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Drift: The Unmooring of the American Military by Rachel Maddow

June 5, 2012


War is incredibly difficult on the people involved, but it is not always difficult on the country. And over the past 50 years it has become easier and easier to go to war and to stay at war. The central premise of Drift is that this is not a good thing.

The founding fathers understood that war-making is a dangerous business. It should be undertaken as a last resort. The Constitution was intentionally written to make it difficult to take the country to war, vesting the power to declare war with the legislature and the power to direct that war with the executive branch. The founders, fearful of a power becoming concentrated (remember, they had just broken free of the monarchy), structured the government with three branches and a system of checks and balances. The intent was that important decisions—like going to war—would require extensive debate.

Referring to the Constitution, James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson: “…the executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the legislature.” He went on to say, “Constant apprehension of war has the same tendency to render the head too large for the body. A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive, will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.” In other words, war focuses power and limits freedom. (The irony here is that most wars are prosecuted under the guise of protecting our freedom).

The idea that an overblown military poses a threat to our core American ideals is not a new idea. Nor is it relegated to left-wing doves. In his 1960 farewell address, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the country of the dangers of a swelling military industrial complex (the government, armed forces, and arms industry):

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Similar to Madison’s warning against a standing army, Eisenhower said that while we must always be prepared and ready to defend our country, the forces of economics (there’s a lot of money to be made in weapons) politics and power will compel us to continue to grow our military force. And, as Maddow states, when you have the most advanced military the world has ever seen, the tendency is to want to use it.

The history of U.S. military power, from the Constitution onward, has been a series of restraints and circumventions of (or, in some cases some might argue illegal disregard for) those restraints. The Constitution vests the power to declare war with the legislature, but Reagan circumvented this handcuff when he ordered the invasion of Grenada in 1983, clearly an act of war. Then, defending the Iran-Contra scandal at the end of the Reagan administration, Attorney General Ed Meese argued that the president, as Commander-in-Chief, has the right to ignore congressional restrictions on his war-making power. And all the founding fathers simultaneously rolled over in their graves. This is precisely why the Constitution is written as it is, why the government is structured as it is.

Another important impediment to war-making came to be in the aftermath of Viet Nam. As a way to ready the country for military action, the Abrams Doctrine required that we maintain a large and well-trained reserve force. The unintentional effect of this was that if we were going to war, the reserves would have to be called up. This made war harder to declare. Again, Maddow says this is a good thing. But that requirement has been circumvented as well, in a couple different ways. The first is that much of our war-fighting is now done by private corporations (if we were being crass, we might call them mercenaries, but that sounds too underhanded). In the Balkans, the role of these contractors was limited to service and support duties. But in the conflicts that followed (Iraq II and Afghanistan), the role of contractors increased to include military engagement. So now we don’t have to call up reserve forces—we just hire them.

The other way we circumvent the Abrams Doctrine, made popular under George H.W. Bush and escalated under Obama, is by using the CIA to handle our dirtier work. The CIA, which somehow operates outside of U.S. and military law, can operate secret prisons and blow up our enemies with drone strikes (drones often controlled by a “pilot” sitting in an air-conditioned room in, say, Colorado). An act of war? It can’t be, because 1) we haven’t officially declared war on any country and 2) it’s not our military acting. It’s just an intelligence agency. Is this backward logic, or is this just the new face of war (in some ways more complicated than old war but in many ways much, much easier)?

Other policies, such as restricting the press from showing the coffins of returning soldiers killed in action, may be intended to protect the dignity of those soldiers, but they also shield us from the realities of war. They make war more abstract, less real. They help make war easy.

Maddow’s point is not to underplay the dangers our enemies pose. Her point is that war should be hard on us. It should be a difficult decision, but it is not. The way we currently conduct our military operations allows for an ongoing, never-ending war on an ambiguous enemy and undefined goals. And there is an incredible opportunity cost to this. In one section of the book, she details some of the frightening realities of our standing Cold War nuclear arsenal—an arsenal large enough to destroy the world many times over, ready to fire at a moment’s notice at an enemy that no longer exists. Maddow recounts recent mishaps and near-mishaps with this nuclear arsenal that seem right out of Dr. Strangelove. The cost of just maintaining these weapons so they don’t blow up in our own back yards is astronomical. Yet we talk about more cuts to education and social programs. Where are our priorities?

This is an important book. It’s well-argued and well-written. My one criticism is that Maddow writes with the same sarcastic sense of humor she employs on her show. Even though I usually agree with her point, I find it off-putting stylistically, on tv and in writing. It’s like she’s inserted bad punch lines, pauses for laughter. More importantly, it undercuts the seriousness of her case. It provides someone looking for evidence of bias a reason to close the book. Maddow may be left-of-center, but this is not a left/right issue. It’s a fundamental American issue that should be less about politics and more about common sense.

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