“Most Americans know roughly as much about the U.S. military as they know about the surface of the moon,” writes Rosa Brooks in her enlightening new book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales From the Pentagon. I confess: I’m one of those militarily clueless Americans, which is why I committed to reading Brooks’s book. I thought it might fill the gaping holes in my knowledge, as I always found military history too dull and dry to swallow, even in small doses. But the book I approached as a medicinal fix turned out to be a savory treat.
Brooks, a former counselor to the undersecretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon, and a current Georgetown University law professor and wife of an Army Special Forces officer, untangles difficult domestic and international political issues with authority, humor and simplicity. Driven by big ideas, her streamlined storytelling avoids tedious details while offering up meaningful statistics and fascinating factoids. (Did you know that the Defense Department is the largest employer in the United States? And that according to the U.N. Charter, prisoners of war are obligated to salute military officials of the detaining power?) For readers with limited understanding of military matters, Brooks makes drone warfare, Guantanamo Bay, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other thorny topics surprisingly easy to understand. (Most appreciated are her explanations of the military’s ubiquitous acronyms. The global war on terrorism, for instance, is abbreviated GWOT and pronounced gee wot.)
A legal theorist at heart, Brooks traces a clear line through the events leading to our current state of confusion concerning the laws of armed conflict, and recommends necessary legal steps to address the problem. Her basic premise is this: In recent years, our military has taken on more and more roles—including humanitarian and nation-building activities—that its personnel are not trained to do. This is happening because draconian cuts to other agencies have made the military our only still high-functioning governmental institution. And as the military gets charged with more “battles” to fight, it only makes sense to raise its budget and cut others’, rendering non-military agencies even less effective and the roles of the military more numerous. As the old saying goes, “If the only weapon you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”
The real peril is that many of these new military endeavors are classified as “wars,” which means they are subject to wartime rules. Particular methods of detaining suspects, killing people or gathering information, while criminal in peacetime, are permissible in wartime. In her harsh critique of U.S. military actions in America’s war on terror, Brooks explains that by bending the rules of lawful action, the U.S. gives other nations permission to do the same, potentially undermining the norms of sovereignty and human rights that keep the world stable. Convinced that we have now entered and will forever remain in a new space—a space that lies between total war and total peace, where neither set of rules applies—Brooks insists that we need to develop a whole new set of laws to govern military actions. In an inspiring final chapter, she presents the theoretical humanistic principles upon which those laws should be based.
Though military experts may find Brooks’s book rudimentary, for lay readers like me who want to better understand our current military messes, it hits the target with triumphal precision.
Feature photo: Cpl Jamie Peters RLC/ Defence Images