Sunday, June 10, 2012

Drift: A Review of a Very Important Book

Many of you may know that Rachel Maddow is one of my favorite political commentators. She's extremely intelligent, extremely funny, one of the best interviewers on American TV today, and - more often than not - fair. In Drift, all of these attributes are displayed clearly. Moreover, the position she takes in this book is decidedly conservative: a call to return to the country's Constitutional roots; to understand the wisdom behind the founders' decision to split responsibility for war-making across two branches of government, and to return to their prescribed model for using military force when it is necessary, not merely desirable, to do so.

Maddow's exquisitely researched book explores the relationships between the American government and its military since the Vietnam war through to its current engagements in Afghanistan and, unofficially but no less deadly for that fact, Pakistan. Maddow also examines the relationship between the legislative (Congressional) and executive (presidential) branches of the American government in using its military. And finally, she notes that, since the end of the Vietnam War, the American public has largely been excluded from discussion of war. What has passed for "discussion" in recent decades has been the slick presentation of spin from those who want to make war (usually presidents) to those whose (at least nominal) support is sought. This spin has typically been presented to both Congress and the public and has largely been unchallenged.

According to Maddow, the USA's current use and oversight of its military has drifted in at least four significant ways. First, its missions have expanded far beyond waging war to providing a broad range of services normally performed by civil governments, such as building sewer systems in the Middle East. Second, oversight of the American military has diminished so that it rests primarily in the hands of one person: whoever happens to occupy the Oval Office at any given time. Third, many military functions have been taken out of the hands of regular military personnel and contracted to mercenaries. And fourth, the American government has made warfare nearly painless for the vast majority of American citizens. All of these drifts are dangerous for the USA and the world at large. Maddow's book is primarily a plea for the USA to get a better grip on its military: streamline its functions away from nation building, keep those functions within the boundaries established by the Constitution (i.e., get rid of the mercenaries), spread oversight and control of the military between the executive and legislative branches, so that it is far more difficult for a president to deploy troops without political debate, and make sure to include the public in the debate by passing on the costs of warfare to them (us) via taxation, rationing of goods, or whatever other measures would be necessary to fund the ventures. Maddow traces the many steps by which all of these drifts have occurred in the past several decades. These steps have been taken by both Republican and Democratic presidents and Congress people, and Maddow lays the responsibilities squarely on all of their shoulders, regardless of party affiliation.

Two points that I found salient about the current situation are:

a) the USA has a whole bunch of nuclear weapons stockpiled here, there and everywhere, and has no idea how to maintain them in working order, and has even lost some of them. Think about that last phrase for a moment! The USA has lost nuclear weapons. If that doesn't scare the stuffing out of you, you're both clueless and hopeless.

b) the recent trend, which has been much used by the Obama administration in recent days, toward using unmanned drone strikes to conduct military raids has made the human costs of warfare nearly invisible to the public. Perhaps even more alarming, these strikes are usually controlled by men in rooms thousands of miles removed from the strike zone. To the outside observer, a drone strike looks eerily like men playing video games on really cool, super-sized video monitors. Again, the physical and psychological distances between those conducting the activities and those paying the prices, whether in economic terms or personal quality of life (or death, as the case may be) terms, is frightening to contemplate. But it needs to be contemplated. And more importantly, discussed, throughout American government and society.

Even though Maddow urges cautious, deliberated action now, she does not paint a doomsday portrait. She believes that the USA can change its military culture and return the country to the position that was advised by the framers of the Constitution: a position that makes it difficult for the country to wage war without engaging in protracted, often contentious, dialog about that decision. Are American politicians and citizens up to the task of behaving responsibly in this matter? I sincerely hope we are.


Dotti said...

I am a Rachel fan, too. Big time. I have this but haven't read it yet ... too busy with summer novels. But this will light my fire to read it when I finish my current novel.

She is amazing.

Evie said...

Dotti - her writing is very readable. Even though you'll be taking in tons of information, you won't feel like you're reading a heavy book.