Gordon's Reviews > Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power

Drift by Rachel Maddow
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's review
Jun 22, 2012

it was amazing
Read in June, 2012

Drift describes the process by which, since Johnson's administration during the Vietnam War, war-making powers have moved more and more into the hands of the President, acting alone. This isn't what the authors of the U.S. Constitution intended, nor is it what that document explicitly states: only Congress has the power to declare war, and only Congress has the power to approve the funding to make war. Somehow, we've gotten away from that. We've only declared war a handful of times in our history, and the last time we did so was in 1941. Yet we have gone to war innumerable times since our founding -- by one count, 200 times, in wars large and small. How did this happen?

Maddow starts her story in 1964. During Johnson's administration, the president was reluctant to call up the National Guard or the reserves in order to prosecute his escalating war in Vietnam. He didn't think it would last long, he thought he could win it just by using the regular armed forces, and most of all he didn't want to get Congress involved. A cornerstone of Maddow's argument is that Congress was much more willing to go along with Johnson as long as the National Guard and Reserves weren't mobilized. The Guard and reserves were made up of civilians -- airline pilots, salesmen, teachers, plumbers -- who were actually likely to vote. Draftees, on the other hand, were younger, poorer, much less likely to be white, and much less likely to vote. So he never asked for a formal declaration of war, or a call-up of the Guard and the Reserves, and Congress never insisted on one.

Thus, the war was instead fought mainly by the regular Army and Marines along with hundreds of thousands of young draftees. Maddow thinks that this somehow isolated the war from the mainstream of society, so that we never truly wholeheartedly went to war as a country. I'm not sure this thesis really holds water, and seems to me the weakest part of her argument. It was far from clear that the Vietnam war made any strategic or moral sense, and there was certainly nothing approaching a national consensus that this war was worth fighting and dying for.

Maddow really hits her stride in describing the shenanigans of the Reagan regime. By the 1980's, Reagan was in office, it was morning in America, the birds were singing, and the lessons of Vietnam had been willfully forgotten barely five years after the last US troops and diplomats had been chaotically evacuated by helicopter from the rooftop of the US embassy in Saigon as the North Vietnamese closed in. Shunning big wars, Reagan instead eagerly embraced bite-sized wars to assert his military power: Panama, Grenada, and Lebanon, to start with. He then went off in search of other easier fields of glory, and hit on Central America. Here he chose to fight his wars mainly by proxy, by arming the dictatorships of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

After Somoza's Nicaraguan dictatorship fell to the Sandinista insurgents, Reagan turned to arming dissident Nicaraguan ethnic groups, peasants unhappy with Sandinista land reforms, and ex-members of Somoza's army and security forces -- mainly based in neighboring Honduras. One problem with the Nicaraguan adventure was that Congress had explicitly forbidden him to do so. This posed little difficulty for Reagan, who funded his operation by shipping arms to the Israelis, who in turn sold them to a member of the "axis of evil", Iran. The profits from this were channeled to Swiss bank accounts, and then used to fund the contra guerillas in battling the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. This scheme violated multiple pieces of legislation and Reagan's own declared policies of dealing with the Axis of Evil.

Inevitably, Reagan was caught, and the result was the Iran-Contra scandal that marred his second term (and should probably have resulted in his impeachment). Others took the fall for Reagan while he himself took refuge behind the faulty memory of an old man, and washed his hands of any real responsibility: "mistakes were made." After the fact, Reagan also took refuge behind the claim that he was within his Presidential powers in taking these actions anyway. As Maddow points out, the extreme secrecy under which Reagan attempted to carry out these activities makes clear that not even he actually believed that.

Even if Reagan didn't really believe it, his successors apparently did, most notably the second President Bush. With Dick Cheney as his hound, Bush asserted a notion of presidential power that effectively claimed that war was whatever he defined it to be, and he had all the authority he needed on his own to commit US troops to battle. It took some torturing of constitutional law to come to this conclusion, of course.

In parallel with this pushing outward of the bounds of presidential war-making power, two other developments greatly aided the process, argues Maddow. The first was the massive increase in the outsourcing of military functions to private companies providing logistics (transport, food preparation, construction etc) and soldiers-for-hire, known as mercenaries in the rest of the world. The second factor is the massive increase in the use of flying killer robots, a.k.a. Predator drones. Using these, we can make war without committing any troops whatsoever, not even a single pilot. The President now has a armed strike force under his command, largely funded by a black ops budget, and with no US body bags being flown home to Dover Air Force Base.

The point repeatedly made by Maddow is that this transfer of war-making power to the President is a very bad thing, and was recognized as a very great danger by the founders such as Madison and Jefferson. Presidents are very prone to start wars, if they can do it all on their own. It has to be made difficult for the country to go to war, and that's why this decision was put in the hands of Congress, not any single man. Whatever its faults, Congress is far less likely to rush into new wars than is the President. But this system of restraint has almost entirely broken down, and Maddow has a few recommendations about how to fix it. Some of the key ones are:
• If we go to war, we should pay for it out of current taxes.
• No more secret military arm in the CIA.
• Get the vast majority of the contractors out of our armed forces. They're not saving us any money and they're not accountable (think Blackwater killing Iraqi civilians).
• Let's put Congress back in charge of the decision to make war or not. Where war is concerned, the President is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, not the king.

All in all, this was a great book. It wasn't as deep an analysis as perhaps that of Andrew Bacevich (see for example his book Washington Rules, among several he has written on the subject) or of Kenneth Hagan's Unintended Consequences: The United States at War. But it's well-researched, told with a compelling and witty narrative, and analyzes the evolution of presidential war-making power over the last half-century superbly.


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message 1: by Masching (new)

Masching Fascinating review. A great summary of US war-making history for the last 40 odd years, for those of us unlikely to read the book, much as I like Rachel M and admire her clear thinking. Thanks for all the insights Gord.

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