How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon

  • Published


How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon by Rosa Brooks. Simon & Schuster, 2016, 334 pp.


The military’s reach beyond conventional military issues is a topic that has received significant media attention during the Trump administration’s short tenure. Other than secretary of state, generals currently hold the most powerful offices in the executive branch: secretary of defense, national security advisor, and chief of staff. Accordingly, Rosa Brooks’ 2016 book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon, is especially relevant. The Georgetown law professor and former undersecretary of defense for policy persuasively argues that the dichotomy between war and peace is an anachronism. This outdated perspective and the breakneck speed of technology are some of the driving forces behind the military’s rise into fields historically reserved for their civilian counterparts. However, in spite of the salience of this topic, Brooks attempts to tackle too many issues, resulting in some poorly constructed arguments. Last, the book only devotes a handful of pages to possible solutions. Despite these pressing issues, the general reader will find this book to be inherently approachable and digestible.

Her work is part memoir and part academic treatise that covers history, philosophy, law, and anthropology. It touches on such heady authors as Carl von Clausewitz, Charley Tilly, Samuel Huntington, and Friedrich Hegel. In a briskly paced 400-page book, Brooks dissects the current issues affecting America’s national security apparatus and provides a glimpse of the Department of Defense, an anthropological overview of war and peace, the ill effects of our current predicament, and a short section on possible solutions. If this seems too ambitious, it is. Brooks does make valid points. In fact, she makes an abundance of them. As an academic reared by antiwar activists, she provides an excellent outsider’s view of the Department of Defense (DOD) that allows her to highlight glaring issues. For example, she rightly skewers the over-classification of intelligence, astutely pointing out that if nearly a million Americans have top secret clearances, then how sensitive can this information truly be?

However, Brooks tackles so many issues that readers will understandably feel whiplash. She tackles drone strikes, sovereignty, future warfare, talent management in the military, state formation—and this is just a partial list. Her overzealousness, unfortunately, leads to some rather weak arguments. For example, Brooks opines that placing more faith in robotics is nearly foolproof, because “they don’t get mad, they don’t get scared, and they don’t act out of sentimentality” (p. 137). There are too many rejoinders to list here. However, it is ironic that Brooks praises the potential of such technology and yet 50 pages later spends a chapter dissecting the illegality of our current drone policy. Even her dissection of civ-mil relations is fraught with peril. Although she does solid work dissecting civ-mil relations inside the government, she shockingly dismisses the problem between the general public and the military as merely, “media fodder . . . there is little evidence that they cause actual harm” (p. 307). However, this gap is a prevalent complaint from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans whose postwar issues are amplified because they often feel like strangers in their own land. In fact, Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging singles out this point as one of the most significant hurdles for returning veterans. It is these types of surprising missives that nearly derail an otherwise enjoyable book.

Brooks does an excellent job of defending her thesis. She persuasively argues that the fluidity between war and peace has increased and that our institutions, laws, and procedures are incapable of keeping pace. As Brooks points out, much of this has to do with the speed of technological change that is only growing faster by the nanosecond. These changes are too much for a government that often struggles at passing an annual budget, let alone tackling needed reforms. Despite the validity of her argument, her solutions are not overly inspiring. In essence, Brooks urges policy makers to abandon old paradigms, institutions, and definitions and embrace the current intersection between war and peace. But she never gets around to explaining how to accomplish such an enormous endeavor. It is similar to the ubiquitous calls for the Afghan government to effectively tackle corruption or calls for an Israeli prime minister to sideline their irredentist settlers. Both are perfectly valid solutions to intractable problems; however, there are profound structural reasons for their elusiveness. The same holds true for Brooks’ solutions. Perhaps if the book had devoted more space to solutions, she could more thoroughly describe how to obtain them.

Despite an abundance of issues, this book is a brisk read and does not smack of the academic verbosity that often plagues similar efforts. In fact, it is perfectly suited for the general public who does not have a deep understanding of national security issues. Military and foreign policy professionals, however, will find many of these arguments familiar but may feel frustrated that the solutions are not more palpable.


                                                                        Maj William Selber, USAF

                                                                        Osan AB

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."