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Rosa Brooks on How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything

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The US military didn’t shrink much under President Obama, and our perpetual state of war has barely waned since 9-11. Author Rosa Brooks says the consequences of this ‘new normal’ reach deep into our society; far beyond the body count of those killed overseas.

On this edition, Rosa Brooks speaks about her new book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.

Special thanks to Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington DC


  • Rosa Brooks, author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.
  • Host: Andrew Stelzer


Episode Transcript

  • Hi, Jasmine Lopez, here. If you like what you’re hearing, you can donate to us by going to and click on the big Donate button. And don’t forget to rate us on iTunes, which helps other listeners find us. Thanks, and here’s the show.


  • I’m Andrew Stelzer, and this is Making Contact.
  • If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If your only functioning government institution is the military, then everything starts looking like a war.

  • The US military didn’t shrink much under President Obama, and our perpetual state of war has barely waned since 9/11. Author Rosa Brooks says the consequences of this new normal reach deep into our society, far beyond the body count of those killed overseas.

  • If we frame something in terms of war, we expect violence. We expect coercion. We expect the government to keep secrets– they have to. We don’t expect a degree of accountability that we would take for granted in time of peace.

  • This week on Making Contact, Rosa Brooks speaks about her new book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.

  • I thought I would start by trying to give you a sense of the issues the book talks about by telling you a story. I have my mother here– I always bring my mother with me to events. Just in case I get upset, and I need moral support. So my mother, Barbara Ehrenreich, is over here– sitting in this chair.

And when I was working at the Pentagon– at a certain point when I’d been there for a few months, I said, mom, why don’t you come in and have lunch with me? Come visit me at the Pentagon, I’ll take you to lunch. And she said, OK. She hadn’t really been– I don’t think you’d ever been inside the Pentagon before?

So mom took the Metro, and I met her at the Metro entrance. And I got her through security– which, of course, is difficult to start with. You’ve got to wait in lots of lines and present multiple forms of identification. And we came up the escalator, and we went past the guards, and so forth. And we went past the chocolate shop, where you can buy little chocolate-shaped fighter planes.

And we went past the florist. And we went past the CVS. And we went past the ATMs. We went past the Best Buy, which was there at the time. And we went past the food court.

And suddenly, mom stopped– she just stopped. I was trying to bring her onto the restaurant we were going to eat. And she just stopped, and she looked around. And she said, you’re telling me that the heart of American military power is a shopping mall?


And yeah, pretty much. The Pentagon has about 23,000 people who work in it– a mixture of military and civilian employees. And over the years, it has sprouted restaurants and stores, eye doctors, and a DMV outpost, and a post office, and a barber, and an athletic shoe store. And it’s turned into one-stop shopping for the 23,000 people who work there– which makes perfect sense. And over time, the US military– it’s also turned into a similar kind of one-stop shopping for American policymakers.

So at the Pentagon today, you can buy a pair of new running shoes, or you can order the US Navy to patrol the Somali Coast, looking for pirates. You can buy some Tylenol at CVS, or you can send a team of Special Forces medics to Chad, to fight malaria. You can buy a new cell phone, or you can, if you’re important enough– I was not, I promise you– you could buy a new cellphone or, you could task the National Security Agency with eavesdropping on the cell phone communications of suspected terrorists.

And you can buy a little tiny fighter jet molded out of chocolate. Or again– if you’re important enough– you can order up a drone strike over Yemen. You name it, the Pentagon, the US Military now supplies it.

And one of my– somebody I admire very much– retired Lieutenant General David Barno once said to me, what’s basically happened is the military has become, like, a super Walmart these days, with everything under one roof. And what we’ve seen is two successive presidential administrations– the Bush administration, the Obama administration– have been pretty eager consumers.

The relentless transformation of the military into the world’s biggest one-stop shopping operation is both a product and a driver of some really seismic changes in how we think about war with implications and challenges both for our laws, and the rule of law itself, and for the military as an institution.

And I think right now– and this is the overall theme of the book– is we’re trapped in a vicious circle. Where as we face novel security threats from novel quarters– cyber threats, bioengineered viruses, threats emanating from non-state terror networks that cross borders, threats that relate to the impact of poverty, political repression, genocide, refugee flows– what’s happened as more and more threats seem to come from these very novel quarters, we have gotten into the habit of viewing all of these new kinds of threats through the lens of war.

And as we view them through the lens of war, we ask the US Military to take on an ever-expanding range of tasks to try to deal with them. But as we view more and more things as war, it brings more and more spheres of human activity into the ambit of the law of war– a completely different legal framework than ordinary peacetime law with much, much greater tolerance of secrecy, lack of accountability, coercion, and lethal force.

Meanwhile, as we ask the military to take on more and more tasks, we need higher military budgets, which forces us to look for savings elsewhere. So we freeze or cut the budgets of civilian agencies such as USAID and the State Department, which hurts civilian diplomacy and development programs. As those budget cuts or freezes cripple the civilian agencies, their capabilities dwindle. Which, in turn, leads us to ask the military to pick up the slack, which further expands its role.

So we get into a situation– everybody knows the old adage, if your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If your only functioning government institution is the military, then everything starts looking like a war. And when everything starts looking like a war, then everything starts looking like a job for the military. And the cycle just goes around and around, again.

Why does this matter? Who cares? Well, for me, I’m a law professor with a background in human rights so one of the things that I spend a lot of my time thinking about is well, what are the implications of all this for rules? For norms? For values? For how we behave to one another? For democracy?

And a lot is at stake. And remember the famous lines from Shakespeare’s Henry V — “in peace, there’s nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility. But when the blast of war blows in our ears then imitate the actions of the tiger, stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood disguise, fair nature with hard-favored rage.” That’s a really fancy way of putting something that’s really quite simple, which is that we have different expectations of how people should behave in wartime than in peacetime.

In peacetime, if you walk out to the street over there and you take the biggest book you can find– nice Art Deco by Norbert Wolf here, which is extremely heavy. And you wait for the next person to walk by and you bash him over the head with this excellent book– probably, we hope, what’s going to happen is the police are going to come. And you’re going to be charged with assault, and you’re going to go off to jail. And if you kill them, you’ll be charged with murder. Because you don’t get to walk around and kill people. And if you tell the police– well, I did it because he was my enemy, then the mental health professionals just get involved.

But if you’re a soldier in a conflict, if you’re in a war and you see your enemy coming along, and you bash him over the head with this book, or you shoot them, or you toss a grenade in their general direction and you kill them– you’re doing what you’re supposed to do. You might even get a medal.

So in its starkest form– if there is a war, if we frame something in terms of war, we expect violence. We expect coercion. We expect the government to keep secrets– they have to. We expect the government not to have a court deciding who gets to be killed and who isn’t killed. We don’t expect a degree of accountability that we would take for granted in time of peace.

And for that reason, almost every human society– going back thousands and thousands of years– has worked really hard to draw sharp lines between war and not war, warriors and civilians. And just to give a few examples– the Navajo and the American Southwest. When warriors set out on raids, they would literally speak a different dialect with different verbs, different nouns.

And when they came back from the raid, they would draw a line in the desert sand. They would face enemy territory. Then they would turn around and face their home territory. Walk over the line, and resume the normal language.

Many other cultures have used war masks, war paint, war sorcery, elaborate rituals to distinguish the worlds of war from the worlds of not war. The Makayo Indians of Papua New Guinea believed that men who were going to embark on raids and war had to follow very strict diets and abstain from sex for a long period of time before wars, as they allowed the war sorcery to close their bodies to protect them from the enemy’s weapons.

When they returned, they had to similarly be sexually abstinent. Because if they forgot and had sexual relations with their wives, the war sorcery would leak into both of their bodies and poison them. The sense that war is literally toxic to ordinary human life.

And we’re actually not that different. Think about Western societies. Think about the elaborate rules relating to the law of armed conflict. Think about our expectation– really, until quite recently, until the last few decades– that war should be declared, which is an archaic idea. I declare war– a speech act changes something from one thing to another. That wars would take place on geographically demarcated battlefields between the elaborately uniformed soldiers of hierarchically organized state militaries.

Even today, we have elaborate rituals to separate soldiers from civilians. When we have new recruits, they go to boot camp. Their hair is shorn. They become, literally, uniformed. They learn a different dialect. We reward our soldiers with bits of colored ribbon that they wear upon their chests and bits of metal that has symbolic meaning within that culture, but not necessarily outside of that culture.

And we– just like so many human tribes before us– we name our weapons and our military vehicles after fearsome totem animals. And we can call them the predator, the reaper, the black hawk, the falcon. As if we, too, hope that in war time, our soldiers will take on the attributes of the predatory attributes that in peacetime, we don’t want.

And despite all the changes that have been ushered in the post 9/11 era, most of us still view war as this distinct thing. We have a separate box called war. We have war, and we have warriors. And we don’t want war or the culture and values of the warrior to intrude into our everyday world of offices, and soccer games, and shopping malls.

And we relegate war to the military– a distinct social institution. That, at the very same time, we admire. We lionize. And we prefer to completely ignore.


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Now back to more of Rosa Brooks, speaking about her new book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. She spoke at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington DC, in August 2016.

  • We like to think that war is an exception. Peace is the norm, war is the exception. But the trouble is that in today’s world, with all these threats that don’t fit neatly into a box called war and a box called peace– it’s getting harder and harder to neatly say, oh, war is here. Peace is here. They don’t meet. Wars begin, wars end.

And you all know this. I’m not saying anything that people don’t know in the post 9/11 era. When we’ve got cyber threats. When we’ve got transnational terror networks of loosely connected individuals. When we have financial threats when we have bioengineered threats. All of our old categories that our law depends on start becoming almost useless.

So think about this– in a cyber war, a war against terrorism, you can’t have any boundaries in time or space. You can’t say well, France is involved in the war, and Switzerland is neutral. Those categories just don’t make any sense anymore. We don’t know where the battlefield is on a map. We don’t know when a war on terror or a cyber war could begin and end.

We don’t know what counts as a weapon. A truck driven into a crowd in Nice? A hijacked passenger plane? A line of computer code?

We don’t know what the enemy is anymore. Who is the enemy in the war on Al-Qaida and its associated forces that morphs, and morphs, and morphs until we’re dropping bombs on somebody in Syria. Bodies are being broken, properties being destroyed. Things are falling apart, but it’s very hard to articulate exactly who the enemy is.

And we’ve also lost any coherent basis for distinguishing between combatants and civilians. Somebody who doesn’t wear a uniform, who is a terrorist planner financier. How do we draw the line between someone who’s a combatant and someone who’s a civilian? Always been a problem in conflicts, but now the exceptions are beginning to overwhelm the norms.

The trouble is, of course– going back to Henry V– when there is a war, the law of war applies. We lawyers call lex specialis– fancy Latin way for saying special law, as opposed to the lex generalis– the general law. The law of war applies when there a war. It doesn’t apply when there’s not a war.

The law of war permits you to kill people who are your enemy without due process without getting prosecuted later. Peacetime law– lex generalis does not. Peacetime law emphasizes individual rights, accountability, and so forth. And when we can’t tell the difference anymore– when we can’t figure out what’s a war and what’s not a war. What’s a weapon, what’s not a weapon? Where’s the battlefield, where’s the battlefield not existing? Who is a combatant, who is a civilian– when we can’t figure out how to draw those distinctions in a principled way, we lose any coherent basis for making, frankly, the most vital decisions a democracy can possibly make.

We lose any ability to make principled distinctions between what should be subject to judicial review and what doesn’t need to be subject to it? What should be secret, what doesn’t have to be secret? Who can be imprisoned for how long, why? Who can be surveilled and monitored? Who shouldn’t be?

When, where, and against whom can lethal force be used? Should we consider things like US drone strikes in Yemen or Somalia lawful wartime targeting of enemy combatants? Or simple murders? It makes all the difference which box we put things in.

If it’s in the war box– no problem. If it’s not in the war box– whoa, murder. And we really want to know the difference. We really want to be on the right side of that line. And when we expand what we label war, it gets harder and harder to have any consensus– domestically or internationally– about what war is.

It also has institutional implications for the military. It becomes harder and harder to make any kind of coherent decision about who should do what. When should something be a military task? When should it be civilian task? And today, we have military personnel deployed in almost every country on Earth. And they do nearly every job on Earth.

Some of them do exactly what we think of when we think of World War II movies. We have people who are out there in danger. Crawling around in the dirt, shooting at people, and getting shot at. We also have military personnel who are engaged in agricultural reform projects.

They plan airstrikes. They plan microenterprise programs for Afghan women. They vaccinate cows. They train parliamentarians. They monitor global email communications. They try to develop programs to prevent human trafficking in the Pacific. You name it, they’re doing it.

This was mind-blowing for me when I was at the Pentagon and just realizing the incredible scope. And it was both really inspiring and kind of disturbing. You pick a topic, pick an issue and there is someone part of the Defense Department, somewhere who is working on it. They’re doing research. They’re trying to create a program. And it’s quite amazing.

Retired Major General Paul Eaton was telling me a story of being in Afghanistan– for instance– and realizing– to somewhat oversimplify his story– that if we were going to have any kind of lasting stability in Afghanistan, that the agricultural sector needed to be reformed. And Afghans needed to have alternatives to growing opium poppies.

And so he, essentially, calls up the Department of Agriculture here in Washington. He says, Hi, I’m an Army general. I’m here in Afghanistan. We can kill a lot of Taliban, but we don’t think this is going to work unless we can get some people here to help the Afghans diversify the agricultural sector. So could you please send some agriculture experts out here to help us and to help the Afghans?

And, of course, the Department of Agriculture goes, we have two people, and they’re really busy, and they don’t want to go to Afghanistan. And so the Army, essentially, says uh-oh. Here we are. We’d like the civilians to come help us, they don’t seem to be able to.

And so they look around through the military databases and they find a whole lot of Army Reservists who are farmers or work for agricultural companies. And they call them up and they get them to Afghanistan– which, when you think about it, is both depressing and amazing. What other American institution has the ability to mobilize so much talent so quickly and move them to the other ends of the Earth to do something? Nothing– we don’t have anything else that can do that.

Are these the right people? Not necessarily. Some of these poor guys are, like, I have a garden. I don’t know how I can help the Afghans. But nevertheless– I remember when I was in law school, I briefly, in a delusional moment, thought I would go into a career in management consulting. And I had a job interview with McKinsey– big management consulting company. And they liked to put you through all these elaborate interviews where they posed hypothetical problems to you.

And the interviewer said to me– imagine that you run a tiny, little, family-owned general store and business is going great. But then one day, Walmart announces that they’re opening up a store a block away from you. What do you do?

And I went, oh, well. It’s all over. I roll over and die. I give up. Never mind, I’m going to go find another career. And that, obviously, was not the right answer.

I was supposed to say something, like, well, I’m going to start serving soy lattes. And emphasizing my links to the community and the incredible artisanal things I can do. And create a niche. But we all know that, in a sense, my first answer was probably the honest one. When Walmart shows up, all the little mom and pop stores do, pretty much, roll over and die. They get squeezed out.

And like Walmart, today’s military can marshal incredible resources. And can exploit economies of scale in ways that are just impossible for little mom and pop shops. And like Walmart, the incredibly tempting one-stop shopping convenience that the military offers policymakers has a pretty devastating effect on smaller, more traditional enterprises.

And in this context, of course, the mom and pop enterprises, unfortunately, are the US Department of State, US Agency for International Development, and so forth– other US civilian foreign policy agencies. Which are steadily shrinking into irrelevance in our ever more, militarized world.

The Pentagon isn’t necessarily any better at promoting agricultural reform than USAID. And many would argue that it’s usually, a whole lot worse. But unlike civilian agencies, the military has the ability to get lots of people somewhere very unpleasant, who are willing to work insane hours in terrible conditions. And it’s open 24/7.

So nobody likes Walmart. We all hate– yuck. We like bookstores like this, we don’t like Walmart. And there are lots of good reasons for that.

We don’t like the cheap goods. We don’t like its ubiquity. We don’t like the oppression that we suspect is at the heart of the enterprise.

Most of the time, we don’t want to see Walmart. We want to zone it off on some Route One somewhere and put it with all the other big box stores, where we don’t have to have it interfering with our adorable little boutiques downtown.

But much as we resent Walmart– probably, most of us, every now and then we find ourselves going there because you need something. You don’t want to go to five little stores, you just want one-stop shopping. And so you go anyway. It’s hard to live without it.

And as the US Military struggles to define its own role and mission, it evokes similarly contradictory emotions in the civilian population. Civilian government officials want a military that costs less, but can provide more. A military that will stay deferentially out of strategy discussions. Or we leave that to you, civilians– you’re in charge of that. But will be eternally available to the ride to the rescue.

We want a military that will take care of this ever-expanding list of tasks and our ever-expanding wars. But will never ask us to face any of the difficult, moral, or legal questions that are created by the blurring boundaries between war and peace.

We want a military that can solve every global problem, but is content to stay away from the rest of us, safely quarantined on bases behind guard posts and barbed wire. Separated from the civilian population by anachronistic rituals and acres of cultural misunderstanding.

And indeed, even as the boundaries around war have blurred and the military’s activities have expanded– nevertheless, at the very same time, the US Military as a human institution has grown ever more sharply delineated from the society it is charged with protecting. Leaving fewer and fewer civilians with the knowledge and confidence to raise questions about how we define war. Or about how the military operates. Or about how big its budget should be, how we should structure it, and so forth.

I think that these are issues– it’s interesting. When I talk about these issues to military audiences, I actually often get much more head nods than when I talk about these issues with civilian audiences– which is fascinating to me. I think that these are a cluster of issues that are, obviously, fairly urgent. If you’re in there being told, hey go fight terrorism, and fix Iraq’s economy, and fight malaria, but– oh, by the way– we’re not going to train you to do it that way. And everybody’s going to be mad at you when you screw it up. Obviously, resonates substantially with a lot of people.

So here’s where I sometimes part company from some of my friends. It is, sort of, a truism in Washington– we all run around saying, oh, we need to reinvigorate the civilian sector. And I sometimes ask people, how likely do you think it is that this is going to happen in our political lifetimes? That Congress is going to say, oh, what a terrible mistake. Let’s quadruple the budgets of the civilian and foreign affairs budget and so forth?

And they all say, well, not at all likely. It’s not going to happen. It seems to me, at a certain point– if it’s not going to happen, if it’s just not going to happen, let’s stop running around saying, that really ought to happen. Because it won’t. And let’s figure out what’s the next best option.

And it seems to me– as I said before– you can see what’s happened as the militarization of US foreign policy. Or you could see it as the civilianization of the military. It seems to me that if the reality is that the nature of American politics is that we’re going to continue to throw money at the military and ask the military to take on all these tasks– then let’s make sure the military can do them well.

And that has enormous implications for everything from how we recruit. How we train. Who we recruit. The personnel system, the acquisition system.

And I got myself in some hot water a few years ago, by writing a tongue in cheek column for foreign policy in which I said– if we want our military to be doing economic development programs, and governance, and microenterprise, and so forth, we ought to start recruiting at the AARP conferences. And everybody said well, that’s crazy. You can’t say that.

And I was only, partly joking. That we still recruit and train for, kind of, a 19th century military. We primarily recruit 18 to 22-year-old boys. And there is nothing wrong with 18 to 22-year-old boys, there are many wonderful 18 to 22-year-old boys. But if what you want, in part, your military to do is microenterprise programs for Afghan women– it’s not obvious that that’s your target demographic to recruit.

But it’s really hard to change these things. That you might want to have a military with radically different rules for how you promote, how you retain people. Much more ability for people to go in and out of the civilian sector, and come back in without sacrificing any forward mobility in their own careers.

So I actually think that the other way to fix the problem is to say if the military is going to do it, let’s think about how we would need to transform the military itself. As I said, it’s this amazing institution. Lots of incredibly idealistic, really talented people who will go anywhere. And not say, I don’t feel like going to Iraq. They’ll just go, and they’ll do it.

Let’s take that amazing institution and help figure out how to make it better. How to bring in the expertise that’s not there right now. Most military leaders don’t particularly want to be presiding over Walmart. I think, a lot of military leaders are fearful that in the end, not only does the expansion of war and the expansion of the military’s role cause legal and moral conundrums. But that in the end, it can be dangerous for the military itself. That the military, under constant pressure to be all things to all people, might eventually end up being able to offer little of enduring value to anybody.

And I think of it as Walmart, after the Black Friday sale– stripped almost bare by a greedy society that wants what it has. And all you’re left with is demoralized employees and some shoddy mass produced stuff strewn about in the aisles. And nobody wants the military to end up like that.

And I think we’re done. So thank you all very much.



  • And that’s it for this edition of Making Contact. Rosa Brooks spoke about her book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything in August 2016. A special thanks to Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington DC, where she gave that talk.

Lisa Rudman is our executive director. Monica Lopez, Marie Choi, and RJ Lozada are producers. Juan Boothe is our digital content and community engagement manager.

To download a copy of the show or get our podcast, go to I’m Andrew Stelzer. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.


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