‘We Have No Idea What War Is’

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Media Outlet: the Atlantic

Rosa Brooks' new book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, was covered in the Atlantic

Just days after I interviewed the legal scholar Rosa Brooks about her book on her time as a civilian advisor in President Barack Obama’s Pentagon, the United States bombed Libya again. This was the third such strike in the U.S. campaign against ISIS there, but this time, Reuters reported, U.S. officials said it “marked the start of a sustained air campaign.”
Still, it was hard to tell how much of a turning point it really was. Small numbers of American special-operations forces have been active in the country since late last year, ostensibly to support local partners against ISIS, though details are vague. By launching more airstrikes at the beginning of August, America was not so much opening up a new front in its war on the group as maintaining an existing one. And it wasn’t so much changing tactics as amplifying them. Did this mean that the United States somehow became more “at war” in Libya last week than it had been the week before? For that matter, as U.S. planes have accelerated their bombing campaign against militants in Afghanistan this summer, and President  Obama has vowed to leave some 8,000 troops there through the end of his term, is the United States any less “at war” there than when U.S. combat operations in the country officially ended in December 2014? What about  in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, where U.S. drones have killed thousands of people outside of what the government considers “areas of active hostilities”?
Brooks’s new book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, is about the limits of categories like these, just as much as it’s about war and the American military. Brooks, a writer and law professor at Georgetown University, bases her account in part on her two-plus years at the Defense Department, where she observed the blurring of the line, in her words, “between war and not-war.” The Pentagon, she writes, is on the one hand a “vast, bureaucratic, death-dealing enterprise;” on the other, the U.S. military operates in “nearly every country on earth” and in many cases its activities have nothing to do with shooting at bad guys. Its personnel, she notes, have been involved in everything from Ebola response in Liberia to agricultural reform in Afghanistan to health care in Malaysia. The range of their work is as remarkable as it is unsettling. If the U.S. military’s job is to protect America’s own security, why is it doing all of these things?


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Rosa Brooks is an ASU Future of War senior fellow at New America, working with the International Security program and the ASU Future of War project. She writes about the changing nature of warfare, the changing role of the U.S. military, and need to rethink core assumptions about the laws of war.