the two great wars of the 20th century. She examines how the trickle-down of “war rules” affects all aspects of society, “from policing and immigration policy to courtroom evidentiary rules and governmental commitments to transparency, gradually eroding the foundations of democracy and individual rights.” Finally, she suggests some steps to prevent the world from sliding back into chaos and cruelty — by rethinking the military, to make abuses of power less likely.

Brooks is a clear and entertaining writer. Her readers, especially those who know little or nothing about the military, the Pentagon bureaucracy, and human-rights law, will learn a great deal. Those who do know about them will nod in agreement as she recounts her adventures. After all, it is not for nothing that the Pentagon is often called the “five-sided puzzle palace.” Her sense of humor is quite acute.

Among the strongest parts of the book are her personal stories about her visits to, among other locations, Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Uganda, as well as her observations about working in the Pentagon. In contrast, the sections on international and human-rights law — Brooks’s legal specialization — tend to be somewhat pedantic and, I believe, fundamentally wrong. She is a sharp critic of the George W. Bush administration’s policies, from the invasion of Iraq to its handling of detainees. She expected a change with the election of Barack Obama but was disappointed that he continued many of those policies, and indeed — in the case of unmanned-aircraft strikes — went far beyond his predecessor’s actions, proving that it’s easier to be president when you’re not.

She is particularly hard on the Bush-administration lawyers. She accuses John Yoo, one of the Justice Department lawyers who provided the legal justification for enhanced interrogation, of unethical behavior: “When Bush-administration lawyers . . . argued that waterboarding and the like didn’t legally constitute torture, they were not simply mistaken about the conclusions warranted by statute, treaty, and case law, they were engaging in illegitimate and unethical forms of legal argumentation, ignoring and selectively misreading various relevant texts in order to reach a predetermined conclusion.”

Brooks uses the same sports metaphor that General Michael Hayden, former director of both the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, does in his recent book Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror — but their conclusions are different. She accuses the Bush lawyers of “cheating” by crossing the “line,” while Hayden argues that national-security law requires us to get as close to the line as possible without crossing it. We should, he said, “have chalk on our cleats” but not go out of bounds. In Hayden’s view, Yoo’s job was to determine where the line between torture and not-torture lay. Brooks’s view is shaped by a law-enforcement perspective, while the Yoo-Hayden view is informed by a national-security perspective. The main problem with Brooks’s legal perspective is that she takes her bearings from international humanitarian law rather than the Constitution. Superseding the Constitution and American law with a purported international legal consensus is dangerously wrong.

There is a final irony here. If the military has become the “all-purpose tool” that Brooks laments, people like her are largely to blame. She, after all, embraces the use of the military for humanitarian purposes. The military’s resistance to such missions in the early 1990s sparked a civil–military debate that still resonates today.

These reservations aside, Rosa Brooks has written an important and insightful book. As retired Marine general James Mattis has observed about How War Became Everything: “It’s as if we have been sleep walking into this new world and Rosa has turned on a flashlight to show what we are doing and where we are going.”

– Mr. Owens is the dean of academics at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., the editor of Orbis, and the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil–Military Bargain.

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