Rachel Maddow

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power delivers the insight expected of an academic, which Maddow is, and the humour expected of an entertainer, which Maddow also is. What it doesn’t deliver is a one-sided, shrill, or simplistic analysis.

Most of the right-wing political books I’ve read, and some of the left-wing works, too, are little more than propaganda polemics — the other guys are evil, and we need to stop them!

You might think that a book by a prominent TV host who leans strongly to the left would be just another entry in the spin game, but in this case you’d be wrong.

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow’s Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power delivers the insight expected of an academic, which Maddow is, and the humour expected of an entertainer, which Maddow also is. What it doesn’t deliver is a one-sided, shrill, or simplistic analysis of the changes in the way that America wages war, changes that have dramatically altered U.S. policy, and society, in the last few decades.

More than anything else, Maddow’s book presents a balanced analysis of how the Founders’ vision of a small, citizen-controlled military has morphed into the present situation, in which the U.S. outspends the rest of the world combined on “defense,” utilizing that vast budget to wage undeclared, unofficial, and sort-of official wars around the globe.

How did the U.S., with a Constitution that clearly invests the power to declare war in the Senate, end up with war by executive fiat, with both Republican and Democratic presidents from Eisenhower to Obama claiming the exclusive and individual right to go to war?

The answer is complex, and Drift takes the time to explore all of the contributing factors. No one gets a free pass. Congress, presidents of both parties, the military, the corporations that make their money in defense, and the public are given their shares of the blame.

It’s not a conspiracy. Rational political actors, acting rationally to achieve rational (if sometimes dumb) political goals, have attacked and undermined our constitutional inheritance.

As the title suggests, the change from the low-impact military envisioned by Jefferson, among others, has not been the result of a concerted policy or of single-minded politics. Incremental changes, many – but not all — at least debatably reasonable in themselves, piled up one upon the other until the American military enterprise turned, drifted, into something both unprecedented and, in Maddow’s view, dangerous.

The unregulated use of executive power to wage war ranges from the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” by which LBJ expanded the war in Vietnam to Ronald Reagan’s “conquest” of the evil empire of Grenada. George W. Bush avenged the attempt on his father’s life by bringing down Saddam Hussein (at the same time, ensuring the prosperity of the oil and security companies his Vice-President held dear). And today, Barack Obama has a “kill list,” authorizing the summary military (or paramilitary) execution of America’s “enemies,” as determined by him alone, even among its own citizens, without the inconveniences that formal charges, trials, and convictions bring.

One of the key insights of the book is that the executive branch, by its nature, will  exercise as much unilateral control as it is given — or can get away with.

Maddow makes a good job of outlining the steps by which the president and his advisers gained control of the American military. She argues that successive chief executives have ”not done it to fundamentally alter the country’s course but just to get around understandably frustrating impediments to their political goals.” Step by step, “By 9/11, the war-making authority in the United States had become, for all intents and purposes, uncontested and unilateral: one man’s decision to make.” Maddow’s judgement: ” It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

Some of the motives Maddow identifies seem almost reasonable, in themselves. Everyone knows that the U.S. military spends like a drunken uncle at a wedding — $300 toilet seats and all that. What do the former executives of private companies, now in top positions in the government, believe is the best way to cut costs when, for ideological reasons, you can’t cut personnel? It’s obvious. Privatize. “Civilian augmentation.” And thus the new American mercenary military is born. Why have a relatively expensive soldier peel potatoes when you can hire Haliburton to hire someone to hire a bunch of low-wage locals to peel them? It seems almost philanthropic, creating all of those local jobs and all.

But it didn’t, and it doesn’t, stop there. Today, according to Maddow, even very sensitive intelligence functions are carried out by private contractors. The result? Maddow quotes Kathryn Bolkovac, a former employee of DynCorp:

Although a system of contractors for hire might seem reasonable to supplement and support U.S. military presence, the outcome has been the creation of a band of mercenaries—a secretive, unregulated, well-paid, under-the-radar force that is larger than the U.S. Army.

There’s a third major factor, one that is often ignored in media discussion of American military policy and practice. With an all-volunteer army and a shadow force of private contractors, it’s now possible for the American executive branch to carry out a policy of foreign policy by extreme force without involving, without even inconveniencing, the vast majority of the citizenry.

This is more than just a lucky accidental benefit, of course. Many lessons were learned from the debacle in Vietnam, not the least of which was that a nation asked to sacrifice for ends which it didn’t believe merited sacrifice would not tolerate that sacrifice for long. The new way is a better way, as shown by the pathetic level of popular outcry against today’s multiple and unending American aggressions on foreign soil.

There’s much more in Drift, but I believe that these are its key points. Executive power unchecked by a timid or complicit Congress, the growth of a private sector (and thus largely private) war industry, and the population’s general uninvolvement in the personal costs associated with war.

The result, Maddow shows, is the opposite of Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a nation without an independent army.


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