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Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power

By Rachel Maddow
Crown, 2012

Cable news in America is a shiny wasteland of pap and noisome personality, so it doesn’t sound like much of a compliment to say The Rachel Maddow Show is better than all that, but surely even relative quality should count for something. Maddow, a Stanford graduate and a Rhodes Scholar, doesn’t scream at her guests, berate foreigners or promote conspiracy theories. She’s smart, articulate, and endearingly self-deprecating in interviews. In the 24-hour news world these qualities are rare as aurochs.

Still, the medium bows to no one. In 2008, when she was only guest-hosting on MSNBC, Maddow told an interviewer that on her radio show “I almost never talk about right-wing talk-show hosts or Fox. I don’t consider myself to be watchdogging the right the way Keith [Olbermann] does.” But The Rachel Maddow Show is a cable program about politics, and a rival to Fox News; “watchdogging” is expected. Maddow is unable or unwilling to work around this competition, or the snark and flash that sustain it. Interesting thinkers make fewer appearances on her show than, say, cultural dinosaurs like Pat Buchanan or dissembling buffoons like Michael Moore, and as a team player Maddow defends her network and spends hours each week making fun of Fox or whatever preposterous thing Republicans are doing at the moment. This is pretty low-hanging fruit, and I think it explains why her new book isn’t very good.

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power argues that institutional checks against the executive’s ability to make war have eroded; that the population is walled off from the hardships of the average soldier; that too many of the military’s functions have been privatized, to the benefit of none save the companies who win contracts; that the intelligence community has become a branch of the military, a shadow force of soldiers and deadly weaponry immune from oversight; and that we waste far too much money on unnecessary programs and useless nuclear infrastructure made for an age long past. These are Rachel Maddow’s conclusions, and I happen to agree with just about all of them. But nearly four years of razzing lightweights and debating political ephemera have taken a toll on her. Drift is full of sketchy history, badly organized, and often incredibly annoying: Maddow makes jokes on TV, and some of them are even funny, but here they’re limp and juvenile, a short step away from emoticons and text-messaging shorthand.

We get stuff like this: in the twentieth century “this country developed a serious war jones,” in opposition to the tradition laid down by the Founders, who “were onto something with their cautions about that whole military vainglory thing.” That follows soon after a very elegant eighteenth-century quote, so I’m guessing Maddow is trying to keep it demotic for the average reader. Barry Goldwater is described as an “anti-Communist badass,” and the hawks who fought military cuts and new checks on executive power after Vietnam are the “oh-no-you-don’t defense intelligentsia.” Maddow quotes a devastating tirade by House Speaker Tip O’Neill about Ronald Reagan, who wanted to invade Grenada:

This is Machiavelli: If they can’t love ya, make ‘em feel ya. He is wrong in his policy. He’s caused us continuous harm… He only works three and a half hours a day. He doesn’t do his homework. He doesn’t read his briefing papers. It’s sinful that this man is President of the United States.

—and can’t resist punctuating it with a schoolbus inanity: “Damn,” she helpfully adds.

This is especially irritating because Maddow can actually write solid prose, but like a nervous comedian at a dinner table she can’t go five minutes without cracking a joke or someone will think she’s Too Serious. Accordingly, the best chapter in the book, about the growth of defense outsourcing, is one where she mostly keeps it straight. As Maddow explains, the first Gulf War, though “relatively bloodless for the away team” (no subject is too grim for her shafts of wit), was also very expensive:

In dozens of studies commissioned and funded by the Pentagon or the separate branches of services in the early ‘90s, it was generally taken as an article of faith that the private sector did things cheaper. Those task forces, after all, were manned by a rotating phalanx of corporate executives (many retired military) from companies like Boeing and Westinghouse… salted with some active-duty generals and maybe a few think tankers. After small-scale private-contractor deployments to accompany US military missions in the early 1990s in places like Haiti, Somalia, and Rwanda, the Pentagon was looking to go big… The grand-scale cotillion debut for the privateers would be the Balkans.

The malfeasance of Blackwater and others in Iraq is well known today, but the downsides of privatization were there from the beginning:

It turned out they [Brown & Root] were flying sheets of plywood into Bosnia from the United States, thus transforming each $14 sheet into an $85.98 sheet… overruns had raised the payout on their Army contract from $350 million to $461 million. One of the big drivers in the cost overrun was their “Management and Administration” line item, which came in $69 million over budget, an impressive 80 percent overrun.

Another company, Dyncorp, which provided a police force for the UN mission and performed maintenance on aircraft, employed workers who regularly clocked in drunk, skipped shifts, and bought sex slaves (some underage) from the local mafia. A Dyncorp police monitor working for the UN tried to investigate, but she was reassigned and later fired. Some employees were sent home, but no one was ever prosecuted, because of the legal cocoon in which contractors operate. The same cost overruns and unaccountability would plague Iraq a decade later.

Stale gags aside, Maddow makes a convincing case. But the book’s next chapter is an unexpected two dozen-page digression on America’s outdated nuclear weapons infrastructure, unconnected with anything earlier in the book, only vaguely justified when it appears, and, of course, full of stupid jokes. Maddow has been working on Drift, in some form or another, since 2008, but it’s a small thing, a scant 250 pages, with large font, generous spacing and wide margins, like one of those gift books publishers churn out before Christmas. The nuclear tangent and the formatting would be the requisite padding, but even the chapters germane to the argument at hand are foggy and episodic.

Which brings us to Drift’s biggest flaw. The book isn’t clearly organized, and neither are Maddow’s ideas about how the national security state became what it is today. At the heart of this diffuseness is the very conventional idea that we have lost our way and that we have to get back to the traditions the Founders laid out for us and blah blah blah. Every cable news personality in existence has written one of these national course correctors (well, not Keith Olbermann; he made a list of people he didn’t like and had it bound), and it’s depressing that Maddow has elected to join such an undistinguished crowd.

You’ll recall that during the 20th century America “developed a serious war jones.” Maddow is correct to argue that the Founders wanted to make initiating war a difficult thing, and they hoped to ensure this by investing the power to declare war in the legislature and making no provision for a standing army. She quotes Jefferson:

There are instruments too dangerous to the rights of the nation and which place them so totally at the mercy of their governors, that those governors, whether legislative or executive, should be restrained from keeping such instruments on foot, but in well-defined cases. Such an instrument is a standing army.

“Whenever we went to war in a big way,” Maddow tells us, “we went to war with citizen-soldiers… When the United States went to war, the entire United States went to war.” And war was tough on the population, a reality that was supposed to discourage President and Congress from beginning it. According to Maddow, it worked for 150 years:

Jeffersonian prudence held sway in this country for a century and a half… no nation’s military demobilized with such verve and velocity when the fighting was over. Hell, volunteers on the battlefields were legally separating themselves from the US Army with the Mexican War still raged in 1847. The War of 1812, the Creek War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, they were all the same: the clarion call to duty, the citizens’ eager answer, the victory parades… and the return to home and hearth.

The pattern held after World War I, and though World War II left tens of thousands of American troops stationed around the world, by 1950 the roster of active duty personnel had shrunk by nearly 90 percent. In the decades that followed, “we trusted or commanders in chief… to project our military power in measured and meaningful ways” and the “military was an institution of unsurpassed public esteem, top to bottom.”

Vietnam, we’re told, is when things started to go wrong. Johnson refused to call up the reserves and the National Guard, the “citizen-soldiers,” and relied instead on the draft, a decision that “tore the military from the heart of the country, and… tore the country from the heart of the military.” When the war was finally over, the “troops’ disenchantment with country’s civilian cohort was real, but so was civilian disenchantment with the Vietnam War, and with the military itself. And it was not confined to student activists and peaceniks.”

I’m going to stop there, because it would be an understatement to say that this whole line of reasoning is cripplingly incomplete. The most difficult fact for Americans to digest after Vietnam was simply that their country had lost. French colonialism and the fraudulent Gulf of Tonkin incident never mattered. Johnson and Nixon received enormous latitude from the population’s indifference or ignorance, and the majority of Americans believed for years that victory was the only condition under which their military should come home. The fact of defeat, and the loss of nearly sixty thousand Americans (two million or more dead Southeast Asians were a distant concern) made the country, and hence its leaders, reluctant to go to war. The deployment of troops to Vietnam had met little opposition, and it was the same with all the older wars Maddow glibly lists. However quick America’s leaders were to send the troops home, they rarely found trouble, from the citizens or their fellow politicians, when they sent them out.

And that has always been the case: the 150-year golden age Maddow speaks of is largely a fiction. The truth is that the Founders’ hopes of keeping the United States a “peaceable nation” were doomed from the start. America was born aching to expand (Britain’s relative restraint annoyed colonists like George Washington), and each new slice of territory restoked ambition and broadened its interests. The Mexican-American War, the Indian Wars, and the Spanish-American War were ultimately instruments of acquisition, and they brought the military across a continent, a hemisphere, and then beyond, to the Philippines, all before that supposed “war jones” took hold. The isolationism that took root between the World Wars was partial and brief; the Cold War stretched America’s concerns around the entire globe.

Conflict, for good or ill, is inherent in such a posture, and if politics, logistics or law prevent the deployment of troops, there’s always the CIA. Maddow rightly bemoans its increasing militarization (a trend President Obama has worryingly embraced) but is curiously mute about its sixty-year history of instigating coups and other bloody, anti-democratic meddling. I can’t explain her silence (too much info for a gift book, maybe?), but this history suggests that today, as America extricates itself from two unpopular wars, its intelligence services are doing what they’ve always done, only in a different way.

It’s true that the checks on executive power that arose after Vietnam represented a brief renaissance for “Jeffersonian restraint,” but they were never as effective as Maddow – and all their proponents and detractors, including Dick Cheney and the “oh-no-you-don’t defense intelligentsia” – made them out to be. Drift is very confused about this: at one point Maddow is saying that the post-Nixon restraints didn’t work in the run-up to the first Gulf War. Congress, safe after the 1990 elections were over, voted to endorse the UN resolution, which stated that the “all means necessary” could be used to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. As Maddow describes it, “at the eleventh hour, when war was all but inevitable anyway, the president and Congress did the right thing in spite of themselves.” That barely makes sense, and then she says, “Agree or disagree with the outcome, the system had worked.” But what if you disagree with yourself?

George H.W. Bush could have taken the country to war in Iraq without the fig leaf of Congressional approval and faced no consequences to speak of. None, that is, unless the war went badly, a reality that his son would come to know. But before disaster came, George W. Bush had a popular justification for what he was doing, and apparent success to go along with it. That’s all America’s leaders have ever needed.

So by all means, let us renew checks on the President’s ability to make war, strengthen ties between civilians and soldiers, de-privatize defense spending, demilitarize the intelligence services, and cut useless programs. But let us have no comforting illusions – and no stupid jokes, either – about how we got here.

____
Greg Waldmann, a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly, is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.

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