When the news came that Rachel Maddow had written a book based upon a long study of our wars and the consequences, there was little delay in the purchase and reading. Those who have watched her display of talents, energy, brilliance and grasp of world events will recognize her gifts as a writer in “Drift.” The subtitle, “The Unmooring of American Military Power,” suggests the tone of her well-documented story. What follows is a chronological unveiling of the expansion of our armed forces from a citizen army to a mammoth military complex with units and equipment scattered over the globe.
The glory of being recognized as the No. 1 world power comes at a horrendous cost in life, money and internal friction about what wars to fight, who should be the dominant managers and who should pay the bill. Maddow makes a strong case that we, as a nation, have drifted gradually from the outlook of our early leaders who counseled against having large standing armies or getting involved in entangling alliances that would drag us into foreign conflicts. She quotes Thomas Jefferson: “One of my favorite ideas is never keep an unnecessary soldier.”
While Maddow’s book deserves attention because it is rich in details about our wars, I have chosen four concerns that merit special notice.
• First, she is alarmed that in our most recent wars, we have not raised taxes to help pay the huge cost. Indeed, our policy has been to cut taxes while the wars are in progress, thus making these conflicts painless. This is displayed in the symbolism of drone warfare, which sanitizes the horrors of war and shields us from direct contact of its ugly reality. The deterrent power of pain and destruction is lost.
• The second concern is the collision between presidents and Congresses over the authority to initiate military action when crises arise. Presidents have increasingly asserted the power to act on the basis of efficiency and the inherent power of being the commander in chief of the armed forces. However, Maddow quotes James Madison in support of Congress: “The Constitution supposes that the history of all governments demonstrates that the executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the legislature.” It is clear that Congress has failed to exercise that responsibility consistently.
• The third concern is sticky and a potentially sleazy innovation of privatizing several services formerly performed by enlisted personnel of the armed forces. Before privatization began, cooks, electricians, plumbers and other jobs were supplied by trained service members of the various armed forces. In 1992, the program to privatize these functions accelerated under the direction of Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.
The company awarded the first contract was Brown & Root Services Corp. According to Maddow’s research, “Four years later, while the contract was still in place, Cheney was making a very comfortable living as CEO of Brown & Roots’ parent corporation, Halliburton. And after Vice President Cheney helped push us into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the value of these contracts kept Halliburton stock bouncing happily along.” Could Cheney, a Republican who regularly asserts that “government does not create jobs,” possibly suppose that others do not observe that he created a bundle of jobs for his company?
• The last of her issues was a reminder of the warning given in an address by President Dwight D. Eisenhower of the dangers of the growing size and power of a “military-industrial complex.” The updated version of that alarm, she asserts as “… a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. ... The superfunded, superempowered national security state (that) has become a leviathan.” A leviathan is an Old Testament term for a huge beast.
Perhaps most readers of this book will feel ill at ease after reading so much about wars. Some of this discomfort might be the result of the realization that while we perceive ourselves as a people of peace, we seem to be very prone to war. Or, as one person expressed it, “We have become a nation at peace with being at war.” When we hear sermons about the fall of Rome because it became an empire, we might ponder a bit about those traits of ours that are similar to those of ancient Rome.
Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.