How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.

Author:Pearlstein, Deborah
Position:Book review
 
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How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. By Rosa Brooks. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016. Pp. viii, 438. Index. $29.95.

How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon by Rosa Brooks, a professor of law at Georgetown Law, is perhaps most easily understood as two separate books, each one both analytical and autobiographical in nature. The first book, How the Military Became Everything, is a specifically American tale about the vast U.S. Department of Defense, whose outsized role today, Brooks recounts, is the product of decades worth of unmatched military spending; vested bureaucracy; abiding popular admiration for the military; cuts in government spending on alternative programs (at the Department of State, for example); and an embrace of counterinsurgency doctrine focused not just on killing enemies, but on winning "hearts and minds." The tale of how the Pentagon's role expanded far beyond basic warfighting has been recounted more than once in the contemporary literature. (1) But it is a tale engagingly told here, and no less true for the retelling.

The second book, How Everything Became War, traffics, sometimes interchangeably, in U.S. and international literature, history, anthropology, politics and law, and, at its most ambitious, aims to describe how it is we have arrived at "our current state of unbounded war" (p. 25). Indeed, there can be little doubt that the United States has embraced the instrument of military power wholeheartedly in its post-September 11 counterterrorism operations. To pick one of the most dramatic examples, the U.S. government reports having killed nearly 2,600 people in countries other than Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria since 2009 through the use of armed drones. (2) As the book recounts, these and other U.S. operations have been justified with the legal theory that international law supports (or at least tolerates) the recognition of a singular armed conflict between a state and a shifting, at times loosely connected and internally fighting, set of nonstate groups--a conflict not confined by geographic or apparent temporal borders, but one in which killing is, broadly speaking, allowed.

The bureaucracy book is at one point nominally stitched to the unbounded war book on the back of the maxim that when one has the world's biggest hammer (the U.S. military), one is inclined to see every problem as a nail (susceptible to correction by military methods) (p. 21). Were this the book's primary thesis, one might expect an argument to the effect that one reason the United States has been so inclined to use military force against transnational terrorism is that the tool is vast and available to be used. But Brooks is mostly not interested in demonstrating that this is the only, or even especially important, reason why the United States has embraced the theory and practice of military force it has. Neither does the book much engage in assessing the tactical or strategic wisdom of U.S. counterterrorism policy in this respect. Rather, Brooks's primary claim is essentially descriptive in nature: global technological, political, and legal changes in the past fifty years have collapsed all meaningful distinction between "war" and "peace" writ large. Under these circumstances, Brooks argues, continued insistence on the application of international legal rules based on the vitality of such a distinction only undermines "our ability to place meaningful constraints on violence and power" (p. 24).

The most significant legal implications of such a conclusion are of course for the vast and elaborately developed body of international law currently governing the conduct of any number of wars involving both state and nonstate actors around the world. The application of the law of armed conflict (LOAC), also called international humanitarian law or the law of war, turns centrally on the expectation that it is legally possible (and normatively wise) to distinguish between circumstances amounting to "armed conflict," to which one set of rules applies, and circumstances that do not. Among the differences between the rules, in circumstances of armed conflict, one side can lethally target fighters on the other side, by dint of mere membership in the enemy organization, as a first resort. There need be no separate assertion of self-defense in each instance, and no general obligation to pursue, for example, capture rather than killing wherever possible. Outside armed conflict, under otherwise applicable domestic and international human rights laws, status-based, first-resort killing is against the law. (3) Brooks's central legal argument is that insisting on the maintenance of a distinction between what is armed conflict, and what is not, in order to establish when this kind of killing is lawful is no longer either possible or wise (e.g., p. 351). Given the singular importance of this aspect of Brooks's book, the remainder of this review is devoted to setting forth and evaluating its basis.

Brooks's case about the increasingly diffuse nature of war begins with an assessment of its participants and weaponry, describing phenomena that transcend America's particular post-9/11 war against Al Qaeda and its associates: the global weaponization of cyberspace; the proliferation of drone technology; and the rapidly developing fields of autonomous, bioengineered, and non-lethal weaponry. Such technologies, and the growing range of individuals capable of deploying many of them, threaten traditional conceptions of war writ large as happening between soldiers and in a particular battlespace (p. 141). On top of these changes comes the past fifteen years of U.S. military operations, including a "war" against Al Qaeda and its allies, fought all over the world against non-uniformed fighters. In this conflict, Brooks maintains, it has been difficult even to "define the enemy" amidst "numerous other networks and movements, loosely knit, nonhierarchical, geographically dispersed, and diverse in size, structure, methods and aims" (p. 278). Acknowledging President Obama's pre-Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) belief (shared by his then-General Counsel to the Department of Defense) that even this post-9/11 war would one day end, (4) Brooks is unpersuaded: "[H]ow do we end a nonterritorial armed conflict against an ill-defined, amorphous, protean enemy, with no leaders authorized to speak on its behalf, no set membership, and only the vaguest of goals?" (p. 279). Brooks cannot imagine an American political leader who will ever end this. In Brooks's view, this state of affairs is with us forever.

It is a state of affairs Brooks sees carrying with it multiple problems. Domestically, the "blurring" of war and peace has seen the seepage of war tools into traditionally civilian realms of U.S. life--from the increasing militarization of domestic police (p. 298), to intensified scrutiny of immigrants and foreign nationals (p. 302), to a vast expansion in electronic communications surveillance (p. 304). But the far greater problem for America and the rest of the world, the book suggests, is one of law. The legal reasoning the United States has relied on post-9/11 to justify irs use of military force in more than a half-dozen different countries around the world has been "a sustained challenge to the generally accepted meaning of core legal concepts including 'self-defense,' 'armed attack,' 'imminence,' 'necessity,' 'proportionality,' 'combatant,' 'civilian,' and 'hostilities'" (p. 284). Above all, in this respect, has been the United States' adoption of an unprecedented understanding of the legal term for war--"armed conflict," which the United States has interpreted to justify the extension of LOAC rules to a borderless, transnational conflict between a state and a set of nonstate actors. (While LOAC unquestionably recognizes the existence of conflicts involving nonstate actors, classically in settings like an internal civil war (known as NIACs, or non-international armed conflicts), no country before the United States (or since) has suggested that it is possible to have a NIAC that is global in scope.) Together with the technological developments that have put more and more destructive power in the hands of smaller and smaller numbers of individuals, (5) this definitional manipulation has made it harder than ever to tell, Brooks argues, whether or not a particular situation is appropriately viewed as criminal activity (to which ordinary law applies) or armed hostilities (to which LOAC rules apply). In Brooks's summary of current law, "[i]f we can't tell whether a particular situation counts as war" (p. 22), it is impossible to assess meaningfully when killing is legal and when it is murder (p. 274), when it is reasonable to detain someone without charge (p. 275), or even "if mass government surveillance is reasonable or unjustifiable" (p. 22).

Four of the...

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