War is monstrous, amorphous, but Brooks doesn’t seek to condemn the military with this fascinating study, and occasionally her impartiality feels problematic.
It is difficult to avoid thinking about norms at this moment in our history. The disintegration of the tenets so many people believed governed this country is an unsettling sensation akin to that lack of gravity before the drop of a rollercoaster. There is a perverse pleasure in that strange prelude before the terror comes because we believe things will return to normal. But they haven’t for a long time. In How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything Rosa Brooks calls into question this idea of when the norms we so carefully constructed began to erode.
The tendency is to place that date at November 2016, but that is incorrect. Brooks contends that American societal norms began to transform when the military became tasked with duties beyond keeping the peace and waging war. Like a well-trained lawyer, she lays out a compelling case for her argument and delivers a gut punch of a closing statement: The military is everything and it may be too late to change that reality.
Brooks denies that her book is a memoir, but it exhibits certain characteristics of that form. She has a unique vantage of the subject because, as the daughter of antiwar activists. contact with the military has informed her whole life. Her mother is Barbra Ehrenreich, a self-professed “veteran muckraker” and author of Nickel and Dimed, the bestselling exposé about the effects of the Welfare Act of 1996 on low-income workers. A childhood spent at her parents’ side led to Yale Law School and a stint at Human Rights Watch. Advocacy work with NGOs like The Open Society eventually led to government work. From 2009 to 2011, she served in the Obama administration as Counselor to Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy, a role that would introduce her to her husband, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Special Forces.
Very few people have the life experience to see the evolution of the military from a distrusted institution after Vietnam to the lone well-funded bureaucracy within the federal government. The military has only seen its budgets grow since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Even the financial crisis of 2008 failed to hinder military spending. The cost of this chunk of the budgetary pie chart comes at the expense of every civilian sector of government, where budgets are slashed or remain stagnant. State and other agencies are being made obsolete as the military absorbs more and more of their roles and objectives. Problems arise because while the military becomes more of a multifaceted institution it has yet to develop the expertise necessary to perform these new roles effectively. For instance, a diplomat stationed in an Afghan province might understand that if you pay the local gentry to build a bridge, they will likely destroy that bridge when you leave so the next envoy will pay them to build the bridge again. The diplomat will take measures to make sure only one bridge is built, yet according to Brooks, the military has paid for many redundant bridges.
The US military has been moving away from its original purposes since the end of the first Gulf War, when it easily decimated Saddam Hussein’s army, then the fifth-largest in the world. The ‘90s were mostly spent on so-called peacekeeping missions in places like the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Military leadership bristled at the new responsibility of being the police force for the world. That role would only expand after 9/11.
Brooks explains that the differences between wartime and peacetime were until recently quite distinct. Nation states made declarations of war dressed in specific uniforms and fought on designated battlefields. That is no longer the case. The United States has been at war for nearly 17 years, and while countries have been invaded, the declaration of war is against a tactic: Terror. In a war against a nation there is an expectation of an ending. The War on Terror is a forever war where the legal norms of peacetime are blurred, making unpalatable policies like torture, the suspension of civil liberties and drone strikes arguably permissible. Our armed forces continue to expand the theoretical battlefield across the Middle East and Africa through conventional troops, military advisors and drone strikes. But that, according to Brooks, is the nature of war: “It abhors a vacuum. It expands until everything and everyone is subsumed by it. It resists all efforts at categorization or containment. We keep trying to lock it into a box, but war keeps breaking out again.”
War is monstrous, amorphous, but Brooks doesn’t seek to condemn the military with this fascinating study, and occasionally her impartiality feels problematic. With the legalistic rigor of her profession, she lays out the causes and effects of the recent decisions that have brought us to this dangerous moment. There is weariness and dread in her epistemology, but she makes the case for agency. We have militarized our country, destabilized the world and made it more dangerous than we can even imagine. But it does not have to be like this. Nothing is divinely scripted. A collective will created this world, and a collective will can change it. The norms we took for granted are crumbling, but we can make something new and more vital in its place. It will take imagination and courage, but as Brooks says, “It’s never too late to be brave.”