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A former Pentagon adviser on why the military has become too powerful

Author Rosa Brooks on the domestic dangers of an ever-expanding military.

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Rosa Brooks walked away from her job as a civilian adviser at the Pentagon in 2011. She had served for just under two years. She left, in part, due to frustration with the process. A lawyer specializing in human rights, she wanted to help close Guantanamo Bay prison, but struggled to find an audience with anyone that mattered.

What she realized, eventually, was that the military’s role in government had become too large to contain. The bureaucracy was too complex and the interests far too entrenched. She began to wonder if the military’s dominance was undermining our civil and legal institutions.

Her experiences became the foundation of her latest book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.

Since 9/11, Brooks argues, the role of the military has expanded in ways no one expected, becoming an “all-purpose tool for fixing anything happens to be broken”; the institutions designed to check state power, which “rest on the assumption that we can readily distinguish between war and peace,” have gradually eroded; and our ability to “define, contain, and tame” expansive wartime laws has been diminished as we’ve come to accept war as a permanent condition.

Brooks isn’t the first to raise these issues, but her background and ground-level insight add weight to her inquiry.

I sat down with Brooks, now a law professor at Georgetown University, to talk about her book and the reasons she wrote it. I ask her what it means, politically and legally, to be permanently at war, whether the military-industrial complex has become the Frankensteinian monster President Eisenhower said it would become, and if she thinks the government exaggerates the threat of terrorism in order to justify its war on terror.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Sean Illing

This is an unusual book for a former adviser at the Pentagon to write. You clearly support much of the military, but you’re also very critical of its expanding role. What’s your central thesis?

Rosa Brooks

The central thesis is pretty much contained in the title: “How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.” Over the last several years, we've seen an ever-expanding range of threats of war, which has a lot of implications that people don't tend to think about or realize for both law and politics.

As we think of more and more things as war, we also think of more and more things as jobs for the military. It becomes this vicious circle — if the military does it, it must be a war; if it's a war, it must be a military job — to the point that it starts to squeeze out both other institutions and other legal paradigms for thinking about issues.

Sean Illing

Can you say a bit more about the legal implications of this shift? States have far more power and flexibility during times of war, and so if everything is becoming war, then our legal boundaries are getting blurrier and blurrier.

Rosa Brooks

That’s right. There are two interwoven strands of the book — one strand has to do with law and the ways in which the laws of war work, which are profoundly different from ordinary laws. The laws of war are much more tolerant of government secrecy and coercion, censorship, surveillance, and detention than ordinary law, which is much more focused on individual life and on restraining government power. So when you decide something's a war, it doesn't just have institutional implications; it also has profound implications for rights and government power.

And then the other strand of the book is the institutional strand: What happens to the military as an institution when everything becomes a war and everything becomes a job for the military?

Sean Illing

When you say “the military became everything,” what do you mean?

Rosa Brooks

I mean that the military has increasingly been asked to take on tasks that traditionally we've thought of as civilian tasks. I talk a lot about some of the weirder things that formal US military personnel are involved in around the world — from cattle vaccination programs to anti–human trafficking programs to writing soap operas for Iraqi audiences to training Afghan judges.

The truth is that the vast majority of US military personnel don't fight. They never have fought. They never will fight. That's not their job. They're doing all these other things. So partly, that is what I mean. The military is now, you name the task, we've got somebody in uniform doing it somewhere in the world.

And I also mean it in a more general sense, as that whole vicious circle of expanding the military and the squeezing out of civilian institutions goes on, and I would never have predicted how this would be accelerated under Trump.

Sean Illing

You argue in the book that Americans now see the military as an all-purpose tool for fixing anything. Do you think that's how most Americans see the military, or is that how the government civilians have come to view the military?

My sense is that most Americans respect the military as an institution, but they have no idea what the military does, and don’t have to know because they’re not involved. They applaud troops in the abstract, stick the yellow ribbon on the car bumper, and that’s the extent of it.

Rosa Brooks

I think increasingly it's Americans that feel this way, and that’s because we don't have anything else. Whether it's a natural disaster or a problem on the border or some other intractable domestic issue, the military is seen as the only viable, trusted institution capable of fixing it. The public seems more and more open to this.

That’s why Gen. John Kelly, who is now head of Homeland Security, was previously the head of USSOUTHCOM [US Southern Command], which is responsible for contingency planning and various security partnerships with Central and Southern American countries. Kelly was a military general in charge of border security, overseeing armed troops patrolling the southwest border. We also have National Guard troops in Grand Central Station in New York, and there are countless other examples of the military performing traditionally civil functions.

I think the default tendency is now to say, “Well, can the military do something about this?" Given the lack of public trust in other government institutions, this is perhaps not surprising. But the implications of handing more and more responsibilities over to the military are not well understood.

Sean Illing

The problem, of course, is that the military is built to perform a narrow set of functions very well — it’s a hammer, not a Swiss Army knife. The idea that the military can — or should — do everything is dangerous.

Rosa Brooks

Yes, and I think most people expect that the military will get things done, whatever the thing is. And we imagine they can get it done confidently and efficiently, which isn't always the case, but that is the fantasy.

Sean Illing

I have to ask you about the military-industrial complex, which looms over your entire book. In 1961, during his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned the country about the growing power of the defense industry. I think we’ve failed to heed that warning.

How do you see it?

Rosa Brooks

I don't think it's really the military-industrial complex anymore. It's more of a military-security complex, because it's just as much these intelligence analysis firms and cyber firms and firms that do strategic communications and that kind of stuff. Of course, the defense industry gravy train is still very big and very powerful and very pervasive. I don't think it's a conspiracy, but I do think it makes it hard to change anything.

It's one of the reasons why Obama couldn’t do as much as he initially said he wanted to do on reversing the war on terrorism policies and the structures that sprang up around it. By the time he takes office in 2009, the entire US government has essentially been retooled for counterterrorism purposes, and the hundreds of thousands of contractors have also retooled for the war on terrorism, and you’ve got all these contracts and all this money flowing.

It turns out you can’t simply turn this thing around.

US President Barack Obama chats with top US general in Iraq Ray Odierno upon arrival at Baghdad International Airport on April 7, 2009.
MANDEL NGAN / Getty Images

Sean Illing

You mentioned Obama’s difficulties just now, and I know you were a harsh critic of George W. Bush’s anti-terror policies. Like a lot of us, you anticipated some fundamental changes with Obama, but instead we got more of the same. You seem to think there’s not much Obama (or any president) can do at this point. The incentives are so firmly entrenched that even a president who wants to effect change can’t do so.

Rosa Brooks

I think that's right. There were some good things and some important things that Obama did, particularly early on in his presidency — ending the secret CIA prisons, for example. I don't want to trivialize those because they matter. But not closing Guantanamo Bay was a failure of political will on his part. You can blame Congress, but I think if it had been a priority for him, it would have happened.

Similarly, on the legal side, the Obama administration’s lawyers expanded the Bush administration’s policies to justify targeted killings around the world, and I’d argue Obama’s policies here were actually scarier than Bush’s.

So, yes, fundamental change in this area is extraordinarily difficult, but things can get done if the president has enough political will.

Sean Illing

Do you think Obama was insincere in his campaign promises?

Rosa Brooks

I don't think he was insincere in his campaign promises, but they weren't his top priorities. He's a guy basically whose top priorities were domestic in nature. So he wasn't insincere, but it didn't take a whole lot of opposition for him to surrender and focus on other things.

Sean Illing

Obama’s sincerity aside, part of the problem, as you point out in the book, is that we’re now constantly at war, and so the distinction between wartime and peace is practically meaningless.

Rosa Brooks

I would like to think there is still a distinction. To say there is a lot of gray isn't the same as saying there's no such thing as black or white. But I also think we’re moving in a direction in which we’re going to find ourselves in the gray area more often than we find ourselves in the black or the white. We're going to find ourselves in areas where you could argue that it's not war and you could argue that it is.

As long as we're stuck with this binary set of legal categories in which we’re either at war or not, we’re going to have destabilizing legal implications. In an ideal world, we would have rules that reflect our nonbinary realities, but that’s not what we have at the moment.

Sean Illing

I don’t see a way out of the gray. The war on terror, by definition, is both unwinnable and never-ending.

Rosa Brooks

That's absolutely right. You hear Trump, for example, running around saying that we used to win wars and now we don’t win wars anymore. But if you define everything as war — including things that don't make any particular sense to define as war, like a war on terror, which is no more winnable than a war on crime — this is the attitude you get.

Sean Illing

You seem hesitant to say it, so I’ll just ask a pointed question: What are we trying to accomplish with this war on terror? Is it about propping up a military-security complex, as you describe it, or is it about making the country safer?

At the very least, it seems our incentives our misaligned.

Rosa Brooks

I think we're trying to make the country safer, but in a very dimwitted way. I don't think it's simply the sinister greed of the military-security complex that’s driving everything, though that’s obviously a factor. I think we’ve got ourselves in a trap, particularly in the Middle East, where we’ve created this monster and now we're flailing around trying to kill it and it's unkillable. It's hydra-headed by its very nature.

Politically, it's been unpalatable for three presidents in a row to admit that we can’t solve every problem. We can manage the risk of terrorism, and that’s all we can do. But no one wants to say that, so we've had successive administrations doing just enough to be able to say that we're doing something without actually having to take the significant kinds of risks involved with doing something more lasting.

Author Rosa Brooks.
Jody McKitrick

Sean Illing

Is our government perpetually exaggerating the threat of terror in order to justify its war on terror?

Rosa Brooks

Well, that’s not quite what I’ve said, but I believe that’s the case.

Sean Illing

What’s the price we pay for allowing the war on terror to blur the boundaries in this way?

Rosa Brooks

Well, we're already paying it in a sense. I think Donald Trump is part of that price. If we scare everybody badly enough and long enough, then they start accepting things they would have previously never considered as acceptable. The percentage of people who think we need these Trump executive orders is kind of scary to me, given how manifestly unrelated to any actual threat they are.

I have a short section in the book about the trickle-down effect, the subtle ways in which we see policies and procedures for national security filtering down into ordinary laws and ordinary life. In the name of terrorism, you can't get information about your local water supply and where it comes from and how it works. I understand the national security issue, but what ends up being worse for society: the minuscule risk that a terrorist puts some kind of evil toxin in the water supply, or the actual crisis in Flint, Michigan?

And when you consider how the policies and practices designed to protect classified information have been regularized in criminal cases and civil cases that have nothing to do with national security, and how we’ve been habituated to lower levels of transparency and higher levels of secrecy, which amounts to less accountability in government, I think the ultimate price we pay won’t be fully understood for decades.

But it will be high.

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