Simon & Schuster

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“How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales From the Pentagon”

A book by Rosa Brooks

The laser-guided Hellfire missile is highly accurate. When one is fired from a Predator drone at an alleged enemy of the United States, whether in the deserts of Yemen, the mountains of Pakistan or elsewhere, it rarely misses. The remarkable innovation of pairing an unmanned aerial vehicle with a deadly precise missile emerged soon after Sept. 11, 2001. The United States has reportedly used this tool extensively against potentially thousands of terrorist targets around the world in the subsequent 15 years.

Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor, former adviser at the Defense Department and influential voice in U.S. policy circles, is one of the many critics of America’s “direct action” program using these drones. In her new book, “How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything,” she argues that drone strikes rely on problematic legal justifications and that their effectiveness and legitimacy cannot be independently evaluated because of the program’s secrecy. These strikes, along with government opacity about them, she believes, will ultimately undermine the international rule of law, further weaken America’s moral standing and set the stage for others to follow our law-bending lead.

For Brooks, drone strikes are but one illustration of the challenges we face in this new era of conflict. She contends that the distinction between war and peace has blurred and that the consequences for international law are enormous and underappreciated. Her core argument is that international law, as well as U.S. government organizations, have not kept pace with this smudging of the line. Her book is a cri de coeur that unless we build legal foundations that stand some chance of containing war and legitimating our actions, and restructure our agencies to accommodate new realities, we risk inviting further chaos, eroding the values upon which America was built and failing future generations. While ambitious and astute, the book is also diffuse and in some important ways misses its targets.

The author offers an insightful history of the progressive efforts to formally circumscribe the domain of war and curb its most horrifying excesses, a push that began in the 19th century. The law of armed conflict as it exists today, she explains, was developed by people emerging from the catastrophe of World War II, in which there was little ambiguity about what war looked like. Thus, as Brooks tells us, these laws were based on distinguishable scenarios: what is legal in peace, and what is legal when the shooting starts. Today we grapple to define which laws apply in a world where cyberattacks are routine, extremist-inspired individuals attack average citizens on the street or in cafes and clubs, and the United States and its allies conduct daily strikes against a pseudo-state and nonstate actors across the greater Middle East.

Brooks is at her best and most persuasive when she holds this question up to her intellectual searchlight. Her contemplation of the role and meaning of international law, told through the experience of a hapless Croatian who was ultimately convicted of war crimes, is moving and illuminating. Her history of law in the context of war brings new insights to that story and its implications for today. She is surely right that the consequences for the United States of failing to adapt to today’s ambiguous world could be calamitous.

Brooks seeks to engage multiple audiences with the book. She explains that it “is not a memoir. It’s part journalism, part policy, part history, part anthropology, and part law, leavened with occasional stories. Only a few of the stories are my own.” In that sense, it is less a Hellfire than a cluster munition, which releases multiple, independent bomblets across a large area. To work across so many genres is challenging, and perhaps only a writer of Brooks’ caliber and experience should attempt it (she is also a former Los Angeles Times columnist and is a featured contributor to Foreign Policy). But the risk of this approach is that one may engage a few of the intended target audiences but fail to reach others.

The first hundred or so pages serve as a kind of cursory overview of international happenings and U.S. policy responses in the 1990s and the post-Sept. 11 era. In this section, the majority of the stories are her own, and it seems intended more for a lay audience and those interested in the personal dimension of the book. But those already well-schooled in the issues may object to many of her interpretations (which read as a familiar, left-leaning establishment narrative) and want more analysis than description.

Brooks is at her most interesting when she takes on the big legal questions surrounding “gray zone conflict” — a concept much debated among experts. These parts are the book’s greatest strength and provide the most path-breaking ideas. Still, there are some substantive matters that experts may question, a few of which merit mention here.

First, while her essential argument is fairly clear, there are times when Brooks still seems to be debating where she comes down. She contends in multiple sections that many societies have sought to separate the realms of war and peace; that “if war is as old as humanity itself, so too is the human effort to define and control it.” She cites rituals performed by the Blackfoot Indians before raids, pre-battle dances by the Jíbaro Indians of Ecuador and Peru, and the practice of quarantining warriors before and after battle by the Mekeo of Papua New Guinea, among many other examples.

But this leaves one wondering what she means by war: Is a raid to steal another tribe’s horses a war? While she admits that defining the term is nettlesome — citing Justice Potter Stewart’s famous “I know it when I see it” quip — since the heart of her argument is about differentiating war and peace, this is important. Toward the end of the book, she suggests that “perhaps the problem … is not that categories that have long been clear have suddenly become hazy; perhaps the problem is that we briefly convinced ourselves of … permanence and clarity.” Which is it? Have the realms of war and peace traditionally been kept distinct (from the Jíbaro to the Mekeo to the Romans) and now they are murky, or have they always been nebulous and we briefly thought they were clear in the post-World War II period?Second, if that is the “How Everything Became War” part of the book, there is a main line of argument that concerns the structure of U.S. government organizations and their inability to deal with the threats and challenges we face. Brooks believes that civilian agencies have been chronically underfunded and are incapable of conducting much of what we might consider nonmilitary functions on a large scale — digging wells, improving governance, even developing the rule of law in struggling nations. Since Sept. 11, and arguably well before, the military has stepped into the gap. This is “How the Military Became Everything.”

But this argument has been worked over for a decade and a half and has become a bit threadbare. It was conventional wisdom in 2007-2008, when the military was in virtually every business in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as those large-scale conflicts have faded and more traditional military threats have emerged in recent years — Russian aggression in Ukraine, Chinese development of increasingly sophisticated technologies and even nonstate actors like the Islamic State organizing conventional-esque military forces alongside their terrorist outfits — it is clear that we are in a post-Iraq/Afghanistan world, and, judging by recent exercises, the U.S. military is largely turning its attention back to deterrence and training to fight.

Third, Brooks offers a number of ambitious and controversial prescriptions, such as surrendering many functions to the military services and totally restructuring them, and introducing a mandatory universal service requirement for all young people (with a choice of civilian or military service). What is missing is an in-depth discussion of how all this might be done, the costs and benefits, and the potential unintended consequences. This omission is noteworthy, since these arguments have been made for decades and volumes of research exist on how workable or desirable such prescriptions might or might not be.

Finally, one wonders whether Brooks thinks that our current state of perpetual war is an unfortunate development in the world, a product of technological, socioeconomic and cultural trends, or whether it might be a problem of America’s own making, as analysts like Andrew Bacevich have argued. Is what used to be called the “Long War” simply a product of global events, or the outcome of choices the United States has made and could change?

In her discussion of drone strikes, Brooks details the lengthy process by which the Obama administration studies potential targets and uncovers details about their lives. She explains that some officials may know their targets quite well, from a distance, by the time they point an armed Predator in their direction. While non-precision munition that strikes a more diffuse area might stand a chance of reaching more targets, there is something to be said for the assiduous pre-strike planning, the decisiveness and the focus of a laser-guided Hellfire.

Celeste Ward Venter is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense. Based in Vilseck, Germany, she is a consultant on international security and defense organization in Europe and the Middle East.

©2016, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group

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