A Pentagon Veteran Warns Against the Militarization of American Society

Rosa Brooks, who became a target of death threats after suggesting military could oust Trump, explains to Haaretz why soldiers are doing everything from humanitarian work abroad to patrolling U.S. train stations

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Pentagon officials are emphatic in telling Arab officials that U.S. troop levels in the Mideast have been consistent for many years
Pentagon officials are emphatic in telling Arab officials that U.S. troop levels in the Mideast have been consistent for many yearsCredit: AFP
Taly Krupkin
Taly Krupkin
Taly Krupkin
Taly Krupkin

For years, Rosa Brooks, a senior adviser to Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy under Barack Obama, has watched the effects of 9/11 on the American military, American society and the wider world. Now at Georgetown University, Brooks has published a book lauded by Democrats and Republicans alike for its anthropological insights into the U.S. military and its advice for the challenges ahead.

In “How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything,” she argues that post 9/11 the United States has engaged in a war on terror that might never end as the enemies, borders and goals of military engagement keep shifting with no peace, in the traditional sense of the word, in sight. Meanwhile, the military is expanding to areas previously left to civilian agencies, becoming the only authority the American people trust and support.

In an interview with Haaretz (well before the chemical attack in Syria and President Donald Trump’s airstrike on a Syrian air force base), Brooks talked about the ethical dilemmas created by the blurred lines and the lessons drawn from Israel’s targeted killings. She also suggested that despite Trump’s push for an increased military budget, the new president might face resistance from the military.

“Americans increasingly treat the military as an all-purpose tool for fixing anything that happens to be broken,” Brooks writes. “Terrorists and insurgents in Syria are beheading journalists and aid workers? Afghanistan’s economy is a mess? The Egyptian army needs to be encouraged to respect democracy? An earthquake in Japan has endangered nuclear power plants? Call the military. We want our military busy here at home too, protecting us from cyberattack, patrolling New York’s Grand Central Station, stopping illegal immigration in Arizona, and putting out summer forest fires.”

Meanwhile, the gulf between the military and the American people continues to grow, Brooks says. According to polls, the average American struggles when asked about the military budget, the military’s missions and the number of soldiers it's easier to rely on Hollywood’s depictions of World War II or Vietnam. “I think Americans know roughly as much about the military as they know about the surface of the moon,” she writes.

The Pentagon's budget continues to grow, pushing aside other institutions, while politicians dare not voice unpopular objections. In her book, Brooks says the military is becoming like Walmart a one-stop shop for the American people at the expense of smaller mom-and-pop agencies that might be better suited for certain tasks.

Endangering aid workers

One example is the military’s participation in humanitarian aid, a field previously controlled by apolitical agencies. Soldiers tasked with humanitarian work such as promoting education may not be best suited for the job, and the soldiers’ presence endangers aid workers in war zones, Brooks says. “How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything” was published in the summer, before Trump became president, when it seemed that a Clinton administration might change some of the trends that concern Brooks. A few weeks ago, Trump’s budget revealed heavy cuts to civilian agencies, not to mention humanitarian aid overseas.

“As an author, I felt that it’s horrifying, it’s taking the trends I’m talking about to such an extreme,” she told Haaretz. “It’s almost a parody, the idea of cutting all domestic agencies and putting all the money in military and homeland security. Trump is acting as if the title of the book is a suggestion.”

Two months ago in Foreign Policy magazine, Brooks said the previously unthinkable was a possibility that Trump could be ousted by a military coup. The suggestion has generated waves of criticism from the right, and Brooks has received death threats. Today, well over two months into the Trump presidency, she stands by her prediction.

Rosa Brooks, author of 'How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.'Credit: Jody McKitrick

“It’s kind of shocking to me how many conversations I’ve had with people, the most straight arrows, who raise the same question. I think people are scared, including military professionals. The thing that makes people frightened is not the policies, it’s the sense of total instability, unpredictability and lack of judgment, the sense that he could wake up one morning and say, ‘It’s time to teach Mexico a lesson by nuking them,’” she says.

“Will people really refuse an order? We wonder under what circumstances people will act on individual conscience, even if it means breaking the law, risking their carriers, risking their freedom, their lives,” she adds.

“History tells us most people don’t like to do it, and will find an excuse, so I still think it’s unlikely, even if Trump did something truly insane and exceptionally destructive, from a national perspective. But for the first time, it’s not impossible. To imagine he will give an order, and public servants and the military will say, 'I can’t do it, it’s crazy.'”

Keeping everything secret

The militarization of American society was a hot topic for debate even before Brooks’ book, not to mention the militarization of the police during the rise of Black Lives Matter. The militarization of other things has received less attention, Brooks notes.

Rosa Brooks' 2016 book

“The way that habits and practices associated with national security have filtered down to areas that seem like they have nothing to do with it; it hasn’t got much attention but in some ways I wish it would,” she says.

“The issue of transparency in government at the national level has filtered down to saying things like ‘you can’t have information on the water-filtration system because the terrorists might get it as well.' What are the odds of this happening when in fact it is much more likely that a crisis with the water supply like in Flint, Michigan, poses, statistically speaking, much more danger?”

In her book, Brooks suggests acknowledging the changes that blur the lines between war and peace in the modern world. She suggests reforming the military to better suit this new reality, including hiring more women, older professionals, minorities and foreign-language speakers. At the same time, she urges a discussion on the new rules of war a discussion that would address the ethical issues introduced by the new forms of warfare.

“When you get people to focus on it, people tend to understand that a targeted killing is quite different from the invasion of Normandy in terms of the argument ‘you can’t get the court into the battlefield,”’ Brooks says. “People understand that when you have been monitoring the suspect for weeks, for months, even years, you have a different process than you have when thousands of soldiers are facing each other. And I do think people get what is scary about targeted killings.”

Brooks even suggests that Americans could learn from the Israeli experience. In 2006, Israel’s Supreme Court refused to issue a blanket ban on targeted killings, instead demanding that an independent, thorough investigation be conducted after each targeted killing to determine “the precision of the identification of the target and the circumstances” of the strike.

“This is an area where the Israeli Supreme Court on targeted killings got it exactly right,” Brooks says. “You can’t have a generalized discussion on whether it’s lawful or unlawful the devil is in the details and you have to make a highly individualized determination that will be very specific, and the ability to have an independent judicial investigation at the end of the day. After a similar ruling in Israel, I think that should be a lesson to the U.S. that all the rhetoric arguments against [judicial investigation] are pretty overblown.”

And she’s optimistic the American people will be on board with the process.

“The American public will be open to a number of measures from a judicial review of the strikes after the fact to having some sort of judicial process to determine whether or not these people should be targeted in advance,” she says. “I think the opposition is coming entirely from the executive branch itself. And it is not likely to change with Donald Trump in power.”

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