Out of all the books on the topic of war and the modern military in America, Maddow’s “Drift” is one of the most compelling, well-researched, and thought-provoking works I’ve seen. It is also long overdue. The contents of this book are something US citizens need to have a loud, energetic, and very public debate over. Within these pages is the story of the evolution of our modern military, its effect on the concept of the citizen-soldier, and how we have subverted - both covertly and overtly - the constitutional objectives regarding executive and legislative war powers. Maddow's argument is that we need a conservative return to our constitutional roots, and very effectively outlines why we drifted, the price we have paid for that drift, and offers suggestions to make a much needed course correction.
The first several chapters largely deal with chronological events while the last few chapters cross over each other, essentially outlining the current state of the US military and private contractors, super presidential war powers, and the disconnect between civilians and war. Maddow also provides a section after the last chapter discussing her sources for each chapter, for those who want to fact check her content and analyze it for themselves.
In the prologue Maddow highlights three examples of post-9/11 national security funded projects - a small town pump station, a sewage project in Iraq, and a sprawling intelligence complex outside Washington DC - to discuss where national security funds have been or are being spent, the supposed purpose behind these projects, and the outcome.
Maddow states that “national security is a real imperative for our country [but] 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’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. Our constitutional inheritance didn’t point us in this direction. If the colonists hadn’t rejected British militarism and the massive financial burden of maintaining the British military, America wouldn’t exist... [The] worries about the inevitable incentives to war were part of what led to the division of government at the heart of our Constitution, building into the structure of our new country a deliberate peaceable bias. But in the past generation or two, we’ve drifted off that historical course....the good news is that we don’t need a radical new vision of post-Cold War American power. We just need a ‘small c’ conservative return to our constitutional roots, a course correction” (7-8).
In chapter 1, titled “G.I. Joe, Ho Chi Minh, and the American Art of Fighting about Fighting,” Maddow reflects on the history of the American military, which operated for almost two centuries under a general pattern of raising an army when in direct threat, followed by quick disbanding. Thomas Jefferson set a presidential pattern when he entered office in 1801. He cut the standing army by a third and left the defense against foreign invasion largely to a well-regulated militia under the control of various state and localities. Jefferson said, “Were armies to be raised whenever a speck of war is visible on our horizon, we never should have been without them. Our resources would have been exhausted on dangers which never happened, instead of being reserved for what is really to take place” (10).
Historically, in times of peace, active duty military personnel were kept busy building defense works, ports and bridges at home. When the United States went to war, the entire United States went to war. We went to war with citizen-soldiers, the small nucleus of active-duty army swelled with militiamen, reservists, National Guardsmen, enlisted persons, and draftees. And no nation’s military demobilized with such enthusiasm when the fighting was over.
Maddow also examines the post-WW2, Cold War era space and nuclear race, as well as the gradual disillusionment of the American public towards the military with the prosecution of the Vietnam war. Lyndon B Johnson tried to do what had not been done before - take the nation’s armed forces to war without taking the nation as a whole to war - by refusing to call up the reserves, by fighting the war “on the cheap,” and placing the burden of a land war in Asia on the backs of active duty soldiers.
Whether his decisions affected the outcome of the Vietnam war or not is debatable. But inside the US there was an enormous cost - it tore the military from the heart of the country, and it tore the country from the heart of the military. In the aftermath, this led to what is known as the Abrams Doctrine, a Total Force Policy that restructured the United States Army in a way that made it harder for a commander in chief to go to war, or at least make it harder to fight a war without having first sought the support of the American people for that war. It was also meant to protect against sending unprepared soldiers to war, thus reduce the casualties of an unprepared force. Congress also tried exerting more control of the executive war powers through the War Powers Resolution of 1973, an imperfect law but one that took away the open ended war-making powers of the executive. “At this time, the questions of how we provide for the common defense, how we apportion our limited resources to the military, how we prepare for war, and whether or not we go to war were back where they belonged, out in the open, subject to loud and jangly political debate” (28).
Chapters 2 through 5 are what I would essentially call “The Ronald Reagan” chapters, as they deal extensively with the policies and practices of that one man, both before and during his presidency, and the pivotal effect Reagan’s military policies had on American militarization.
In chapter 2, titled “A Nation at Peace Everywhere in the World,” I learned about John Wayne (The Duke) as a political activist taking Ronald Reagan (The Gipper) to task over the Panama Canal Treaty. This was a tidbit of history I was completely unaware of. The Panama Canal Treaty had broad bipartisan support and was virtually guaranteed to be approved and, by all accounts, was beneficial to the United States. Reagan, however, used it as a campaign tool, blatantly misrepresenting the facts to create political conflict to manipulate voters. John Wayne himself wrote a personal letter to Reagan, informing Reagan that Wayne would go point by point through the treaty to underline all the ways Reagan was misinforming the public, and would Reagan please “shut his piehole” about a political issue he (Reagan) knew nothing about. Reagan, though, ignored any evidence that he was wrong and doubled-down. The result was a popular treaty that suddenly became so unpopular that it barely passed. Reagan still lost his election that year, but he learned a valuable lesson - the American public loved to see itself as aggressively defending its interests and national pride.
The next chapter, titled “Let ‘Er Fly,” details Reagan’s stateside military service making military propaganda movies and what he learned about motivating the American public towards war and an aggressive military and foreign policy. This experience provides Reagan with a great many tools, and a network of like-minded individuals, necessary to build up anti-Soviet/Communist fear and propel himself into a popular presidency.
Anti-Soviet and anti-communist fear played directly into the invasion of the island of Grenada and the Iranian hostage situation detailed in chapter 4, the “Isle of Spice.” Grenada was the first invasion in which no press was allowed to accompany troops. Titled “Operation Urgent Fury,” the invasion was poorly planned due to lack of proper intelligence (as opposed to assumptions based on fear of communist Cuba and the Soviets). No evidence was ever found that proved the American students on the little island were in any danger at all. At about the same time, the Reagan administration was trying to deal with a hostage situation in Iran that was not handled well. We were supposed to swap arms for hostages, but we ended up giving arms and didn’t get hostages.
A chance photo op of an American student kissing the tarmac after having been “rescued” from Grenada saves Reagan from admitting how inept both the Iranian hostage situation and the Grenada operations actually were, and Reagan ignored both Congressional and international censure of his unilateral actions. The American public is hornswoggled again.
Chapter 5 is titled “Stupid Regulations,” which is a direct quote from Reagan about limitations on his war powers. Thus we have the Iran-Contra affair, in which Reagan and company engaged in the illegal privatization of difficult-to-justify military operations and weapons sales, and presidential secrecy, to avoid sensitive political debates with the public on foreign policy. By this time, the policy of the Reagan White House was that open public debate was a dangerous thing and sent the wrong message to America’s “enemies.” This line would be embraced by every US president that follows. “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. It wasn’t supposed to be like this” (125).
The next three chapters blend together the national security/military decisions and outcomes during the G.H.W. Bush, Clinton, G.W. Bush and Obama presidential years. Chapter 6, cleverly titled “Mylanta, ‘Tis of Thee,” outlines the decisions behind the first Gulf War in Iraq. At odds with President Bush’s other cabinet advisors, Colin Powell insists that it is vital to have both broad support of the American public before engaging in war, and having the necessary resources to do it right. “[Powell] had observed very little internal debate in the White House about whether or not we ought to make this war, and he believed the men and women sent to fight in the Persian Gulf deserved a real and genuine consideration of that question by their civilian leaders.” (135) Part of Powell’s strategy, by asking up front for such large numbers of troops and insisting on the call up of the reserves and guardsmen under the Abrams Doctrine, was to force the president to be realistic about the cost of war and to bring the American public into the debate - in other words, avoid another Vietnam debacle.
A real debate occurred in Congress and in public once the initial troops were called up. Maddow recounts a press debate involving Rep. Ron Dellums, after 45 members of the House filed a lawsuit asking the federal district court in DC demand that the president send Congress a formal declaration of war to be debated and voted on before troops were sent into battle. He said, “The Constitution is designed to inconvenience one person from taking us to war. War is a very solemn and sobering and extraordinary act and it should not be granted to one person.” In response, one reporter observed, “Some people are saying you’re not inconveniencing the president, you’re undermining his ability to conduct an effective policy in the Persian Gulf.” To which Dellums countered, “To do anything other than what we’re suggesting here is to undermine the Constitution of the United States. This is not the president’s sole prerogative.” (141)
At this point however, the line of the White House was that the executive did not have to seek congressional involvement to get authority for war, only to get their support to pay for it and sell it to the public. In a complete overthrow of Constitutional authority, the executive branch now existed under the premise that not only didn’t the “question of war” vest in the Legislature, it shouldn’t.
The cost of providing benefits for American military families, especially children, took money away from spending on the big, cool military and technology stuff. The answer to that, a Department of Defense Task Force advised, was outsourcing as many support functions as possible, with the hope that privatization would be cheaper and more efficient. Chapter 7, “Doing More with Less (Hassle),” takes us into the mass privatization of military missions and support functions.
Private contractor programs, called LOGCAP, had been used on a smaller scale in previous invasions during the first Bush presidency, but the Balkans engagement in the Clinton presidency was the first time private contractors were used for all support functions and the LOGCAP program grew enormously. Sadly, while they did do their job providing the support services they were contracted for, there were huge cost overruns, corporate malfeasance, poor employee and system oversight, and criminal behavior, such as sex trafficking, that were not being prosecuted under US or Bosnian law due to lack of authority over private contract workers in foreign countries. Additionally, the poor behavior of private contractors in foreign countries blackened the good work of US soldiers in the Balkans. Not only that, but the transition to private contractors became one of the Department of Defense’s largest budget expenditures, with contracts valued at $300 billion by the time Clinton left office.
An added bonus, for a president that is, is the fact that by outsourcing some missions to private contractors, the government can avoid dealing with any “political sensitivity” in activating guard and reserve forces, effectively circumventing the Abrams Doctrine, Congress, and the public.
As Maddow states at the end of chapter 7, “By the time Bill Clinton left office in 2001, an Operation Other Than War, as the Pentagon forces called them, could go on indefinitely... without real political costs or consequences, or much civilian notice. We’d gotten used to it. By 2001, the ability of a president to start and wage military operations without (or even in spite of) Congress was established. By 2001, even the peacetime US military budget was well over half the size of all other military budgets in the world combined. By 2001, the spirit of the Abrams Doctrine - that disruption of civilian life is the price of admission for war - was pretty much kaput. By 2001, we’d freed ourselves of all those hassles, all those restraints tying us down.” (187) What we have been left with, when it comes to military matters, is the makings of an Imperial presidency.
“One Hell of a Killing Machine,” the title of chapter 8, is a very apt description of the trained (and admittedly impressive) lethality of American military and intelligence forces. Here Maddow essentially outlines the transformation of America’s spy service into a new, out-of-uniform (and 100% deniable) branch of the military, using its clandestine drone program. The secrecy of the drone program, such as explanations about who shoots and who dies and by what rules, also extends to secrecy about its budget. We know that the government spends about $55 billion a year on civilian intelligence, along with $27 billion in military intelligence, but we know nothing more than the top-line figure and, by all accounts, will never know more than that.
While the CIA still briefs a very few Congressional Intelligence members on what it is doing, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) can do most anything they want in the War on Terror, go anywhere the president chooses to send them, and without telling anyone. JSOC has most heavily been used during the second Bush presidency and currently under Obama as well.
The price of all this awesome lethality, the cost and the burden to our military personnel, is staggeringly different from any other time in our nation’s history - less than 1% of American adults have been called up to serve in the decades long wars since 9/11. The American public is no longer really touched by war. We have settled into a way of waging war that ensures minimal political pushback, and instead of asking the American public to make sacrifices through enlistment and/or taxes, we simply extend the combat tours of those already serving, hire more private contractors, and take on more debt. We are using everyone in uniform, right up to the limit, and price has been no object. As justification to constant combat, there are those who believe that troops must always be used in combat, not in any peaceable capacity - that is what they are there for isn’t it?
As evidence of this “drift” between civilian and military life, this reviewer has noticed, while browsing social media sites on a patriotic holidays, that you will see a multitude of postings about supporting and remembering our troops, but most of that is still on the periphery of our lives. There is no “citizen-soldier” anymore, and the burden on all Americans in times of war that was present just two generations ago is a vague memory to most living today. Unemployment, suicide, and other social-emotional and financial issues among veterans are seen as a “military” problem, not an civilian problem. And when a private military contractor dies, instead of a soldier that might have been doing that job, the American public barely mourns the loss. We rarely even hear about them. As far as public relations goes, our heavy use of private contractors distances the American public from the cost and burden of war even more.
What we have now is a highly trained and experienced military power, arguably the best trained in the world. And that isn’t something easy to give up. Recruits want to serve. Commanders want to expand on that progress, use those skills, and maintain that level of combat preparedness, not let them atrophy. Politicians don’t want to be seen as “unpatriotic” by recommending budget cuts or scaling back military action overseas, even when the Pentagon asks for cuts. But somewhere in there must be a balance between the cost and burden (financially, politically, emotionally) of our military machine and maintaining skills and preparedness.
Chapter 9 is “An $8 Trillion Fungus Among Us.” A sadly apt title, this chapter outlines the deplorable, even ludicrous, state of the nuclear weapons program. There are air launched cruise missiles with fungus on their wings. Corrosion on nuclear weapon storage and shipping containers. Maintenance issues, such as failing fuzes, that need fixed by people with hard-won technical expertise - except there is no one around anymore who is trained to fix them. The old guys who designed and understood this stuff have died off and today’s engineers didn’t get the update. Formulas necessary to refurbish certain bombs were never written down (apparently) and the formulas haven’t been reproducible. Active nukes have been “lost” (eleven that we admit to) or transported without anyone’s knowledge. And even though we aren’t taking very good care of the nukes we already have stockpiled, there is still a call to find reasons to spread more nukes around the world. While we are tackling the problem of how to take care of our aging nuclear weapons program, there is still very little discussion on the big question of why we still have it.
In the epilogue, “You Build it, You Own It,” Maddow recognizes how impressive, well-trained, and efficient the US military is, after a decade of war and two decades of military buildup. What she asks for is a greater attention to what we have created, why it has been created, how we use it, and how to spread the burden and cost of war to Americans as a whole country. Essentially, we built it, we need to own it, and deal with the consequences.
One of those consequences is the disconnect between veterans and civilians. “With tax cuts in wartime, with no sense of collective national sacrifice on behalf of the war effort, with less than 1% of the American population taking up arms to fight, with US casualties politically and literally shielded from public view, the cumulative effect was to normalize our national wartime. We’ve become a nation ‘at peace with being at war.’ And as the country learned to be untroubled by the fact that we had troops at war, troops coming home from those wars learned to look out for themselves” (246).
The general consensus among post-9/11 veterans is that the American public doesn’t know about the issues military families face, nor do they want to know. And while veterans are creating their own support networks to deal with their needs and issues, this further disengages the public and military from each other. The occasional media human interest piece on a veteran and his family doesn’t bridge that gap. Patriotism has become a ideal dealt with at a comfortable distance from reality. Maddow’s recommendations for a course correction are as follows:
- The saying “Freedom isn’t free” should be more than a bumper sticker, it should be fiscal policy. When we ship troops off to war, we should all pay for it.
-Do away with the secret military. If we are going to use drones, the Air Force should operate those drones and pull the trigger. If the CIA is going to do military missions, they need to be accountable like the military is. Same goes for policy makers. “Special Forces can be unconstrained and clandestine to the bad guys but not to Congress.” (249)
-Quit asking the military to do things best left to the State Department, the Peace Corps, or FEMA (for example). Don’t ask military leaders to make policy judgements and decisions. Constitutionally, decisions about whether to go to war or not, or to back out, are to be left to elected policy makers like the president. Hold them accountable for that responsibility.
-Our Guard and Reserves should be the institutions that weave civilian and military life together. “When we ship these men and women off to war, civilian communities all over America should feel that loss” (250).
-Wind back the privatization of war and the military’s dependence on contractors for what used to be military functions. And when private contractors on our payroll commit illegal acts, they should be prosecuted, not given more contracts.
- “Our military and weapons prowess is a fantastic and perfectly weighted hammer, but that doesn't make every international problem a nail” (251). In other words, stop looking for war on every horizon.
-Shrink our existing nuclear infrastructure to fit our country’s realistic nuclear mission. Clearly define that mission and only expend what we need to do that.
- We have radically departed from constitutional presidential powers. “This is not a partisan thing - constitutionalists left and right have equal reason to worry over the lost constraint on the executive” (252). Democrats and Republicans (indeed all parties) can vote into office a Congress that will assert the legislature's constitutional prerogatives on war and peace.
I agree with Maddow’s summation that we need to revive that old ideal of American as a deliberately peaceable nation, not one always on the lookout for war. I admit that this will be a new way of thinking for many of my generation, who grew to adulthood post-Cold War era when the bulk of this military build up and redefining of presidential war powers has occured. I have never observed a sitting president have open public debate on the merits of making war. I have never seen Congressional debate about the merits of going to war. I have seen a great deal of supposedly “justified” secrecy. I have seen my children grow up in a nation at war at all times, where military service is something someone else does as a career but one that affects very little of anyone else’s life. As an LDS person, the issues covered in this book have particular relevance, given that our Gospel is a gospel of peace. I became aware this past year of a billboard and online campaign called “We are a warlike people” (http://warlikepeople.com/) based on quotes and teaching from LDS church authorities. Almost every LDS person I know has a family member who has served active duty in the past decade. The United States as a whole, and in my opinion LDS people in particular, need to have a very honest discussion about the difference between patriotism and war-mongering, and what role our military should play at home and abroad.
"Drift" is a well-written, heavily researched account of American military waywardness and excess, post-Vietnam war era to present day. The book is very accessible, sometimes humorous, and pretty even handed, save for the occasional partisan jab. While the structure of the book wanders a bit towards the last chapters, "Drift" does a great job in opening the debate on questions such as the role of private contractors in the military, Congress being sidestepped in its power to declare war, the state of our nuclear weapons program and the CIA's role in prosecuting the "War on Terror." While a reader may not agree with all of Maddow’s points, this is a book that should kick-start the American public into a serious and vocal debate about the future of US foreign policy and military objectives.
Full Citation for this Article: Stearmer, Janille Shumway (2012) "Review: 'Drift: the Unmooring of American Military Power' by Rachel Maddow," SquareTwo, Vol. 5 No. 2 (Summer), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleStearmerDriftReview.html, [give access date].
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