Catching Rachel Maddow's Drift
By David Swanson
People who know better gave Rachel Maddow's new book unqualified praise in blurbs on the dust jacket. Maybe they see more good than bad in the book, which is called "Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power." That's a fair assessment. I'd love for a hundred million Americans or so who never read books to read this one. It wouldn't be the first book I'd pick, but it would probably do a lot more good than harm.
It may seem greedy of me to wish that this book were a little bit better, but when Eisenhower warned of "the total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual" of the military industrial complex, he exhibited that influence himself during the same speech in his comments on the
Maddow's book picks out episodes, from the war on
Missing is the fact that
Missing is resistance and conscientious objection. "War will exist," wrote President John Kennedy, "until the distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige as the warrior does today." That day grows more distant with books like Maddow's. In "Drift," everything warriors do is called "defense" (except with the Russians whose actions are called "strategic (aka offensive)"; when the troops do things they are "serving"; they are "patriotic"; and in times when the military becomes widely respected that is considered a positive development. Jim Webb is "an extraordinary soldier." Soldiers in
War, in Maddow's world, is not in need of abolition so much as proper execution, which sometimes means more massive and less hesitant execution. LBJ "tried to fight a war on the cheap," Maddow quotes a member of Johnson's administration as recalling. On the other hand, when Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf propose five or six aircraft carriers for the First War on
Meanwhile advocates of ending war show up in a brief reference to "student activists and peaceniks," and a characterization of publications favoring peace as those advertising "Oriental herbs, futons, prefab geodesic homes, all-cotton drawstring pants, send-a-crystal-to-a-friend, and the magic of Feldenkrais's Awareness Through Movement seminars."
Missing from the selected vignettes are some major wars but also the very existence of endless small wars and interventions. The most complete portrait of a period is that of the Reagan presidency, which dominates the book. Whereas Johnson "got dragged" into
"Drift" is excellent on the transfer of war powers from Congress to the White House, but part of that story, as Maddow tells it, is presidential appeal to public opinion. She leaves out the calculated manipulation of that public opinion through outright lies. In Maddow's telling, Reagan didn't give a darn about rescuing
In her account of the First War on Iraq, Maddow says that President George H.W. Bush convinced Saudi Arabia to allow U.S. troops in, but not that this was done by dishonestly claiming that Iraqi troops were massing at the border, a claim disproven by satellite photos. Maddow quotes Bush's claims about babies taken out of incubators in Kuwait, but does not mention that some congress members, including the late Tom Lantos (D., Calif.), knew but did not tell the U.S. public that the girl who told Congress the story was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, that she'd been coached by a major U.S. public relations company paid by the Kuwaiti government, and that there was no other evidence for the story.
When Maddow gets to the Clinton wars in the former Yugoslavia, she writes of the urge to bomb as a humanitarian impulse: "Long years on the national security watch had given [Colin Powell] a much stronger stomach than the new president when it came to absorbing the daily press accounts of prison camp survivors, or of homeless starving Muslim and Croat refugees, or of the victims of Serbian artillery, snipers, and para-military knife-wielding thugs." Somehow Navy SEALS are never "thugs." Somehow
The new sensitive president remarked of
And what about elements of history that are in doubt: should they be mentioned? The
Public opinion should not be treated sloppily when it comes to Congressional actions any more than presidential. Whenever Congress plays a role, Maddow uses the term "we," as in "We decided to go to war, as a country." Here she was referring to the attack on
Maddow explains war, to the extent that she does, in terms of electoral calculations and machismo. The secret wars that she discusses are obviously hard to explain by the re-election strategies of presidents. Machismo indeed goes a long way. But what about money? What about corruption? What about weapons manufactured in little pieces as jobs programs in dozens of congressional districts?
When she comes around to Obama, Maddow includes a bit about his escalation of the war on Afghanistan, but understates by half the number of troops he sent, and claims he sent them only until 2014, while any eventual withdrawal is very much in doubt at this time for that future year. On
Obama launched a war on
Two flatly contradictory claims toward the end of "Drift" sum up my ambivalent attitude toward the book. First, Maddow writes that "there are no examples in modern history in which a counterinsurgency in a foreign country has been successful. None!" Then, a few pages later, back on the theme of reckless spending, Maddow writes: "'We don't have any enemies in Congress,' a senior defense official told me in 2011. 'We have to fight Congress to cut programs, not keep them.' And those are basically the only fights the Pentagon ever loses." Well, except for every single counterinsurgency, every single war, the war on Iraq, the war on Afghanistan, the war on Pakistan, the war on Libya, the wars back to the start of the book in Vietnam. None of those nations are better off because of
Well, the last few pages provide a to-do list. The items are good, if limited. They are almost entirely systemic changes within our government: wars must be paid for; no secret militaries; no more use of the military "to do things best left to our State Department, or the Peace Corps, or FEMA." That last one deserves praise, as many hold the misguided but well-intentioned view that the military should be transformed into a sort of Peace Corps. In one of Maddow's to-do items, the looming threat of a war on
One to-do item on the last page of the book includes something for you and I, rather than just our government, to do. Sadly, that something is "vote." Specifically: "Republicans and Democrats alike have options to vote people into Congress who are determined to stop the chickenshittery and assert the legislature's constitutional prerogatives on war and peace." That's not so obviously the case in most districts. Most of us have a choice between this warmonger or that warmonger. We do however have the option of nonviolent action that moves our entire society in a better direction. I hope this book can help with that. I just wish it were a little bit better.