2017-03-20

Book Review: "How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything" by Rosa Brooks

I've recently read How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything by Rosa Brooks. It's a moderately long book about the institutional culture of the military, the historical and present perceptions of the military and its relationship with peacetime society, the evolving notions of war & peace, and the issues facing the military in today's domestic politics and international uncertainty. The thesis of the book is that while societies have historically tried to neatly separate war & peace spatially as well as temporally, such a dichotomy is rarely clear in practice, and the state of low-grade perpetual war in which the US is currently engaged, especially with regard to the adversaries we face, is in many ways surprisingly similar to the history of wars before the emergence of well-defined nation-states in Europe; moreover, issues like mission creep and a shifting political & financial emphasis away from civilian foreign engagement toward military engagement, in conjunction with adversaries having access to technologies and the fruits of globalization that allow them to attack the US from afar with unprecedented ease, has caused the military to take on roles for which it was not built (in the form in which it exists now), further blurring the lines between civilian versus military roles and war versus peace.

I really enjoyed reading this book overall. Although it's a little longer, the writing is clear and accessible, and the stories & anecdotes interwoven with more formal reports & studies make the progression of the book engaging. Additionally, I feel like the author's background of having grown up in an anti-war family and still retaining a somewhat skeptical eye with respect to military action/growth while also having worked in the Pentagon and in similar roles at other institutions for as long as she did lends her credibility when discussing the subtleties & nuances of the US military, its foreign policy, and its institutional culture. Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in current US affairs; follow the jump to see a few other thoughts about this book.

At one point, the author introduces the philosophical distinction between rule of law versus rule of force. As far as I can tell, this is the notion that rule can be enforced either through laws or through the use of brute military force. However, the distinction isn't made so clear. I've seen libertarian arguments that the state enforces laws by virtue of having a monopoly on the use of force, and that any attempt to make people obey the laws of a state in a manner that is at all involuntary is inherently coercive. The book pushes against that argument, claiming that this line of thinking is now outmoded in the circles of political & military theory, but it doesn't clearly explain the reasoning for that.

The author discusses future war technologies in the context of individualized killing technologies that can be brought in line with individual rights, due process, and civilian policing, including bioweapons that can target specific people (akin to state-of-the-art individualized cancer treatments), precision targeting by fully autonomous machines augmented by machine learning algorithms, and deliberately nonlethal targeted weaponry; she further argues that robots would still be preferable to humans by listing all of the horrible developments in warfare and cruelty perpetrated by humans. However, this doesn't entirely get past the contention that human emotions/psychology could allow a human but not a robot to spare another human's life out of pity/compassion. Moreover, the author's argument boils down to statistics about the efficacy of machines in minimizing collateral damage, yet this is less convincing in light of other parts of the book that discuss how legal frameworks surrounding acceptable versus unacceptable conduct in warfare do not often hinge on a strict utilitarian calculus. Additionally, her contention of individualized killing being brought in line with individual rights, due process, and campus policing seems to gloss over the fact that general violent crimes are committed to bring about localized effects, whereas acts of terrorism/warfare are meant to disrupt society more broadly as a means to a much larger end.

The author outlines the notion of regionally-aligned forces as the new direction of the Army, which is stationing small units throughout the world to partner with and strengthen countries' militaries and national & local governments, but it isn't clear why civilian officers & NGOs can't do the same to effectively provide basic services, et cetera. Additionally, it isn't clear how an extended military presence in another country (distinct from joint military exercises between, say, the US and the UK) isn't colonialism-lite. The author deliberately leaves both of these issues unresolved, as these are hard questions without easy answers.

The only other thing I would have liked to see is a bit more discussion of the history and evolution of military institutions, especially as they relate to the military-industrial-university complex (which would necessitate consideration of the evolution of industrial & academic institutions and their relationship with the state).

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