By Jennifer Senior

New York Times News Service

“How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon” By Rosa Brooks (437 pages. Simon & Schuster. $29.95)

In 2009, Rosa Brooks, a newly appointed civilian adviser at the Pentagon, had a dispiriting conversation with Samantha Power, then on the National Security staff. Brooks had solemn doubts about the prisoners living in indefinite detention at Guantánamo Bay. This was her field of expertise — human rights, international law. Yet her new colleagues wouldn’t give her a proper hearing.

Power replied she was having the same experience at the White House. “I can’t even get in to see the president about this,” she tells Brooks in “How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales From the Pentagon.” “Literally. Before the election, this guy” — Barack Obama, she meant — “was my friend, but right now I can’t even get 10 minutes with him without going through six layers of self-important jerks.”

At its finest, “How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything” is a dynamic work of reportage, punctuated by savory details like this one. But Brooks has a larger ambition: She wants to explore exactly what happens to a society when the customary distinctions between war and peace melt away. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has been fighting shapeless, stateless enemies, all with no discernible end in sight. How, Brooks would like to know, do our institutions and legal systems adapt?

“As the boundaries around war and the military grow ever more blurry,” she writes, “will we all pay a price?”

This is hardly a new question. But Brooks, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and columnist for Foreign Policy magazine, is in a decent position to answer it. During her time as counselor to Michèle Flournoy, an undersecretary of defense, Brooks was in the room where it happens. Or the adjoining room, at any rate.

When Brooks’ book lives up to its subtitle — “Tales From the Pentagon” — it delights. The author is a chipper field guide and canny ethnographer, writing with refreshing honesty about the folk ways of the Department of Defense, which often confound outsiders.

Exploring the culture gap

Her observations about the culture gap between government civilians and the military are especially revealing. She recounts once receiving a phone call from a member of the White House national security staff, asking the Pentagon to make a drone available for monitoring a human rights crisis in Kyrgyzstan. She replied that the military tends to make these decisions slowly, cautiously, and that she’d need more information: Where would the drone come from? Which pot of money would pay for it? Whose airspace would it use?

The caller from the White House was incredulous. “We’re talking about, like, one drone,” he told her. “You’re telling me you can’t just call some colonel at CentCom and make this happen?”

She explained that the chain of command in the military didn’t work that way.

Equally illuminating is her examination of the resentment that the military has generated by expanding its role, assuming responsibility for all manner of unlikely projects. In its efforts to stamp out future generations of terrorists, the Pentagon has sponsored peace concerts in Africa, distributed soccer balls with anti-extremist slogans in Iraq, trained judges in Afghanistan — anything to shore up stability in volatile nations. It drives State Department personnel and aid workers — the people who would ordinarily be charged with such efforts — nuts.

“You’ve got these kids,” one Agency for International Development worker told her, “these 30-year-old captains who’ve spent their lives learning to drive tanks and shoot people, and they think they know how to end poverty in Afghanistan, in six months.”

The book’s low points

Strangely, it’s when Brooks dives into her own area of expertise that her book loses some sizzle. After her lively investigation of the way we fight now, she pivots and takes a historical look at how we’ve attempted to define and regulate war, and how the modern notions of human rights and international law came about. She then examines the moral conundrums of the so-called war on terror, which test the limits of these ideas.

Is detaining a suspected terrorist lawful or a violation of habeas corpus? Is enhanced surveillance essential to our national security or an infringement of our privacy? Are drone strikes, conducted in secret and according to secret criteria, acts of murder or justifiable acts of war? Have we spent the last 15 years setting dangerous international precedents?

Her discussion here is energetic, her case histories are well selected and her thought experiments clarifying. But they’re explainers rather than paradigm changers. The questions she asks don’t dramatically reframe the conversation.

Brooks’ writing possesses a few grating tics. Officials often “sigh” as they express their frustrations. She repeats herself a lot. Her tone can get jokey, with over-cute chapter subheadings — “Ahoy, Matey!,” “Hiya, Senator” — and she invokes literary cliches to explain her ideas. (Tolstoy’s unhappy families, Hemingway’s wisecrack about the rich having more money, etc.)

I also sometimes wondered who Brooks was writing for. When she protests that “many military personnel don’t see killing as central to their jobs,” it seems embarrassingly obvious. At some point she refers to Sen. Lindsey Graham as “the scourge of the Democratic Party,” which I originally thought was a misprint: If you’ve spent 10 minutes in the Senate, you know Graham, for better or for worse, is one of the more bipartisan Republican lawmakers on the Hill.

Brooks’ complicated sensibilities

Yet Brooks generally has more complicated sensibilities than that of a traditional liberal. True, she comes from a leftist, staunchly anti-war household — she’s the daughter of Barbara Ehrenreich, poet laureate of the proletariat, and John Ehrenreich, a psychologist and academic who has written a great deal about humanitarian issues. But she also worked at the Pentagon and married a lieutenant colonel in the Army. Much of what animates this book is the tension between these two important aspects of her life, and it may explain the divided nature of the solutions she proposes to suit the vagaries of modern war.

One would doubtless please her parents: She says the United States will have to relinquish some of its sovereignty in exchange for “more just and effective mechanisms for solving collective global problems.” Structures of international governance would have to be reformed and rebuilt; here at home, we would have to insist on more transparency and better oversight to enforce the rule of law.

It all seems wildly romantic, especially at a moment when Trump and Brexit voters are ascendant.

Another proposal is radical in a very different way. Rather than shrinking the defense budget and redistributing funding to civilian institutions — an impracticable solution, given Congress’ abiding commitment to the Pentagon and the military’s already-galactic scale — she proposes making it even bigger, recruiting those with talents useful for 21st-century conflict. And then, she boldly suggests, we should make service compulsory for everyone.

“Some might choose to carry the traditional weapons of a soldier; some might teach or build roads; some might write computer code to protect vulnerable systems,” she writes.

Again, it’s a political nonstarter in 2016. But she may be onto something. Expanding the Army worked for FDR (and the world). Why not again?

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