Though we are at war, most of us do not see its reality. As a nation, we are more and more distant from the suffering of the men and women who do our fighting and less and less able to influence our leaders, who squander billions of dollars on national security to the detriment of the domestic economy and our democratic institutions — without making us safer.
These are the tenets of Rachel Maddow's new book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (Random House), which introduces the modern national security state and explains how it imperils America's democratic values, sacrificing real humans, often for unclear or questionable aims.
Maddow, who appeared April 14 at Town Hall in Seattle, is best known as the host of her witty MSNBC political talk program, The Rachel Maddow Show, but her accolades go far beyond her broadcasting accomplishments. She is a Rhodes Scholar with a doctorate in political science from Oxford, which no doubt contributes to her ability to deftly explain the intricacies of foreign policy and constitutional law for a broad audience — with acerbic wit. As the daughter of an Air Force captain, she also grew up with a concern for military matters.
Drift explains, in compelling and clear prose, how the military's role changed as presidential power in foreign policy expanded and Congress ceded its constitutional authority to declare war. It is a change Maddow traces back to Lyndon B. Johnson, who ignored Congress as he expanded the U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam.
Since Johnson, each successive administration has expanded the president's power on national security and eliminated their responsibility to Congress or public objections. Richard Nixon famously claimed that if the president does it, it’s not illegal.
But it is the Reagan administration that Maddow singles out for its hypermilitarism, fear mongering, and radical expansion of executive authority. Reagan, Maddow writes, “claimed the private right to go to war, in secret, against the express will of the Congress.”
In 1983 he did just that, bypassing Congress to invade the tiny island of Grenada — ostensibly to rescue American medical students. The operation, as Maddow details, was terribly botched: U.S. forces did not know where the students were housed — or that they were not in danger; U.S. bombs accidentally destroyed a mental hospital, leaving 18 patients dead. The total toll of the misadventure was over 300 Grenadians dead or wounded and 19 Americans killed in action — 17 by friendly fire.
The Iran-Contra scandal further exposed Reagan for his willingness to conduct covert military operations in violation of the law. The administration had secretly sold weapons to Iran to fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua, defying a Congressional ban on the use of federal funds for this purpose.
Reagan’s advisors argued that the president has the authority to act without congressional consent to protect national security, even if it means violating existing laws and treaties. Though a congressional committee blasted the administration’s illegal efforts to fund a war in Nicaragua, Rep. Dick Cheney dissented, insisting that the Iran-Contra scandal was not a crime.
There was, he said, nothing in America’s political structure to “constrain a president from waging any war he wanted, anywhere he wanted.”
In spite of its critique of Reagan's pioneering and radical views on presidential power, Drift wisely does not paint the shift as a partisan issue. Even President Obama, Maddow notes, has maintained the expanded presidential powers inherited from previous administrations. Democratic presidents haven't quashed a burgeoning defense and security establishment, especially with the continuing use of unsupervised and unchecked private contractors in Iraq and Aghanistan and the introduction of unmanned drones in secret attacks.
Instead Maddow returns to the constitution to make her point. The drafters of our nation's founding document, she writes, purposely created a government that was disinclined to war. Our current willingness to fight resource-draining wars that siphon away funds for domestic needs would not have been considered patriotic.
To avoid putting too much power in the hands of a single individual, Maddow contends, our forefathers intended Congress — not the president — to have the power to declare war. An intention with significant political precedent to back it up: Most notably the bloody wars that kings had ignited with impunity in Europe.
The use of large standing armies, Maddow claims, would also have appalled early American leaders, who would have considered them a threat to civilian government and an invitation for a leader to use force.
Though Maddow concedes that we need a strong military, Drift is adamant about the need for stronger debate about how we go to war. Despite our state of continual war, only a tiny fraction of citizens is directly touched by our conflicts. And though the military is our most effective and capable ever, individual soldiers — repeatedly deployed — cannot be called on to bear the strain of war indefinitely.
Unless the public is involved, she contends, we are doomed to constant war and that bodes badly for our imperatives of liberty and prosperity at home. To prevent the unnecessary human and economic cost of armed conflict, Drift argues, waging war should be wrenchingly difficult for a democratic nation.
Maddow concludes her book with several ideas for reform, perhaps the most salient of which is to question the “imperial presidency” and elect people to Congress who will constrain the president's executive power and “assert the legislature’s constitutional prerogatives on war and peace.”
Fans of Maddow will enjoy Drift for her trademark humor and her uncanny ability to shape an argument from small details: A comment on a Pentagon study on the cost of daycare for the toddlers of military families grows seamlessly into an overview of the vast expenses of often unaccountable private contractors such as Halliburton and Blackwater.
Though some may be put off by her quirkier asides (“Whoopsie!” in describing mishandling of nuclear weapons), her readable and entertaining account of how America’s warmaking has become almost invisible to the public offers a valuable starting point for discussion of why policy decisions matter and how the public disconnect can be corrected. Her provocative, eye-opening work is a public service for those unaware of America's grim decline into a bloated, overfunded, and unchecked national security state.
In true Maddow style and despite her haunting history of our drift towards imperiled democracy, the author even manages to close on a hopeful note: Change is not impossible.
“We just need to revive that old idea of America as a deliberately peaceable nation," she writes. "That’s not simply our inheritance, it’s our responsibility.”