In a thoughtful and nonpartisan look at America’s slide from the ideals of the nation’s founders to the realm of perpetual warfare in “Drift” (Crown; $25.00), Rachel Maddow exposes and proposes solutions to decades of military growth.
She starts by citing Thomas Jefferson’s statement that he was “not for a standing army in time of peace, which may overwhelm public sentiment.” He cut the standing army by a third and he remained unmoved by what he viewed as alarmist and cynical calls for a large nationalized active military, she tells us. Maddow then fast forwards to a reasoned, clear, documented analysis of how going to war has changed since Vietnam and takes us step by step through a maze of political machinations, changing presidential attitudes, congressional inefficiency, four decades of warfare and public inattention.
This transformation began with Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1965. Johnson had promised not to escalate in Vietnam, to resist the expensive temptations of foreign wars and build a Great Society at home, but he “got dragged to the conclusion that the United States needed to be fighting in Vietnam. He moved to convince the American people and Congress that he should have the authority to use military force there.”
Maddow continues with the observation that Johnson set out to fight his war in a way he hoped the American people might not notice too much. His crucial decision not to call up the Army Reserves and the National Guard (the modern parallel to the old Jeffersonian state militias) because he didn’t want to “come clean with the country that we – all of us – were in a real war,” led to subsequent executives avoiding “dragging Congress into the conversation because such debates upset the public.”
Waging war, she points out and backs with evidence and logic, has become increasingly secretive.
That secrecy led to the 1973 War Powers Resolution that explicitly reasserted the prerogative spelled out in Article 1, Section 8, “to fulfill the intent of the framers of the Constitution of the United States” that Congress – and Congress alone – had the power to declare war. However, Maddow writes, “By 9/11 the war-making authority had become, for all intents and purposes, uncontested and unilateral: one man’s decision to make. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
There is a great deal in the book about Ronald Reagan’s tendency toward saber rattling. His attacks on the Ford administration because he thought that Ford had “bugged out” of Vietnam and as president, he was in negotiations with Panamanian leader Gen. Omar Torrijos, are two examples of Reagan’s anti-foreign attitude. When the new Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, picked up the Ford policy and negotiated a strategically beneficial treaty with Panama, Reagan “demagogued with a vengeance” despite the support of the Panama Treaty by leading conservatives William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater and John Wayne (yes, that John Wayne).
“A lot of important things got back-burnered to make way for re-arming. American oil consumption grew in the Reagan years and in George H.W. Bush’s and in Bill Clinton’s and in George W. Bush’s. Our oil imports just kept rising. In 1973 we imported a third of the oil we consumed; by 2005 we imported about 60 percent,” Maddow writes.
Another evidence of our drift away from the founders is the use of heavily funded civilian contractors serving side by side with the military and with the CIA as it operates lethal drone attacks. The first private contractor was signed on in 1992. The program that began under George Herbert Walker Bush grew enormously under Bill Clinton.
The CIA in now a de facto branch of the military – a military force “with its own troops and its own robotic air force.” Obama has appointed a military man with no background in civilian intelligence to head the CIA, retired Gen. David Petraeus. The drone attacks have doubled under the Obama administration. As the national security state has metastasized, decisions to use force have become almost automatic. In the final chapter Maddow gives a to-do list to unmake past lapses to revive the old idea of America as a deliberately peaceable nation.
Carefully researched, written in an engaging style with an occasional pithy light-hearted comment to make deep and serious matters bearable, Maddow’s book should trigger meaningful debate on current affairs, and whether you agree with her or not, after reading the book you will know far more about the business of war and war as a business.
The book includes prologue, epilogue, notes on sources, acknowledgements and index.
Maddow is host of the Emmy Award-winning “Rachel Maddow Show” on TV. A Rhodes Scholar, she has a doctorate in politics from Oxford and undergraduate degree in public policy from Stanford. She and her partner live in rural Western Massachusetts and New York City.