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How the Pentagon Became Walmart

How the Pentagon Became Walmart

When my mother came for lunch at the Pentagon, I shepherded her through the visitor’s entrance, maneuvered her onto the escalator, and had just ushered her past the chocolate shop when she stopped short. I stopped too, letting an army of crisply uniformed officers and shirt-sleeved civilians flow past us down the corridor. Taking in the Pentagon’s florist shop, the banks, the nail salon, ­and the food court, my mother finally looked back at me. “So the heart of American military power is a shopping mall?”

She wasn’t far off. By the time I started working at the Defense Department in the early years of the Obama administration, the Pentagon’s 17.5 miles of corridors had sprouted dozens of shops and restaurants catering to the building’s 23,000 employees. And, over time, the U.S. military has itself come to offer a similar one-stop shopping experience to the nation’s top policymakers. At the Pentagon, you can buy a pair of new running shoes or order the Navy to search for Somali pirates. You can grab some Tylenol at CVS or send a team of Army medics to fight malaria in Chad. You can buy yourself a new cell phone or task the National Security Agency with monitoring a terrorist suspect’s text messages. You can purchase a small chocolate fighter jet or order up drone strikes in Yemen.

You name it, the Pentagon supplies it. As retired Army Lt. Gen. Dave Barno once put it to me, the relentlessly expanding U.S. military has become “a Super Walmart with everything under one roof” — and two successive presidential administrations have been eager consumers.

But the military’s transformation into the world’s biggest one-stop shopping outfit is no cause for celebration. On the contrary, it’s at once the product and the driver of seismic changes in how we think about war, with consequent challenges both to our laws and to the military itself.

Here’s the vicious circle in which we’ve trapped ourselves: As we face novel security threats from novel quarters — emanating from nonstate terrorist networks, from cyberspace, and from the impact of poverty, genocide, or political repression, for instance — we’ve gotten into the habit of viewing every new threat through the lens of “war,” thus asking our military to take on an ever-expanding range of nontraditional tasks. But viewing more and more threats as “war” brings more and more spheres of human activity into the ambit of the law of war, with its greater tolerance of secrecy, violence, and coercion — and its reduced protections for basic rights.

Meanwhile, asking the military to take on more and more new tasks requires higher military budgets, forcing us to look for savings elsewhere, so we freeze or cut spending on civilian diplomacy and development programs. As budget cuts cripple civilian agencies, their capabilities dwindle, and we look to the military to pick up the slack, further expanding its role.

“If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” The old adage applies here as well. If your only functioning government institution is the military, everything looks like a war, and “war rules” appear to apply everywhere, displacing peacetime laws and norms. When everything looks like war, everything looks like a military mission, displacing civilian institutions and undermining their credibility while overloading the military.

More is at stake than most of us realize. Recall 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 action of the tiger;

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,

Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage 

In war, we expect warriors to act in ways that would be immoral and illegal in peacetime. But when the boundaries around war and the military expand and blur, we lose our ability to determine which actions should be praised and which should be condemned.

For precisely this reason, humans have sought throughout history to draw sharp lines between war and peace — and between the role of the warrior and the role of the civilian. Until less than a century ago, for instance, most Western societies maintained that wars should be formally declared, take place upon clearly delineated battlefields, and be fought by uniformed soldiers operating within specialized, hierarchical military organizations. In different societies and earlier times, humans developed other rituals to delineate war’s boundaries, from war drums and war sorcery to war paint and complex initiation rites for warriors.

Like a thousand other human tribes before us, we modern Americans also engage in elaborate rituals to distinguish between warriors and civilians: Our soldiers shear off their hair, display special symbols on their chests, engage in carefully choreographed drill ceremonies, and name their weapons for fearsome spirits and totem animals (the Hornet, the Black Hawk, the Reaper). And despite the changes ushered in by the 9/11 attacks, most of us view war as a distinct and separate sphere, one that shouldn’t intrude into our everyday world of offices, shopping malls, schools, and soccer games. Likewise, we relegate war to the military, a distinct social institution that we simultaneously lionize and ignore. War, we like to think, is an easily recognizable exception to the normal state of affairs and the military an institution that can be easily, if tautologically, defined by its specialized, war-related functions.

But in a world rife with transnational terrorist networks, cyberwarriors, and disruptive nonstate actors, this is no longer true. Our traditional categories — war and peace, military and civilian — are becoming almost useless.

In a cyberwar or a war on terrorism, there can be no boundaries in time or space: We can’t point to the battlefield on a map or articulate circumstances in which such a war might end. We’re no longer sure what counts as a weapon, either: A hijacked passenger plane? A line of computer code? We can’t even define the enemy: Though the United States has been dropping bombs in Syria for almost two years, for instance, no one seems sure if our enemy is a terrorist organization, an insurgent group, a loose-knit collection of individuals, a Russian or Iranian proxy army, or perhaps just chaos itself.

We’ve also lost any coherent basis for distinguishing between combatants and civilians: Is a Chinese hacker a combatant? What about a financier for Somalia’s al-Shabab, or a Pakistani teen who shares extremist propaganda on Facebook, or a Russian engineer paid by the Islamic State to maintain captured Syrian oil fields?

When there’s a war, the law of war applies, and states and their agents have great latitude in using lethal force and other forms of coercion. Peacetime law is the opposite, emphasizing individual rights, due process, and accountability.

When we lose the ability to draw clear, consistent distinctions between war and not-war, we lose any principled basis for making the most vital decisions a democracy can make: Which matters, if any, should be beyond the scope of judicial review? When can a government have “secret laws”? When can the state monitor its citizens’ phone calls and email? Who can be imprisoned and with what degree, if any, of due process? Where, when, and against whom can lethal force be used? Should we consider U.S. drone strikes in Yemen or Libya the lawful wartime targeting of enemy combatants or nothing more than simple murder?

When we heedlessly expand what we label “war,” we also lose our ability to make sound decisions about which tasks we should assign to the military and which should be left to civilians.

Today, American military personnel operate in nearly every country on Earth — and do nearly every job on the planet. They launch raids and agricultural reform projects, plan airstrikes and small-business development initiatives, train parliamentarians and produce TV soap operas. They patrol for pirates, vaccinate cows, monitor global email communications, and design programs to prevent human trafficking.

Many years ago, when I was in law school, I applied for a management consulting job at McKinsey & Co. During one of the interviews, I was given a hypothetical business scenario: “Imagine you run a small family-owned general store. Business is good, but one day you learn that Walmart is about to open a store a block away. What do you do?”

“Roll over and die,” I said immediately.

The interviewer’s pursed lips suggested that this was the wrong answer, and no doubt a plucky mom-and-pop operation wouldn’t go down without a fight: They’d look for a niche, appeal to neighborhood sentiment, or maybe get artisanal and start serving hand-roasted chicory soy lattes. But we all know the odds would be against them: When Walmart shows up, the writing is on the wall.

Like Walmart, today’s military can marshal vast resources and exploit economies of scale in ways impossible for small mom-and-pop operations. And like Walmart, the tempting one-stop-shopping convenience it offers has a devastating effect on smaller, more traditional enterprises — in this case, the State Department and other U.S. civilian foreign-policy agencies, which are steadily shrinking into irrelevance in our ever-more militarized world. The Pentagon isn’t as good at promoting agricultural or economic reform as the State Department or the U.S. Agency for International Development — but unlike our civilian government agencies, the Pentagon has millions of employees willing to work insane hours in terrible conditions, and it’s open 24/7.

It’s fashionable to despise Walmart — for its cheap, tawdry goods, for its sheer vastness and mindless ubiquity, and for the human pain we suspect lies at the heart of the enterprise. Most of the time, we prefer not to see it and use zoning laws to exile its big-box stores to the commercial hinterlands away from the center of town. But as much as we resent Walmart, most of us would be hard-pressed to live without it.

As the U.S. military struggles to define its role and mission, it evokes similarly contradictory emotions in the civilian population. Civilian government officials want a military that costs less but provides more, a military that stays deferentially out of strategy discussions but remains eternally available to ride to the rescue. We want a military that will prosecute our ever-expanding wars but never ask us to face the difficult moral and legal questions created by the eroding boundaries between war and peace.

We want a military that can solve every global problem but is content to remain safely quarantined on isolated bases, separated from the rest of us by barbed wire fences, anachronistic rituals, and acres of cultural misunderstanding. Indeed, even as the boundaries around war have blurred and the military’s activities have expanded, the U.S. military itself — as a human institution — has grown more and more sharply delineated from the broader society it is charged with protecting, leaving fewer and fewer civilians with the knowledge or confidence to raise questions about how we define war or how the military operates.

It’s not too late to change all this.

No divine power proclaimed that calling something “war” should free us from the constraints of morality or common sense or that only certain tasks should be the proper province of those wearing uniforms. We came up with the concepts, definitions, laws, and institutions that now trap and confound us — and they’re no more eternal than the rituals and categories used by any of the human tribes that have gone before us.

We don’t have to accept a world full of boundary-less wars that can never end, in which the military has lost any coherent sense of purpose or limits. If the moral and legal ambiguity of U.S.-targeted killings bothers us, or we worry about government secrecy or indefinite detention, we can mandate new checks and balances that transcend the traditional distinctions between war and peace. If we don’t like the simultaneous isolation and Walmartization of our military, we can change the way we recruit, train, deploy, and treat those who serve, change the way we define the military’s role, and reinvigorate our civilian foreign-policy institutions.

After all, few generals actually want to preside over the military’s remorseless Walmartization: They too fear that, in the end, the nation’s over-reliance on an expanding military risks destroying not only the civilian competition but the military itself. They worry that the armed services, under constant pressure to be all things to all people, could eventually find themselves able to offer little of enduring value to anyone.

Ultimately, they fear that the U.S. military could come to resemble a Walmart on the day after a Black Friday sale: stripped almost bare by a society both greedy for what it can provide and resentful of its dominance, with nothing left behind but demoralized employees and some shoddy mass-produced items strewn haphazardly around the aisles.

This column is adapted from Rosa Brooks’s new book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, published by Simon & Schuster. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force/Getty Images