September 26, 2016

War and the way in which we think about it today has changed radically from decades ago, said Rosa Brooks at a September 19 lecture at SIPA.

“We have gotten into the habit of viewing every new threat through the lens of war,” Brooks said.

She said the multitude of global threats and their difficulty to predict has opened the door for an expansion of what is allowed in “wartime.” Greater surveillance, censorship, detainment, rights violations, secrecy, and use of force are all tolerated.

“If you can’t tell there’s a war, you can’t apply the law,” Brooks said.

The law of armed conflict, formed after World War II, does not fit very well with the nature of war today, she added.

Brooks, who previously served as counselor to the Pentagon’s under secretary for policy, senior advisor at the U.S. State Department, and consultant for Human Rights Watch, is currently a the faculty member at Georgetown University. She spoke in conjunction with the launch of her new book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became EverythingDipali Mukhopadhyay, assistant professor of international and public affairs at SIPA, moderated the discussion.

In her talk, Brooks noted that the line between war and peace has become blurry. In the past, she said, war had a clearer beginning and end. Today, in contrast, war is becoming increasingly difficult to define; there may be multiple actors with diffused interests, combatants and civilians are mixed, we are unsure what counts as a weapon, and “cyberwar” has eliminated the traditional time and space boundaries of war.

Brooks explained further how this expansion of the definition of war has resulted in an expansion of the roles that the United States military takes on around the world. If the purpose of the military is to defend the nation, and threats to the nation take on various forms believed to come from a multitude of drivers, then there are many ways in which the military might work to stop those drivers.

She compared the military today to Walmart: in its attempts to address so many issues, ranging from democratization and agricultural reform to fighting trafficking and providing vaccinations, it has “become everything,” Brooks said. She noted that just as small businesses have been driven out by the superstore chain, smaller agencies like USAID and the State Department, which are better at facilitating these types of programs, are being shut out by the military’s immense resources and economies of scale.

“It is fashionable to hate Walmart,” Brooks said, “but Americans are all hard-pressed to live without it.”

At the end of the discussion, Brooks said that we can choose to change the military’s role and the categories they work in. War, our perceptions of it, and the role the military plays, she said, are all dynamic.

— Kasumi Takahashi MPA ’17