Rachel Maddow
Rachel Maddow hosting KPTK's
 "Changing the Media, Changing America"
 event in Seattle, 2009
Rachel Maddow was raised in Northern California's Castro Valley. She graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor's degree in public policy and was awarded a doctorate of political science from Oxford which she attended as one of the first openly gay Rhodes' scholars.

Working odd jobs after college, she entered and won a competition to become a co-host on the morning show of WRNX Radio in Holyoke, MA. An AIDS activist, she left radio for a year to complete work on her doctoral dissertation: HIV/AIDS and Health Care Reform in British and American Prisons.

She returned to radio and eventually to Air America where she was broadcasting a daily two hour and eventually a three hour show before she was selected by Phil Graham to replace the Verdict with Dan Abrams. And yes, as he claimed here, Keith Olbermann was influential in getting her that plum assignment. Most of us are familiar with the work she has done since.

I had been wanting to find a book to ease into the audiobook formats, and Rachel Maddow's background made her a perfect pick for this, my first real foray into the world of the spoken word. I already owned the digital version of her book and knew that her voice was loud, clear and familiar in her writing. Adding the audio version just made the experience a little richer as she reads it herself. You can listen to her speak about the book in the clip below, and then think of listening to over seven of her shows on a single topic with no commercials.

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power
Publishers: Crown/Broadway Books/Random House Digital
Hardcover: $26.00, Paperback: $15.00, Kindle edition: $11.99, Audiobook CD: $35.00 ($12.99 digital audio when purchased with Kindle edition)
Hardcover release, March 2012; Paperback release, March 2013
288 pages

Book cover of Drift, the Unmooring of American Military Power
Rachel Maddow, in Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, traces the step-by-step actions, all politically explicable, that have led us from being a nation that did not keep a large standing army, to one at perpetual war. And although she opens with Jefferson's dislike of a standing army and admiration for the citizen-soldier of ancient Greece and Rome, she quickly moves to the era of Lyndon Johnson and the first shredding of the bonds between the civilian and military populations.

It was during the Vietnam conflict that this drifting began in earnest. We fought an undeclared war with drafted soldiers in a land few had ever heard of for reasons no one appeared to truly understand. The war was never openly debated in Congress as a war, nor was war ever declared, although the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution allowed LBJ to build American involvement up to the tune of 535,000 American troops in Vietnam by the end of his term. All the while refusing to call up the Reserves and the National Guard, relying instead upon the draft which led to the accusation that he was trying to "fight a war on the cheap." In addition to alienating the military from the civilian population that was meant to support it, this was also one of the early steps taken in the transfer of the sole responsibility to declare war from the United States Congress to the Presidency. It would not end there.

In 1973 the War Powers Act, which was intended as a check on Presidential attempts to wage war without a Congressional declaration, was passed over a veto by by President Nixon. It was under this Act that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee made it plain to Gerald Ford that it would provide no further funding for South Vietnam's military, embittering Ford's then Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld.

But it wasn't until Ronald Reagan that the drifting became more of a well directed high-speed power boat ride. The first voyage was the Greneda invasion under a pretext so flimsy that it never did hold up to any serious scrutiny. Rachel Maddow's special blend of wonkery and snark especially shines in this section although it is present throughout the work.

The triumph would have been complete, except for one sour note. The Grand Anse students inquired about the condition of their classmates who lived across the island at Prickly Bay; must be another two hundred or so people over there. Prickly Bay? What’s Prickly Bay?

The rationale of Operation Urgent Fury— this $ 135 million, 8,000-strong expedition— may have been to save these Americans from being kidnapped by ruthless Caribbean Commie thugs, but that wasn’t much of an operational focus for what happened on the ground in Grenada.

The actual invasion of Grenada was hidden from the press until it had begun, with Deputy National Security Advisor John Poindexter flat out lying to the press on the eve of the operation, calling rumors of the invasion "Preposterous." Congress was kept in the dark until the leadership was called to the White House the night before the invasion.
Reagan was convinced that a president needed unconstrained authority on national security. He was also convinced that he knew best (after all, he was the only person getting that daily secret intelligence briefing). These twin certainties led him into two unpopular and illegal foreign policy adventures that became a single hyphenated mega-scandal that nearly scuttled his second term and his legacy, and created a crisis from which we still have not recovered.
The Boland Amendment, which was specifically designed to prevent President Reagan from continuing to fund the Contras in Nicaragua after the secret CIA-led operation to mine the harbors of that Central American nation came to light. (Here is an interesting bit of John Poindexter's testimony that shows the Reagan Administration's take on the Amendment.) Although the Boland Amendment dictated that no funding shall be provided for the operations, it offered the President an opportunity to make his case for military action to the Congress. Reagan, freshly reelected with 50 million votes, did not see the need to discuss his plans with Congress.
In other words, according to Reagan, having a spirited argument about where, when, and why to put United States soldiers in harm’s way (as well as how long to keep them there) and forcing a president to engage in a real argument about the wisdom of his foreign policy initiatives, to make his case in public, was akin to giving aid and comfort to the enemy— to Communists and terrorists.
After the Congressional hearing was held and the report on the Iran Contra affair issued, the minority report, written by Congressman Dick Cheney, argued that the President and the Administration did nothing wrong.
that Iran-Contra was no crime, that Reagan was right to defy Congress, because there was nothing in Congress, nothing anywhere in America’s political structure, that could constrain a president from waging any war he wanted, however he wanted. It was an extreme view of executive power, a minority view when written, but it quickly became a blueprint for the next generation of Republican thinking about war and its limits.
So it is a bit of a surprise to learn that the next President, George Herbert Walker Bush, did ask Congress for support of his plans to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait over the unsurprisingly strenuous objections of his Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney. (Like bad pennies, Rumsfeld and Cheney seem to keep popping up at most steps along the way to our state of perpetual war.) Interestingly, but not at all surprisingly, it was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, that pushed Bush into going to Congress by demanding a large troop call up that would necessitate using the Reserves and National Guard. Congress dragged its feet in voting to support the UN Resolution that Bush had been able to obtain, to "use all means necessary" to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. (As a footnote, the Senate voted to go to war by a simple 52-47 majority.)

By the time that George Bush the younger came to power, most of the remaining mooring lines had been cut away by the move to outsource and privatize many of the military functions during the 1990s. During the Clinton era, it was simply accepted as fact that private enterprise was more efficient than government at a lower overall cost. The movement to privatize our war making machine was led by the 1996 Defense Science Board Task Force on Outsourcing and Privatization which claimed that most DOD functions (basically, those functions other than firing an actual weapon) could be outsourced at a savings of $7 to $12 billion annually. Because the "private sector is the primary source of creativity, innovation, and efficiency in our society, and is more likely than government organizations to provide cost-effective support to the Nation’s military forces."

During the last decade we have become inured to the abuse of the National Guard and Reserve system as it has become harder to tell them apart from the regular active duty troops. And if they are not enough, Administrations can always turn to the ever helpful Defense Industry Contractors as they have moved further into the actual combat areas of warfare. Precedents have been established that remove the war making powers from Congress and grant them to a single individual, the President.

But Maddow does offer some hope in a list of possible actions that could be taken to reverse this ship and sail it back to the dock where it belongs. First among them is the resolution to pay for our wars, up front. Get rid of the secret military and stop asking our military to do things for which they were neither trained nor intended to accomplish. Restore the constitutionally required declaration of war back to the Congress.

Rachel Maddow has always excelled at making big issues understandable and manageable. She does no less in Drift.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 11:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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