Jon-Erik's Reviews > Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power

Drift by Rachel Maddow
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's review
Mar 31, 2012

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bookshelves: history, misc-non-fiction, politics
Read from March 29 to 31, 2012

I like Rachel Maddow a lot. People who draw a false equivalency between her and her purported counterparts on the right are far too facile in their comparisons. Maddow is quirky, intelligent, unorthodox, and, above all, she is not angry. And those who have refused her admittance to the ranks of the Very Serious, like The New Republic, are only showing their own rust.

Drift discusses a topic that should be of great concern to any subject of our great empire: that of the increasing militarization of politics. Maddow is obviously not aiming this book at the Chomskian air of academia. In fact, it is what she says it is: a small-'c' conservative review of the drift of which she speaks. It is an argument premised on the beliefs of our Founding Fathers, not merely on the current expediencies of empire.

The one fatal problem with it: it only tells the post-Vietnam part of this issue in that it is premised on the change from wars fought by your neighbors and paid for in your taxes, to wars fought by other people without costing you an immediate penny.

This is certainly a key transition, but it is only the resolution to the set up of the plot that began with the Manhattan Project during World War II and the messianic sense of America's role in the world that that war established. Without these elements, Vietnam would not have been Vietnam. And without the dread of the bomb and the vortex of secrecy that surrounded it and the power to use it from the beginning, there never would have been the same hook for secrecy to sink into to government and metastasize. Maddow is a little bit older than I am, so she is certain to remember the ever-present but subtle terror that the world could simply end in half an hour. This surely informed not only the government's urge to keep its military doings secret, but also fed the public's demand for a sense of security.

The drift began with Truman and the bomb, not with Reagan and his Hollywood gestures about Panama, Grenada, and the salute of the commander-in-chief. At that point, it just became regularized.

If the national command authority, which is the group that controls the use of nuclear weapons (and may or may not be identical with the Constitutional chain of succession) can launch doomsday, it seems, a fortiori, they can send a few troops here or there. Plus, if not for their ability to launch a deadly retaliation, the whole framework of Cold War brinksmanship would break down. Keeping America's nuclear secrets secret, and our ability to spy on Soviet nuclear capabilities secret, created the security state.

To that extent, Gary Wills's Bomb Power is a more incisive telling of this story.

Maddow has a section on the eerie decay of our nuclear forces which are foreshadowed by her comment that they are unusable. But this entire chapter does not seem to support or undermine her thesis, which is entirely separate from considerations of nuclear weapons. Her thesis, that the President can too easily launch wars detached from any cost to the citizenry (and which arrangment is antithetical to our Founders' vision). She makes no argument as to whether conventional wars are more or less likely in absence or presence of a strong and ready nuclear deterrent, and, despite explaining the current condition of our nuclear forces, never really connects the dots between the nuclear arms race in the Cold War and the massive centralization of military authority.

As I mentioned, Gary Wills explains this is great detail. But a simple example familiar to most should suffice. FDR tried and tried to get the US into World War II. Congress just would not do it. Not until Pearl Harbor. There was a formal declaration of war. The next war, Korea, was launched by the President without a declaration of war. We never really stood down from World War II. And there is where the drift began.

Leaving aside the nuclear issue, in the immediate post World War II era and its following years, the President ordered, without declaration of war, involved us in the overthrow of governments in Guatemala and Iran (the latter Maddow mentions), sovereignty-violating overflights of the Soviet Union, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and many other military adventures before we went to Vietnam. Even if you only consider those events that incurred massive mobilization, there is always Korea.

These defects undermine an otherwise informative and fun read and places it right in the center of the firing range conservatives are likely to attack Maddow on whether or not it's what she wrote: another liberal book blaming our problems on Reagan and Vietnam. In this case, this is not only a correct criticism, it's also one that should undermine the book even for liberals.

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