by Rachel Maddow
Drift details the slowly and steadily changing relationship between the American people and the wars we fight. Rachel Maddow describes how throughout most of our history the United States has had a small standing Army and has been reluctant to go to war. When we did go to war, the whole nation was involved, and the government was, for the most part, held accountable. Maddow insists that the way the military and the executive are currently structured, American society is almost completely insulated from the wars in which our government engages. She leads readers down the path from the Abrams Doctrine, in which the nation could not go to war without disrupting the lives of most Americans; through an era of ever-increasing deference to executive authority; to today, when the U.S. has more private contractors in war zones than military personnel, the president can authorize drone strikes with no oversight, and the military budget continues to balloon.
Perhaps you’re thinking that this topic- quite an important one, I’d say- requires a more extensive and scholarly approach than Maddow can offer. Well, that’s certainly fair, but I think that wouldn’t really be her style. If you’ve ever seen her show on MSNBC, you know she pays careful attention to balancing entertainment and information. Drift is something of an extension of that format, and it’s both smart and well-written. I think she’s certainly up to the challenge of a scholarly tome, but chose to write a book that’s accessible to a wider audience.
You might also be wondering whether Maddow is biased, and what that means for her audience. She certainly has a point of view, and most would call her a liberal, but that doesn’t mean shes not fair. In fact, while it’s easy to write her off as a partisan talking head, I find that she doesn’t jump to conclusions lightly, and she works hard to understand rather than demonize opponents.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. I started reading because I’m a fan of Maddow, and didn’t know what to expect beyond a broad-based criticism of our foreign policy. I found that it pretty quickly identified Ronald Reagan as one of the villains in the story of how we’re losing connection to our military. Sure, she basically kicks it all off with Lyndon Johnson, and criticizes all of our presidents up to and including Barack Obama, but you can tell that she’s got a special place in her heart for Reagan. She seems to think of him as an ambitious, shallow, dimwitted opportunist, and does not hold back in her criticism of his administration’s handling of Lebanon, Grenada, and especially the Iran-Contra affair. Now, I didn’t grow up during the Reagan era; the only Reagan related event that I can even remember is his death about a decade ago, so it’s difficult for me to judge the merits of his presidency. Maddow, on the other hand, doesn’t hold back.
However we got here, though, Drift makes a pretty compelling argument that the situation has become unacceptable. Maddow clearly cares deeply about our military, and seems personally affronted by the way that presidents have been using military power in our name. Actually, I really liked how personal these issues are to Maddow. She never forgets that we’re a democracy, and that to some extent we have collectively allowed this situation to develop. We elect both the president and the Congress, and should be holding our representatives to a higher standard. By reminding the audience that we are complicit in the ‘unmooring’ of our nation’s military, Maddow’s narrative may serve as a wake-up call that we need to take better care of our democracy. I personally doubt that’s going to happen anytime soon, but we shall see.
I’m also really glad that Maddow offers alternatives, instead of simply complaining. I’m so sick of reading foreign policy criticisms that don’t offer solutions, so much so that I read parts of Drift with trepidation: is she going to go beyond saying that Grenada was a clusterfuck? Where does she think our military should be involved, and who should make those decisions? Maddow isn’t afraid to take a stand on the issues, and to me that’s a breath of fresh air. In fact, Maddow addresses this foreign policy cowardice at points in Drift, noting that oftentimes the legislature is afraid to take a stand on the use of force until they’re sure we’ve been successful- or unsuccessful. This simply puts more authority in the hands of the president, making for a state of perpetual armed conflict. By taking a stand, Maddow signals that in a democracy, we have a duty to make our voices heard, especially where war is concerned.
Rachel Maddow effectively and accessibly makes the case that we’ve given too much war-making power to the executive, but that if we all take our responsibilities more seriously, we just might be able to reverse this trend.