Catching Rachel Maddow's Drift

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 Soviet Union.  Eisenhower was no exception to the totality of the influence, and neither is Maddow.

Maddow’s book picks out episodes, from the war on Vietnam to the present — episodes in the expansion of the military industrial complex and in the aggrandizement of presidential war powers.  Some of the episodes are extremely revealing and well told.  Maddow’s is perhaps the best collection I’ve seen of nuclear near-miss and screw-up stories.  But much is missing from the book.  And some of what is there is misleading.

Missing is the fact that U.S. wars kill people other than U.S. troops.  The U.S. Civil War’s battles, in Maddow’s view “remain, to this day, America’s most terrifying and costly battles.”  That depends what (or whom) you consider a cost.  A listing of U.S. dead on the television show “Nightline,” Maddow writes, “would be a televised memorial to those who had died in a year of war.”  Would it really?  Everyone who had died?  Victims of U.S. wars make an appearance in these pages as the sex slaves of U.S. mercenaries, but not as the victims of murder on a large scale.  This absence is in contrast to a large focus on the damage done to U.S. troops, and a much larger focus on financial costs — and not even on the tradeoffs, not even on the things that we could be spending money on, but rather on the “threat” of deficits and debt.  Maddow notes the dramatic conversion from weapons factories to automobile, tractor, and refrigerator factories that followed World War II, but she does not propose such a conversion process now.

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 Vietnam “served honorably,” but sadly the military was “diminished” and the troops “demoralized.”  Or is it de-moral-ized?  Maddow fills out her book with dramatic accounts of Navy SEALs trying to invade Grenada that appear to have been included purely for the adventure drama or the pro-troopiness — although there’s always some SNAFU in such stories as well.

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 Iraq, Maddow recounts that this “would leave naval power dangerously thin in the rest of the world.”  Dangerous for whom?

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 Vietnam in Maddow’s account, and the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which NEVER HAPPENED, was “wildly exaggerated,” Reagan gets a no-punches-pulled depiction as the heartless warmonger that he was.  He also gets credit for undoing the Soviet Union: “there might be some truth to that,” says Maddow, even though many believe that the Soviet Union could have dissolved sooner without the Ronnie Raygun military spending spree.  

“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 U.S. students in Grenada — his excuse for invading.  But the excuse, in this telling, remains plausibly a part of the motivation.  In actual fact, U.S. State Department official James Budeit, two days before the invasion, learned that the students were not in danger. When about 100 to 150 students decided they wanted to leave, their reason was fear of the U.S. attack. The parents of 500 of the students sent President Reagan a telegram asking him not to attack, letting him know their children were safe and free to leave Grenada if they chose to do so.  

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 Rwanda did not upset Clinton’s delicate stomach, even though police rather than bombs might have been appropriate in that case, and even though NATO wasn’t interested.  Somehow the options are limited to war or nothing.

The new sensitive president remarked of Somalia, according to George Stephanopoulos: “We’re not inflicting pain on these fuckers. When people kill us, they should be killed in greater numbers. I believe in killing people who try to hurt you. And I can’t believe we’re being pushed around by these two-bit pricks.”

But Clinton chickened out on proper war making in Bosnia, in Maddow’s account: “With his public approval ratings already sinking under the weight of policy fumbles like gays in the military and a failing health-care initiative, Clinton decided to take a pass on his Balkans test.  In this game of chicken with the Pentagon and mouthpieces like [John] McCain, Clinton blinked.  Clinton managed to commit the U.S. military to a fairly impotent ‘no-fly zone’ operation, and applauded the UN-formed ‘safe zones’ in the Balkans, but other than that he sat back and watched while Milosevic and Serb warlords continued to grind down the Croats and the Bosnians, and then taunt the West.”  What happened to restraint? legality? government of by and for the people?  Also missing from Maddow’s account is the 1999 bombing, the lies that f
acilitated it, and the defiance of Congress it entailed.

And what about elements of history that are in doubt: should they be mentioned?  The Iran hostage crisis plays a role in “Drift,” but nowhere is there any hint at the likelihood that Reagan’s team played a role in delaying the release of the hostages.  

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 Baghdad in 1991.  Personally, I recall protesting that in the street, but I don’t recall voting on the decision or electing someone to represent me who gave a damn what I thought.  

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 Iraq, Maddow’s account is worse: “[E]ven for President Obama, a man who had made a name for himself as an avowed opponent of the Iraq War, getting out was not easy.  In year nine of the war, Obama finally got the Iraqi government to provide the fig leaf of insisting upon our departure.”  Where to start?  Obama had a treaty that Bush had put in place.  All he had to do was comply with it.  He had his own campaign promises to withdraw much more quickly than that, and he’d won the election.  All he had to do was order the promised withdrawal.  Instead, Obama sought approval from the Iraqi government to keep troops in Iraq beyond Bush’s deadline.  Obama failed to obtain that approval.  Meanwhile Obama increased military spending, but Maddow makes no mention of it.  On her television show she celebrated it and falsely depicted it as a decrease:

Obama launched a war on Libya that goes unmentioned.  He claimed new powers to murder or imprison anyone, including U.S. citizens.  He openly asserted the presidential power to make war without Congress, the United Nations, or any other body.  This goes unmentioned.  He fumbled his way toward possible wars in Syria and Iran: no mention.  He persuaded Israel not to attack Iran until 2013, and according to Maariv provided the arms with which to do it then: no mention.  He also killed Osama bin Laden without attempting to capture him: Maddow calls this a “bright spot.” She says Pakistan was “shamed” by the event.  Apparently “we” were not.  

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 U.S. bombs.  The United States is not better off because of having bombed them.  The United States does not control them.  They have not submitted to its will.  Why not admit that the Pentagon always loses?  Why not admit that its losses are crimes and must always be immoral and illegal in every instance?  What does Maddow want us to do with a story of the dogs of war gradually going mad, if the story claims that those dogs provide a “service” and tend to “win”?

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 Iran appears to receive its only possible mention in the book, as Iran is included in a list of countries where war “is not always the best way to make threats go away.”  If Maddow stands by that position in 2013 and does not meet the fate that Phil Donahue met, her voice could make a major difference.

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.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.