Book review: How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything

How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon by Rosa Brooks is a wonderfully-written, informative book about the bloated military, its mission creep, and the under-funding of other parts of the government such as the State Department.

The book comes with hearty recommendations from General James Mattis, General Stanley McChrystal, and Gen. David Patreus. This is despite the fact that the book  — at least until the last chapter –is  anti-war and is critical of military waste and secrecy.

She quotes polls that suggest that Americans have high regard for the military but low regard for other branches of government, and especially for Congress. Likewise, the Pentagon is lavishly funded, but other branches of government — including the State Department and the Internal Revenue Service — are starved for funds.

Our cynical political culture devalues social welfare programs and snickers at communitarian impluses, and most of us trust neither our neighbors nor the public institutions that are meant to serve us. The distrust is not unmerited; the more we the more we devalue public programs, the less we fund them — and and the less they can offer us, the less we trust them, and so on. The military is all that’s left: the last institution standing.

And so, too much is asked of the military.  Aside from being asked to fight unwinnable wars, it’s also asked to handle more and more tasks worldwide that used to be handled by civilian agencies: agricultural, medical, educational, elections, and, in general, nation building.  The book describes some of the turf wars between the State Department and the military — conflicts over who show do what.

In a way, this is great progress, because the military realizes that to avoid war and to maintain peace, it’s important to have stable nations overseas with working justice systems and economies.  Just bombing and destroying enemies doesn’t win many friends.

Of course, nation building  mostly fails.

Alas, while our own infrastructure and government agencies fall to pieces, we spend trillions of dollars trying to build nations overseas.

In many ways, America is a failing state, with massive tax evasion and fraud. But this is by choice, more than by incompetence: the GOP hates taxes and government, except for the military.

The book was published in 2016 — she doesn’t mention Trump at all.  Imagine how much worse things are now, since Trump and the Republicans have gutted federal agencies and even failed to appoint key staff. And today I saw headlines saying that Trump has issued an executive order to freeze federal pay in 2019.

How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, by Rosa Brooks

Brooks gave a talk to a group of majors and lieutenant colonels at an Army school. She asked them what was the greatest security threat facing America in the next decade or two. Few of the soldiers thought that Islamic terrorism, North Korea or Iran posed the biggest threat. The biggest threats, they thought, would come from conflicts involving resource scarcity resulting from climate change, and from global economic collapse.

She tells the story of the murder of Chilean leftist Letelier in Washington D.C. by agents of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and of the murder of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London, apparently by Russian agents. But, in a similar way, the United States has been killing its enemies overseas with Predator and Reaper drones, or with special operation raids. Brooks says about 4000 such killings have occurred. She says she trusts her former colleagues in the military to do the right thing, but what about people in other countries who feel they have the right to launch targeted killings of their enemies all over the world? After pointing out the secrecy in which the targeted killings have been shrouded, she writes, “The legal precedents we are setting risk undermining the fragile norms of sovereignty and human rights that help keep our world stable. We should ask ourselves this: Do we want to live in a world in which every state considers itself to have a legal right to kill people in other states, secretly and with no public disclosure or due process, base on its own unilateral assertions of national security prerogatives?”

“If ‘imminent threat’ can mean ‘lack of evidence of the absence of imminent threat,’ it is impossible to know, with any clarity, the circumstances in which the United States will in fact decide that the use of military force is lawful.”

She tells horrifying and moving stories about cruelty and violence overseas — e.g., a story of school girls kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda and about suffering in Bosnia.  There are, rarely, just interventions.  Stopping the genocide in Rwanda, by sending in peace keepers, could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

Her mind is so clear and analytical. She’s a law professor at Georgetown University. But she also manages to find humor or irony in various challenges.

For example, after telling about the gargantuan size of the military budget — more then the next fifteen biggest spenders combined — she goes onto talk about the fuzzy accounting at the Pentagon. “DoD’s a big place, and stuff gets lost: money, programs, people, organizations, weapon systems, the occasional small war.”

Indeed, the recent audit of the Pentagon failed. They were unable to account for a mind-boggling $21 trillion in spending (not all real money: accounting tricks). See Exclusive: The Pentagon’s Massive Accounting Fraud Exposed: How US military spending keeps rising even as the Pentagon flunks its audit.

Soldiers, even the generals, know that war is hell. It’s the darn hawkish politicians who are most responsible for pushing the nation into disastrous wars and for asking the military to engage in nation building.

She mentions that, contrary to what the public believes, military personnel are paid higher than non-military government workers, and have better benefits.  Health care is free. Groceries are discounted 30%. Higher education is largely free. Housing is free or subsidized.  Veterans can retire at age 40 with large pensions.  Health care spending for the military has grown at twice the rate as it has grown for civilian health care. “Anyone who thinks there’s no such thing as socialism has never spent time on a military base.”

Congress insists on giving the Pentagon money even for programs it doesn’t want. “[O]ne of the things that astounded me was hard it was to get Congress to stop funding stupid stuff.”

She writes, “[T]he whole idea of a secret war is deeply offensive to core principles of American democracy — in particular, to any notion of constitutional checks and balances.” But secret wars exist: drone wars and actions by U.S. special forces.”   “…. But it would be just as much a mistake to dismiss U.S. counterterrorism policy as the selfish, destructive flailing of an arrogant, damaged superpower. It is that, but not only that. Hegel famously defined tragedy as the conflict between two goods, each overly rigid in its claims.”

The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) granted the Bush administration Congressional approval for fighting Al Qaeda and related forces that were responsible for the 9/11 attacks. But since then, there’s been mission creep, and the AUMF has been applied to groups less and less related to Al Qaeda., such as the Al Shabaab militants in Somalia. Another example is the Islamic State, which is actually in conflict with the remnants of Al Qaeda.

She points out that the American Civil War killed 600,000 people, and World War Two killed 400,000 Americans. The 9/11 terrorists attacks killed a few thousand. Were they really justification, she asks, for throwing two centuries of American values out the window?

In particular, allowing the President to unilaterally and secretly kill Americans overseas, without judicial overview, violates fundamental doctrines of American separation of powers and concentration of power.

But drones aren’t all bad, she points out: isn’t it better to target a few dangerous individuals than to fight wars the old way with thousands of troops, heavy armor and bombing runs by the air force? Surely, there will be less collateral damage with high tech targeted strikes.

War has become more like policing, and policing has become more like war. Soldiers overseas often engage in police-like raids — rather than massive assaults like in the two world wars — as well as in counter-insurgency and nation building. And many police departments have adopted military equipment, tactics, and dress.

Progress towards a more peaceful world isn’t inevitable, she insists. And if we don’t make the effort to craft an international order that maintains peace and cooperation, “we could find ourselves, all too quickly, back in the era of domestic repression and bloody global conflict.”

One problematic part of her book is the last chapter, “Managing War’s Paradoxes,” where she considers but rejects pacifist arguments about the war on terror. Since 9/11, America has been in a constant state of war, and war has expanded to include multiple countries and multiple, non-traditional formats (cyber-terrorism, economic terrorism, fake news, bioterrorism, drone attacks, etc). Post 9/11 our privacy rights and civil rights have been degraded: extra-judicial killings of Americans by drones are the norm, as is indefinite detention. Some pacifists suggest that the problem is that we shouldn’t regard terrorist attacks as a war at all. Rather, we should view such attacks as criminal acts, or as social problems. We can, say the pacifists, put the genie back in the bottle.

To be specific, the genie is the blurring of lines between war and peace, and the militarization of all aspects of life.

In the last chapter Brooks rejects the pacifist view and says that expanded war is here to stay. In fact, she says, war has been the norm rather than the exception throughout human history.  She points to President Obama’s conflicting statements about war. While he acknowledged that perpetual war mustn’t become the norm, he repeatedly agreed to more war: escalating troops in Afghanistan, sending troops to Syria, and authorizing drone attacks. Even in his Nobel address, for the Peace Prize he didn’t deserve, he spoke of the necessity of war.

She writes, “The changes that have blurred the lines between war and peace are real, not just figments of militaristic American imaginations.” War is no longer a matter of massed troops between nation states. Now it’s dispersed and disorganized. She acknowledges that the changes in the nature of war create fundamental challenges to international law and human rights. War and peace aren’t binary opposites but exist on a continuum, she says.

“It’s time to stop relying on lines drawn in the sand: the wind and waves are washing them away.” Instead, she says, we should realize that war is a constant companion and that we need to develop frameworks for managing it in a way that protects human rights and human dignity. In particular, we need international rules that make room for targeted killings, via, say, the Security Council of the United Nations. Brooks says the U.S. must be willing to give up some sovereignty, lest our actions come back to haunt us when other nations perform targeted killings of Americans.

In the past, she says, the Declaration of Independence, the Geneva Conventions, and the United Nations Charter brought progress towards peace and human rights. “Today, as the boundaries around war grow indistinct and war’s toxins begin to bleed into daily life, it’s time to try again.” That is, try to build laws to constrain the new kinds of war that we now face.

Likewise, she acknowledges that in an ideal world civilian agencies would be given the resources to do the many activities of nation building and development that currently fall to the military (and that the military often lacks the skills to perform). But, she asks, “is it remotely realistic to imagine that this will happen any time in the next few decades, given current political realities?” Her answer is, no.

She doesn’t mention the GOP by name, but that’s her implication: Republicans do not want government to work, except for the military.

Since, she says, we are stuck with just the military, let’s admit that the military’s role is wider than just killing. Hiring rules should be changed to downplay physical strength and youth and to emphasize more intellectual skills, such as linguistic ability and coding skills. Moreover, “we’ll need to knock down the walls we’ve created between our civilian agencies and the military.” After all, national security depends on more than just violence: education, transportation, health care, and environmental stewardship, for example.

Heck, she sounds like a progressive!

What she fails to adequately address is the extent to which U.S. foreign policy created terrorism, by our meddling in and invasions of other countries. It is largely the USA that let the genie out of the bottle! Al Qaeda wasn’t in Iraq in 2001, but they sure are there now. Similar stories can be told about Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Syria, Indonesia, and South America. And now American forces are in many countries in Africa.

Moreover, the inability of Congress to adequately fund civilian agencies could change substantially in two years, if the Democrats win back control of the U.S. Senate and the White House, and if progressives in the Democratic Party are able to beat hawkish, neoliberal Democrats. And if the public can, somehow, be educated about how they’re being cheated by neoliberal ideology.

The biggest danger to our well-being is the Republican Party and its obsession with lowering taxes and de-funding government agencies, while building up the military.

Finally, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in a just way would have gone a long way towards lessening Islamic terrorism. Why didn’t Brooks mention that?

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One thought on “Book review: How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything”

  1. This webpage suggests that Defense spending as a percentage of the U.S. federal budget is historically the lowest it’s been since before the Second World War: https://www.usgovernmentspending.com/defense_spending . Is that accurate? On the other hand, we do spend close to a trillion dollars a year, and more than the next fifteen countries combined. Plus, there is lots of apparent fraud, as described in https://www.thenation.com/article/pentagon-audit-budget-fraud/ .

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