Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, by Rachel Maddow

Drift. The Unmooring of American Military Power

I’m not sure quite what I expected when I picked up Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, but having a fairly high opinion of Maddow and her intellect, I anticipated being more impressed. The book is OK, but she should be able to do better than OK.

It’s a serious book, though she works in some of the snark and humor that fans love about her show. On the whole, I thought the humor was equal at best compared to that of the show, and maybe a bit weaker, which is odd, since this is a written work that could be edited and rewritten as much as she wanted.

Mostly the book is an argument that it has become too easy for U.S. presidents to get us into a war. To me, some of it reads a little more stream-of-consciousness though. It’s like she has various critical things to say about the presidents of the last few decades and their military and foreign policies, and she puts it all in here, some of it being clearly a part of the overall argument and some of it seemingly rather tangential.

There’s a good long section on Ronald Reagan, which serves as a reminder of just how awful he was. As a candidate, he was so blatantly dishonest and demagogic on the Panama Canal that even Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley, and John Wayne took him to task for his dishonesty. Then as president, it’s hard to imagine anything more clearly an impeachable offense than Iran-Contra.

The book includes some scary anecdotes about under-publicized nuclear accidents.

As would surprise no one who has seen her show (but would likely surprise plenty of conservatives), she’s very pro-troop and pro-veteran. For that matter she’s not even all that anti-war, as long as procedurally we go into wars the way a democracy should. But whatever her opinion of the merits of a given war, she shares the mandatory position of all those—left, right, or center—who publicly comment on such things that those who fight the wars (on the American side anyway) are all and always utterly faultless.

Maybe that’s exactly how she feels, but it’s possible she’s avoiding taking too hard an anti-war stance because she wants to appeal to conservatives and moderates to join her on her procedural points. Then again, snarky (justified) blasting of Reagan doesn’t quite fit that motivation.

But getting back to her central argument, Maddow points out that the Founding Fathers explicitly wanted it to be difficult to go to war, and wanted that to be Congress’s call.

She puts a lot of emphasis on the Abrams Doctrine (that reserves and National Guard members should have to be called up to have enough soldiers to go to war), and contends that if followed, this would make presidents a lot more wary of going to war, since lots of ordinary citizens who are more civilian than soldier would be called up. When instead you have a large standing army of poor people, mercenaries, and dronelike technologies to fight the wars, it’s easier to go to war.

You’d think that point would apply even more to a draft, but she doesn’t go there. I’m not sure why. Does she fear it would be too unpopular with her political allies on the left to advocate for a draft?

I’m sure I agree more than I disagree with her stance in this book, but I’m not without some skepticism.

Let’s say things changed to where, as she wants, Congress and the public had a lot more say over whether we go to war. What would be the consequences? Would we be a less militaristic nation?

It seems to me the public can be manipulated pretty easily, and Congress even more so. No politician wants to be Neville Chamberlain. You can be wrong a hundred times in the other direction and still have a career, but you better not be wrong in claiming that it’s not necessary to go to war against a certain foe.

It may well be that if presidents had to put more effort into “selling” wars we’d end up with the same wars but just additional lying and propaganda and salesmanship. No decrease in the violence, but an increase in the bullshit.

Maddow closes Drift with eight bullet points of suggested changes (e.g., pay for wars as we go along with taxes and/or war bonds, greatly reduce the extent to which private contractors do the things soldiers used to do, etc.) that are all or mostly unobjectionable. If we did all those things, I agree we’d be better off than we are now. I’m not convinced, though, that the differences would be as great as she suggests, that we’d really see a significant drop in militarism and war.


2 thoughts on “Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, by Rachel Maddow

  1. Jason Preater February 8, 2015 / 11:52 pm

    Read this review just after reading about Lethal Autonomous technology on the Frailest Thing: worth a look?


    • Philo February 20, 2015 / 1:52 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation (and comment). After seeing your post I did indeed read that essay. I have many, many thoughts on it, but will resist the temptation to reply in full, as it would take a long essay to do so. I’ll just note one of the many points that came to mind:

      I instinctively agree with the claim often made that the more detached you become from doing the actual killing, the less inhibitions you have about killing, though I don’t know that the step to lethal autonomous robots is a bigger step than many already taken (from hand-to-hand combat to guns, from guns to bombs, from bombs to unmanned drones operated from thousands of miles away, etc.). But on the other hand, have these advances actually made war more thinkable, more prevalent, harder to control, etc.? I remember being surprised to read that as much as we think of the 20th century as this savage, warlike time–multiple World Wars, violent revolutions, civil wars, colonial wars, etc.–almost every period of history was worse in that respect. Wars are shocking and disappointing to us precisely because they’re actually pretty abnormal in modern times. For most of history a good portion of the people on the globe have been frantically killing each other at every opportunity. The farther back you go, the more true that is. So it’s not clear that making it technologically more indirect and impersonal to kill has really made us more prone to kill or made the times we live in more dangerous (except in the sense that a true armageddon-type situation that renders humans extinct or close to it of course is much more possible now due to the technological advances). If anything as a species we seemed more psychologically inclined to inflict violence on each other when we had to do it face to face.

      I’m not sure of any of that–just kind of thinking aloud.

      Liked by 1 person

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