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Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power - Rachel Maddow Updated - 5/26/13 - new link at bottom

Suppose they gave a war and no one protested?

That sounds like heaven on earth for some politicos, some military leaders and a whole lot of contractors who have been growing Jabba-the-Hutt chunky on public dollars.

Rachel Maddow, the most charming, and surely one of the brightest political commentators on the scene, has written a thoughtful analysis of how we got from what, in law if not always in practice, was a disinclination towards war, to the current state of affairs in which presidents can pretty much lock and load at will.
The founders feared that maintaining [a standing army] would drain our resources in the same way that maintaining the eighteenth-century British military had burdened the colonies. They worried that a powerful military could rival civilian government for power in our new country, and of course they worried that having a standing army would create too much of a temptation to use it. Those worries about the inevitable incentives to war were part of what led to the division of government at the heart of our Constitution, building into the structure of our new country a deliberate peaceable bias.

But in the past generation or two, we’ve drifted off that historical course. The steering’s gone wobbly, the brakes have failed. It’s not a conspiracy, there aren’t rogue elements pushing us to subvert our national interests to instead serve theirs. It’s been more entertaining and boneheaded than that.
There are two general brakes on war-making, Congress guarding its power and the people resisting the call of leaders for citizens to fight and maybe die fighting on foreign soil without offering a very persuasive argument.

Maddow makes a point about the erosion of Congressional power re war. There’s that pesky old Constitution thing that reserves the power to declare war for Congress, not the president. Tsk, tsk, how inconvenient. We can’t have a president’s hands tied. Congress has actually declared war, or authorized words to that effect, for only five wars anyway. However, the USA has fought over a hundred wars run with the sole authority of the executive, so Constitution, Schmonstitution, the 1973 War Powers Act notwithstanding.

She pays particular attention to the fun times of the Reagan Administration when ignoring, under-mining (yes, intended), steam-rolling out of existence and subverting explicit Congressional intentions became a sort of sport for those in the executive office. But don’t think that there is any sort of partisanship going on here. The truth is what it is, and Maddow is more than happy to point out the many instances in which Democratic presidents did their best to utilize and preserve the expanded powers their Republican predecessors carved out for the office. If you are looking for evidence of partisan bias, a supportive quote from Roger Ailes on the back cover should dispel any concern. This is a scholarly examination of a clear and present danger, independent of party or ideological affiliation.

She looks at the rise of what is known as the unitary executive, that was promoted by a cabal of wing-nuts into what we recognize today as current reality. That is fascinating, but I do wish Maddow had offered a bit more on how often presidents just did what they wanted to in a longer historical view, Congress be damned.

And there are other ways that Congress, even with their war-declaring power effectively gelded, can make trouble, oversight committees and the like. Well, how about shifting the military actions into areas that Congress can see, but will not be able to talk about? Check. With much military work now being performed by the CIA, when oversight committees actually find out what is going on, they are barred from telling anyone because the information is, you know, secret. All freedoms burn so nicely on the pyre of national security, or claims of national security anyway.

Then there’s the populace. What keeps war from being popular? Well, one thing is if it is you or your kids who are on the receiving end of the incomings, or having to cope with those irritating IEDs. So, if we want to keep the public out of this arena, it helps to eliminate the draft. We don’t want noisemakers, or people who actually matter to have a personal reason to get their panties in a bunch about our diplomacy by other means.

What else? There is a way of waging war that requires the introduction of massive force. Known as the Powell Doctrine, this approach required the use of large numbers of troops and hardware, all at once. Better, if you want to keep things on the down-low to use as few troops as possible. Parallel to this is another war-planning notion, The Abrams Doctrine, a product of the Viet Nam war, in which the military felt that they had been separated from the civilian population, and thus were disregarded. It held that in times of war the nation should rely not just on the members of our standing military, but should summon member of the Reserves and National Guard. That gets noticed by the population, as family members are called to the battlefield, having to vacate actual jobs. So what might the canny political war planner do to mitigate such a negative effect? One thing would be to reduce the military personnel required to wage war. Instead of, say, Sergeant Cookie Jowls, spending his time peeling potatoes and preparing meals, the army might hire a contractor to take care of that. Instead of, say, Private B Bailey, getting stuck with laundry duty, soldiers might drop their blood-stained dainties off at the KBR-o-Mat. And if you are in the advanced class, you might start using private contractors for actual fighting. Xe-ing is believing. The folks back home tend to get a lot more upset about the death of a 19-year-old kid next door than they do about the demise of a 35-year-old South African mercenary.

So, keep wars out of the public consciousness. Keep Congress from futzing with every shiny new war opportunity that comes along. Maddow shows how these twin developments have come to pass. She has also included fascinating reportage on how and when the percentage of our spending on the military shot up to its current stratospheric levels. She looks at some ongoing defense issues, such as coping with aging nuclear hardware, how the huge quantities of money being spent on the military come at the expense of other domestic needs, how peace may sound nice but does not do so well as a political plank, and there was a wonderful section on the training of the Great Communicator.

I have a few gripes about Drift. I wish that Maddow had dedicated more space to the impact of media on shaping public consciousness. A mention of Judy Miller might have been appropriate. Or maybe a bit on how the Fox News network has acted as nothing less than a mouthpiece for right-wing Republican interests. I know that she has written an analysis of history that looks at events and tries to perceive their impact, and that she is probably concerned that her work will be painted as partisan hackery by the right, but, Ailes’ quote notwithstanding, the right will assail anything she produces, even a shopping list, as partisan hackery. I am reminded of the foolishness of President Obama attempting to come to reasonable compromises with the bomb-throwers of Tea Party persuasion who have taken the Republican Party captive. You are wasting your time. Nothing you can say will ever get through the brain-reality barriers that have been erected here. Have at it.

I was surprised that there was no mention of President Eisenhauer’s speech, the one in which he said, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

I thought that the many non-Congress-ok’d wars that preceded Viet Nam deserved a bit more of a mention. The current emasculation of Congress does not seem all that new when one looks at the long historical view.

So, I would say that her analysis is fascinating, but less than complete. Maybe in a follow up?

She offers a passel of policy suggestions at the end of the book. One includes paying for wars as we fight them, using taxes or bonds. Um, isn’t a bond a loan? How is that different from garden-variety federal fund-raising? She suggests that we move all actual military options back under the military, taking them away from info-blackout organizations like the CIA. This, like the rest, are commonsensical. They are not no-brainers in the world of political reality, given the existence of powerful special interests which have a vested interest in things continuing as they are. But it would be hard to argue against, say, reducing our nuclear infrastructure to what we actually need.

Maddow certainly offers a clear timeline, and I can see how one can view the changes that have occurred as drift, but it seems to me that a vessel that is drifting is being passively moved from one place to another by unconscious natural forces, like tides and currents. In the case of fast-tracking our war-making capacity, it seems that the forces involved have been anything but natural. What is likelier is that we have been pushed into our current unmoored state by forces with a strong interest in promoting endless war. It would be a good thing for us to push back lest we find ourselves sinking, in shark-infested waters.


GR friend Elizabeth pointed out in comment #15 a lovely NPR interview with Maddow, and has ok'd inclusion of the link here. There is a lot of interesting material there. So thanks, Elizabeth.

This is the site for Rachel's show on MSNBC

5/26/13 - The following New York Times op ed, Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart, By Karl W. Eikenberry and David M. Kennedy is definitely worth a look