Monday, October 8, 2012

"Drift" by Rachel Maddow

Though I've been making inroads in my nonfiction reading, I still tend to stay in the narrative arena, so Rachel Maddow's Drift wins the award for "first political nonfiction book I've read." Hurrah! Actually, it's my new book club's choice for November (though I just realized I won't be able to attend that meeting because of stupid parent teacher conferences), so I don't really get kudos for a new reading habit. Nonetheless.

My general and relatively uninformed opinion of the military is "giant pit of money spending," so going in I assumed the book would be about the military's bloated budget. And while Maddow does discuss our enormous increase in military spending over the last few decades--and the absolutely absurd amount of money we spend on the military compared to all other countries combined--it's not her primary thesis. Instead, her basic argument in Drift is that the military has drifted (aha!) away from what the Founders intended: namely, that it would be difficult to go to war and the decision to do so would be public and would be felt by civilian life.

Instead, argues Maddow, we've eroded Congress' power to declare war, over-empowered the president to do so, and have segregated war-making from civilian life by outsourcing work to private contractors and using more covert missions. In doing so we've made war making easier and unaccountable to the public.

I'm not someone who believes our Founders are infallible idols to whom all modern decisions must be deferred. But, Maddow does make a compelling argument for the dangers of unchecked executive power, something which the Founders tried to avoid. And Congress is not off the hook either, for they've been complicit in allowing presidents to wield such power in order to avoid making the difficult decisions themselves. In truth, what Maddow's really arguing is that we've all become complicit in allowing the "messy" work of war-making to happen outside our sphere of awareness, letting our soldiers and other countries' civilians suffer instead.

Maddow's greatest sarcasm is saved for her criticism of our outdated, dangerous, and prolific nuclear capacity. Here I think it's especially difficult to argue the need for keeping such expensive and superfluous weapons decades after the end of the Cold War. Of course, Maddow makes the sound point that once something's big, it's hard to dismantle or even reduce it--whether the "it" is an excessive number of nuclear arms or a huge military budget.

I don't know a lot about Maddow, but given her reputation, I thought the book would be more... entertaining. I was more engaged by the end, but the beginning (e.g., Reagan war-making propaganda) read more like a textbook and was sometimes dull.

Though Maddow is obviously liberal, the book didn't come off to me as anti-military. However, Maddow is arguing against being blindly pro-military without any economic or moral assessment of what the military is doing, and she is against a constant war-making mindset. I think that's something to get behind.

Reading Drift seemed especially appropriate given the recent spate of news about the military: the uselessness of post-9/11 anti-terrorism surveillance; the overabundance of military suicides. News articles like these and books like Drift suggest we can't look at the military with a "you're with us or against us" mentality. There are problems with the military's organization and--yes--budget, and they have to be dealt with if we hope to have any chance of prospering in the future.

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