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Book Review: Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power

Quick aside before I start: I grew up in the military.  My little sister and I were dropped off at The Nursery on the Naval base in Norfolk when my parents wanted to go out for dinner.  My sister, going through a period of separation anxiety, would cry for what seemed like hours.  I spent the first hour trying to console her and the rest of the evening having a blast with other kids, playing games and watching cartoons from an overhead projector.  If our parents were late, there was a room with bunkbeds for the kids who hadn’t been picked up yet.  It was like a sleepover and we’d talk quietly to one another until our moms and dads plucked us out of bed and took us home.

We got our healthcare from The Dispensary.  That was a clinic staffed with corpsmen and doctors who handled our shots, my bout of hepatitis A when I was four and my sister’s unending stream of asthma attacks.  There was a pharmacy on site that dispensed bottles of thick yellow Tedral that made my sister jittery but allowed us all a few hours of peace each night to sleep.  My parents shopped at the PX and The Commissary.  My family ate generics before the rest of the country knew what they were.  They weren’t even store brand.  They were canned foods with white labels with black block lettering that said “Peaches” or “Green Beans”.  Nothing fancy but sound and good and American grown by some farmer in the midwest.

In the summer, we went to Summer Fun at the base at Pearl Harbor where the first thing we did each day was swim 40 laps in the officer’s pool followed by survival training where we learned to stay afloat for hours in case riptides dragged us and our boogie boards out to sea.  We took field trips and polished kukui nuts and made flowers out of wire petals dipped in a liquid plastic material that is probably now off limits to children.  At night, we ran around military housing until the wee hours and dodged the patrol cars trying to enforce curfew.

So, my experience of growing up military brat was mostly positive.  Changing schools so often wasn’t fun but it was easier when other kids were in the same boat.

I suspect it’s not like that anymore.  In fact, on Google maps, I can’t find the old military housing where I lived in Pearl Harbor.  My old elementary school is there but the rowhouses with the enclosed lanais have been replaced by pods of condos.  But there was a price to pay for being a brat during the Vietnam War.  From the age of 2 until I was 10, I saw my dad for only a couple of months a year.  And we were the lucky ones.

[Katiebird (KB) here. My comments will be in italic: ] My childhood experience was a little different too.  My parents met while working at a Navel Atomic Energy Research Lab and my dad worked there until he transferred to Water Pollution Control (later the EPA) in 1967. So I had some exposure to the fringes of military life although we were very much civilians. And the mission of the lab my dad worked in was to find a defense against nuclear weapons so that was a little weird too.]

Rachel Maddow’s book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, is about the modern military and how we got here.  If you are a fan of Rachel’s style on Air American and MSNBC, you’ll find this book an entertaining read.  I read the first two chapters and then listened to the rest of it on Audible.  And while we are going to give away a signed copy of the book, I recommend the audible version.  Maddow’s snarky, ironic style comes across better in her oral interpretation of the book in the audio format.

This book is well researched and very well written.  Each chapter moves smoothly into the next.  She hits what she considers to be the most important series of events that lead from the limited use of our military for serious wars to the establishment of a full time military with unprecedented lethality but burdened with unaccountable private contractors and the loss of generational technological memory.

[KB] I was stunned by the amount of research that went into this book.  And her skill in condensing and combining facts in an interesting and readable fashion.

Early on, she introduces us to the Abram’s doctrine, which arose out of Vietnam.  During the Vietnam war, President Johnson made the decision to not involve the Reserves or National Guard.  This was unprecedented in American military history where previous conflicts involved them.  Instead, Johnson used the draft to meet the increasing demands of an escalating war.  The Reserves and National Guard became a haven for the rich and well-connected and the draft the place for the less fortunate.  As the war was winding down, the Abrams doctrine was introduced to tie the hands of the president.  With respect to future conflicts, the involvement of the Reserves and National Guard would be hard to avoid so that the whole country would feel the sting of war and would therefore enter into one more cautiously.  After the implementation of the Abrams doctrine, the president would need to consult with Congress to get approval for committing troops to wars and the Reserves would need to be included.  As you can imagine, the Republicans didn’t much care for tying the hands of their executives.

[KB] I really liked being reminded about the relationship of the draft and the Vietnam war vs National Guard & the wars since. That might be my biggest takeaway from this book.

The rest of the book highlights how various presidents have attempted to get around the Abrams doctrine and how, over the intervening 40 years, they have mostly succeeded.  The sections featuring Ronald Reagan’s “Arms for Hostages” Iran-Contra affair are both hillarious and horrifying.  The impression one gets about Reagan is that he was playing a dangerous game but that trying to get around Congress was just a lark to him.  Either Reagan was the simpleton Maddow makes him out to be, which is terrifying enough, or he knew exactly what he was doing and his actions should have gotten him impeached.  After all, what the Arms for Hostages deal involved was selling missiles to Iran through Israeli middlemen in order to free Americans who were kidnapped by Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Then the money from those sales were passed on to the Contras in Nicaragua.  Congress had specifically prohibited any help whatsoever from the US government to the Contras through the Boland Amendment.  But Attorney General Ed Meese had found chinks in the amendment that would allow the assistance, even going so far as to say that Congress hadn’t prohibited the Department of Agriculture or Health and Human Services from aiding the Contras.  In other words, the Reagan Administration was going to do it no matter what impediment Congress put in Reagan’s way.

[KB] I read through the bits about Iran-Contra several times because I’ve never understood what happened there.  At the time it seemed like the entire Reagan Administration was going down…. and then it was never mentioned again.  Well, Rachel has pages of detail – quotes from Congressional Hearings, Time Magazine & a step-by-step description of what happened and when. But, the climax is just as vague to me now as it was then:

The president had been caught red-handed. Congress had exercised its legal and constitutional prerogative to restrain the executive france from waging a war in Nicaragua. Reagan responded by by breaking the law, waging the war anyway, and funding it by illegal and secret weapons deals that the president insisted weren’t happening. The secretary of defense was indicted on multiple counts, as were two national security advisers, an assistant secretary of state, the chief of Covert Ops at the CIA, and two other senior CIA officials. The president himself escaped largely by pleading exhaustive ignorance and confusion: “I’m afraid that I let myself be influenced by others’ recollections, not my own . . . the simple truth is, I don’t remember — period.” The Reagan presidency — the whole mythology of Reagan’s leadership — was laid bare. This was competence? (pg. 122)

Is that clear? “The president escaped largely by pleading exhaustive ignorance and confusion” Really?  Is that really how that happened? Because from there we skip onto George H. W. Bush and his pardons — and we don’t really look back. From then on the precedent was set and we just don’t have to expect trivial respect for legalities from our Presidents anymore.

Maddow details the disaster in Grenada and it comes off sounding like a tragic version of Keystone Kops planned the invasion and 19 servicemen died.  She recounts Bush Senior’s conflict with Congress over the first Gulf War as well as the Dynacor contractors in Bosnia who bought sex slaves with US taxpayer dollars as the military shifted to private contracting in the 90s.  In her last chapters, she talks about what is happening to our nuclear arsenal and the almost complete absence of documentation that would help the military maintain and replace components, including the hydrogen producing substances in the missiles themselves where the recipe for making more material has gone missing and military scientists are unable to reproduce it.  North Dakota is at the mercy of a socket wrench and air force specialists don’t bother going through safety checklists.

Throughout the book, Maddow maintains attention to resources and detail.  It is obvious that a lot of research went into writing this book.  Where she found time, I’ll never know.  But I do have some issues with the way the book was written and, based on my short discussion with Katiebird, we both are finding it problematic in the same way.  Maddow lays out pretty clearly how the drift occurred but she makes no attempt to suggest why it happened.  One almost gets the feeling that if you are a follower of Maddow’s brand of politics, you don’t have to wonder why it happened.  You just know.  It is to be assumed that the military industrial complex is driving things and that the presidential players are in on it, although her treatment of Bill Clinton and Al Gore seems ambivalent at best.  According to Maddow, it was all those Nurseries, Dispensaries and Summer Fun that persuaded Clinton and Gore outsource military dependent care to private contractors.  Maybe it’s just because I was an adult during the 90s and old enough to pay attention but I suspect that the high price of daycare on military bases was a Republican concern.  Consider military brats the equivalent of the welfare queen.

But if it is true that the military industrial complex is driving the drift to permanent war standing, why doesn’t she take that theory to its logical conclusion?  I mean, she justifiably comes down pretty hard on George W. Bush for starting two wars, one of them wholly unnecessary, and then giving the country a series of irresponsible tax cuts, but she spares Obama for extending the Bush tax cuts when we simply cannot afford the wars anymore.  Obama did this unnecessarily and irresponsibly as well.  Where is the condemnation for that?

Similarly, Obama is given credit for signing the new START treaty at the beginning of his presidency but not condemned for negotiating a contract for modernizing our nuclear defense systems which will include nuclear laden drones.  The price tag is crushing and the prospects of unmanned nuclear drones terrifying but you get the idea that Obama’s hand was forced by Republicans.  He’s just being dragged into things.  None of this is his fault.  It’s everyone else’s fault for starting wars and hiring private contractors. Obama is the only president who seems to be blessed with an excuse.  I’m not buying it.  Not only am I not buying it but if we have drifted into maintaining an expensive standing army at perpetual war, then it would seem that a good way of turning American’s attention to it would be to fix the economy first to free up some mental capacity for putting an end to the trend. But there is no suggestion that that might be necessary or that Obama has the wherewithal to do it.  And if that’s the case, can we please get a replacement who knows what the heck he/she is doing?

Another oddity is that Maddow almost entirely skips the controversy of the Iraq War Resolution.  I’m not sure why she chooses to do this since it was the basis for the left favoring one candidate over the other in 2008.  You’d think the IWR would merit some kind of coverage but I guess we’re all supposed to be so familiar with it that there’s no need to rehash all of the ugly details.  And she doesn’t say too much about the shocking use of misleading information and propaganda that was used by both Bushes for their excursions to the Persian Gulf.  I can’t account for this since the rest of the book is heading for it and then it just disappears, *poof!*, from the historical record.

[KB] I was kind of confused as well.

I think the problem with “Drift” might be the collision of Maddow the Researcher vs Maddow the Democrat.  My biggest complaint about the book is that I do not believe that any of the events had anything at all to do with “Drift” — Nothing so consistent as our move toward scaling back domestic spending and building up military spending happens without a deliberate decision among Very Serious People. And that decision had to include Republicans and Democrats.  It had to. If the Democrats were against it — truly against it — they would have made sure there were headlines in all the appropriate places. And the same thing goes for the Iraq War Resolution (perhaps in this case she didn’t want to expose just how limited that resolution was).

And while I appreciate the high level of research and quality of the writing, I’m still dissatisfied that Maddow didn’t take more time to find out what was driving Reagan, Bush Sr. and Dick Cheney.  Maybe in the end, it doesn’t matter why they did it as long as we voters insist that it stops because it is bankrupting us.  But if we never identify the actors who made it happen, and I think the public actors are not at all the whole story, we can never get to the source of the problem: the aspects of American culture that encourage a cavalier attitude for profit and glory at the expense of rules and the common good.  On this problem, one can almost hear Maddow saying, “Beats me! I have no f*$(ing clue.”

[KB] I think this book comes right up to being a fantastic history of how the relationship between the President & Congress evolved through the last 45 years or so. I am, however, disappointed by her lack of courage — or whatever it was that held her back from sharing the full story. I don’t believe she has “no f*$(ing clue.”  She’s too smart for us to let her get away with that.  This is a great book for what it is. It could have been off the scale with a little more work.   

Still, pretty good read.  Very entertaining.  Get the audible version and clean your house.  On a scale of 1-5, this one rates 4 sponges.

*****************

We are giving a signed copy of Rachel’s book away.  If you are interested in reading it, please indicate in the comment thread below.  I’ll use a random number generator to select a lucky recipient and will contact you through your email address.  If you have previously indicated that you wanted to read it, I will add your name and address to the entries.

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Youtube comes to DVD!

Now you can order your favorite youtube videos on DVD.  That’s right, the whole youtube experience, delivered to your door:

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