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Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power

Rachel Maddow

(Crown; US: Mar 2012)

“Warmaking has become almost an autonomous function of the American state. It never stops.”
  —Drift


There is no issue more important to those living in the United States (and many people living beyond its borders), both now and during the past 60 years, than the groaning and sprawling monster that is the nation’s military. Like the ever-enlarging intelligence apparatus, whose kudzu-like growth and unkillability it mirrors, the military establishment exerts the kind of power in Washington that most government programs wouldn’t dream of.


While the nation has been a world power since at least the time of Teddy Roosevelt’s White Fleet, it was in the aftermath of World War II that the branches of the military underwent a critical change. No longer would the nation have a small professional standing army which would expand like a sponge during wartime, with draftees and reservists called up from all walks of life, and then return afterwards to its original size. From the earliest chill of the Cold War to now, the military has remained a gargantuan treasury-emptying killing machine, whether the nation was at war or not. This is the behavior of an empire trying to project power into every corner of the known world, not a republic interested in securing its borders and avoiding foreign entanglements.


Drift, the first book by Rachel Maddow, MSNBC’s nightly messenger of leftist bafflement, takes on the subject of how the American military was allowed to become its own raison d’etre. It’s an honorable effort from somebody who seems to know the subject well. Maddow has always attracted positive attention, and correctly so, for being more wonkish than her commentariat cohorts. One generally knows where Maddow’s going to come out on a subject before she launches into it, but she at least comes armed with a bristling array of stats more reliable than the blog-sourced rantings that litter Glenn Beck’s feverish whiteboards.


Maddow digs into the funding being dumped into the military-industrial complex these days – numbers which would make what the Vietnam War protestors fought against seem like vending machine change in comparison – and makes a strong case for it being increasingly divorced from any kind of real-world need; not to mention hidden from or ignored by Washington’s elected representatives. She looks at the swelling coffers of defense contractors and the ever-ballooning budgets coming out of Congress and can only conclude the following:


“Our national security policy isn’t much related to its stated justifications anymore. To whatever extent we do argue and debate what defense and intelligence policy ought to be, that debate—our political process—doesn’t actually determine what we do. We’re not directing that policy anymore; it just follows its own course. Which means we’ve effectively lost control of a big part of who we are as a country. And we’ve broken faith with some of the best advice the founders ever gave us.”


That advice, by the way, Maddow pulls from Jefferson and the founding fathers. In short, standing armies represent much of what they were fighting to free themselves from. They knew that America would need to go to war (after all, they had to raise an army to start the country) but they also thought it was a good idea to make going to war as difficult as possible. Thusly the legislative checks on the executive branch that would, ideally, keep a president from being able to throw sailors and soldiers into any skirmish they damn well felt like. In the age of Grenada, Somalia, and the invasion of Panama, it seems downright naïve to think that once upon a time the White House would have to actually go to Congress to ask whether or not they could send young men and women off to foreign shores to kill people.


The devolvement of America from the tradition of the small professional army (tiny, actually, by today’s standards) to one where legions of troops stand at the ready, bristling with billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry, fed and supplied by a bevy of overpaid contractors, is a great and tragic story. Too bad that Maddow only comes in halfway through it. In a matter of pages she goes from Jefferson to World War II to the Vietnam War, with a sidenote on the evolving nature of G.I. Joe over the years (less pithy and enlightening than she thinks; a common problem throughout this book). By ignoring much of the growth of the military establishment in the ‘50s and ‘60s, she makes the current state of affairs appear to be the work of a few misguided presidents, not the logical end result of decades’ worth of societal militarization.


Once Maddow starts digging into her topic, she finds much of interest, particularly in the Abrams Doctrine. Named for General Creighton Abrams, who commanded American forces in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972, essentially managing the catastrophe, the Doctrine called for the National Guard to be called up in times of war.


“With the Abrams Doctrine, calling up the Reserves would no longer be optional, and therefore neither would that pilgrimage to Congress. The president’s hand was forced: if America was to fight a war… civilians would have to be pried out of their civilian jobs. What Johnson had resisted as “too dramatic” in the last war would become the political price of admission to the next one.”


Surprisingly for such a full-throated critic of most of America’s overseas military adventures, Maddow points out one recent instance in which the checks and balances set in place to ward off hasty interventions seemed to have actually worked: The Gulf War. After assiduously documenting the bad intelligence and bellicose tubthumping which seemed to hound an initially skeptical Bush the Elder toward invading Iraqi-occupied Kuwait in 1991, Maddow notes how Bush was finally pushed into doing what his Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney was dead-set against: asking Congress for permission to wage war.


“When the talking was over, virtually every member of Congress tood up and was counted being for a war in the Persian Gulf or against it. It was a narrow margin—the Senate was 52-47—but Congress (which is to say the nation) voted to go to war.


Agree or disagree with the outcome, the system had worked. Our Congress had its clangorous and open debate and then took sides. We decided to go to war, as a country.”


This happened, in Maddow’s formulation, because of the Abrams Doctrine. Her argument that Bush only went to Congress due to the need to call up the Reserves to fill out the ranks of the half-million-strong contingent his generals told him was necessary doesn’t quite cohere. No matter how much Maddow invokes it, the Abrams Doctrine was never law, it was simply Pentagon policy, which a president could ignore at will. As Maddow notes, ever since its being enacted in 1973, Congress has studiously avoided invoking their privileges in the War Powers Act to reign in executive warmaking authority (no politician wants to be on the wrong side of a popular war, though American voters rarely seem to fault them for supporting a bad one).


What more likely drove Bush to go to Congress was his desire to get the country behind him before embarking on the biggest commitment of American troops overseas in a quarter-century. Maddow has the building blocks for a strong argument here, she just never quite assembles them in a structurally sound way; a common problem in this rushed-feeling book.


Where Maddow is most on-point (or at least enjoying herself the most), is not her discussion of the post-Vietnam military malaise, though, it’s Ronald Reagan, that ever-giving gift to pundits. Her chapter on Reagan, and how he crept around Congressional limits on his usage of his beloved military to invade Grenada on little more than a larkish notion, is practically worth the sticker price alone. One of those particularly black-comic Reagan adventures which has since been overshadowed by the arguably darker legacy of Iran-Contra, Grenada was one baffling snafu piled on top of another (friendly fire and bad intelligence killing more Americans than the Cubans on the ground), all of it wrapped around a near-total lack of purpose (the American medical students whom the 82nd Airborne was purportedly rescuing from a Communist coup were never in danger) and justified after the fact for giving the military their swagger back.


And swagger was apparently what mattered, now and then. Maddow smartly targets the worst aspects of the Reagan presidency—style over substance, delivery over content—and shows how it dovetailed quite devilishly with Ronald’s love of playing soldier. She highlights one particularly disturbing historical anecdote: before Reagan, soldiers saluted the president; for the civilian president to salute them would have seemed inappropriate. But Reagan loved his pomp and circumstance, so it became tradition and Bill Clinton, Bush the Younger, and Barack Obama followed suit.


Following Reagan, Maddow’s narrative follows a more familiar track, and it’s here that the book’s threads start to fray. It’s not her fault that more seasoned authors than her have tackled subjects like the explosion in usage of military contractors, whose venality, expense and incompetence threaten both the nation’s security and deficit (see Peter W. Singer’s work), or the Roman Empire super-sizing of the military beyond any need or reason (see the books of Chalmers Johnson, Nemesis in particular).


The charge that can be laid at Maddow’s feet is her kneejerk TV-host irony, which ranges from the simply not-that-funny to distasteful. It’s one thing to quote Donald Rumsfeld’s predicting that the Iraq War would last anywhere from six days to six months and then quip, “Yeah, no.” It’s quite another to punctuate a list of horrendous misadventures involving the military’s nuclear arms stockpile (a perfectly fine chapter, in its own right, but not tied in to her overall narrative), at least one of which cost the lives of service people, with, “Whoopsie!”. Her repeated usage of forced jokes and waggish parentheticals not only fall flat on print (the TV studio is more forgiving forum for sarcasm), it threatens to undermine her entire message. Similarly, her resorting in the epilogue to a bullet-point “to-do” list for reforming America’s attitude toward and usage of the military is the laziest kind of editorializing, as inarguable as many of her points are.


In a time of crushing deficits, political cowardice and demagoguery, near-permanent ground war in Central Asia, and an expanding worldwide ghost war of drones and special forces kill teams, Drift bears a lot of weight on its narrow shoulders, more than a work this short and occasionally unfocused can bear. When Maddow writes about how the metastasis of the “the national security state” caused decisions to go to war to “become painless and slick, almost automatic,” it’s a smart prescription for change that requires no snarky asides to make it go down easier.

Rating:

Chris Barsanti is an habitual scrivener on books and film for the lucky readers of PopMatters, Film Journal International, Film Racket, and Publishers Weekly, and has also been published in The Chicago Tribune, The Millions, The Barnes and Noble Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and New York Film Critics Online. His books include Filmology: A Movie-a-Day Guide to the Movies You Need to Know, the Eyes Wide Open annual film guide series, and The Sci-Fi Movie Guide: The Universe of Film from 'Alien' to 'Zardoz'. His writings can be found here.


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