In her engaging new book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, Rachel Maddow thoughtfully and intelligently argues that the current state of US involvement in war is far from what the founding fathers of the country had in mind when they sat down to write the Constitution. Taking her arguments beyond partisan lines and the liberal vs. conservative mentality, Maddow eloquently shows how the US military/war machine drifted toward its current state through a series of decisions made over the course of several decades.
The founding fathers were not fans of war; in fact, Thomas Jefferson even argued against the United States having a standing army in times of peace. War was (and is) expensive, and the founding fathers felt that it should be avoided at all costs. When the country had to go to war, the nation as a whole felt the impact. Maddow writes:
America’s structural disinclination toward war is not a sign that something’s gone wrong. It’s not a bug in the system. It is the system. It’s the way the founders set us up — to ensure our continuing national health. Every Congress is meddlesome, disinclined toward war, and obstructive of a president’s desire for it — on purpose.
There is a reason why the decision to go to war is supposed to be left in the hands of Congress, which is composed of politicians with opposing viewpoints: the decision to go to war is supposed to be fought over. And when the decision is made to go to war, average American families are supposed to feel the impact of their relatives, friends, and neighbors being sent off to fight. Being at war should be a painful, uncomfortable experience for everyone. It shouldn’t be the new normal. But it is.
Starting with the impact of Vietnam and charting the entanglement of wars ever since (the Reagan presidency was a doozy), Maddow looks at the policies that have slowly changed the way wars are now fought and perceived. Unless you’re part of or close to a military family, chances are the ongoing succession of wars has had little impact on your life. To the average citizen, war is a vague concept of something that is fought by soldiers “over there.” News reports on war have become white noise.
Much of this is the result of privatization and the alarming amount of power now held by the Executive branch. War-making decisions are now no longer up for Congressional and public debate and are instead often made in secrecy. When the twenty-first century rolled around and the attacks on September 11 happened, the stage was already set for the never-ending wars the United States is now embroiled in. Maddow writes:
By the time Bill Clinton left office in 2001, an Operation Other Than War, as Pentagon forces called them, could go on indefinitely, sort of on autopilot — 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 precedent.
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 the disruption of civilian life is the price of the admission of war — was pretty much kaput.
By 2001, we’d freed ourselves of all those hassles, all those restraints tying us down.
Which brings us to today, with our never-ending war debt, our soldiers shouldering the burden of serving multiple tours of duty, and our relative feeling of ease with being in a constant state of war. Meanwhile, we are still responsible for shouldering the effects of previous wars, as Maddow points out with a chilling chapter on all of the nuclear missiles that the US has rotting in storage, leftovers from the Cold War.
But as she also points out, it doesn’t have to be this way. While she is realistic about the (un)likelihood of any sitting US president giving up their war-making powers, she does lay out several reasonable suggestions for getting the US back on course. This enlightening book should be required reading for everyone.
Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power was released on March 27, 2012 by Crown Publishing, an imprint of Random House.