Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (2012)


The heart of the question of what Rachael Maddow calls Drift is how do we wage war in the twenty-first century?  What is the purpose of war in the contemporary era? And who fights these wars? Or to twist the title of a famous film from World War II, why do we fight?

The answer is: because the President wants us to fight.

American history has been based on the predicate that Americans fight for our rights to be free and to live in a democratic society. We imagine ourselves to be valiant warriors—citizen soldiers, as Stephen Ambrose named those who fought in the last “good war.”  Maddow quoted future President Thomas Jefferson as saying in 1792, “One of my favorite ideas is, never to keep an unnecessary soldier,” noting that once the “necessary” war is fought, the “necessary” soldiers fade back into civilian life.  But that image of Jefferson’s Yeoman Farmer who could be counted on to spring to the country’s defense when needed is a highly idealized one.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Jefferson’s concerns about the dangers of keeping a standing army had melted in the heat and fire of expansionism and the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Maddow quickly skips over a sizable chunk of American history, from the decades of Manifest Destiny and an extended campaign of genocide against Native Americans. This slide into Empire was capped with the Spanish-American War when America finally controlled the maximum territory possible. But making and maintaining an American Empire required having a standing army—how else do you wage a war of conquest from one end of the continent to the other?

I mention this seventy year slice of history, not to criticize Maddow for not covering it, but to make the point that the desire to keep an army, a strong military force, under close command and control of the executive branch, has always been present in American culture, no matter how much the national mythology denies this history. Certainly the Great War was a rude interruption in a self-satisfied isolationism and Americans were dragged with great reluctance into this and the Second World War. Maddow emphasizes how quickly the military was demobilized after these two great wars. However, to paraphrase Karl Marx, the insistence that America was, at heart, a peace-loving nation was a discourse pregnant with its opposite. The ability of a strong President to wage war on command was always present and had been practiced for the bulk of the nineteenth century—war disguised as Manifest Destiny.

That said, the importance of the model or the paradigm of the Second World War cannot be overstated. It was not just the “Last Good War,” as has been often noted, it was also the last conventional war, because it was the last war America fought with Europeans. A shared culture of combat enabled the armies of World War II to fight on the basis of shared assumptions. Japan, having become “modern” by first copying the West and then by beating the West, for the most part complied. Here and there, like Germany, Japan broke the laws of “civilized warfare,” surely a contradiction in terms, but for the most part the basic “rules” were followed. Armies faced and fought one another, Navies faced and fought one another. The goal was for one group to defeat the enemy, invade the territory, seize the capital, and force a formal surrender.

The new enemies did not share these cultural expectations and proceeded to ignore the European forms of fighting. The fact that this rather stilted and formal mode of thrust and parry had a long history, stretching back to Medieval times did not impress the Vietnamese or the tribes of the Middle East. After a brief foray into South Korea, America fought a European style war only once again—an even more brief visit to Iraq. What followed would be a continuation of the Viet Nam style quagmire, a series of non-wars that could not be won, only endured until exhaustion intervened. Despite these unpalatable facts, or because of them, the “Dream War” was a re-run of the Second World War, the Good War, the Winnable War, where words like “victory” and “win”  had some meaning.

The Proxy War

After the Second World War, America somehow entered into a continuous state of total war and these were mostly undeclared “wars,” called interventions of some other nomenclature. It seems that after four years of  national militarization, it was hard to break the habit of defensive belligerence. The new enemy was the Soviet Union and the Cold War began. There is, apparently, something comforting, in an ordering, logical sort of way, to have a known enemy. The “enemy” sorts the world neatly into two halves: good and evil, simple dualities. We know how hard it has been to let go of a good Foe. Once the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union imploded, America has continued to seek another Opponent. As Maddow comments in her section on Ronald Reagan,

We’d got in the habit of being at war, and not against some economic crisis, but real war—big, small, hot, cold, air, sea, or ground—and against real enemies. Sometimes they’d attacked us, and sometimes we’d gone out of our way to find them.

But the post-war and the post-Cold War world is not so neat and tidy and the new enemies were not schooled in eighteenth century military tactics of opposing lines protecting important strategic sites.  And herein lies the trouble with contemporary war and this is the point where Maddow begins to make her point about “drifting” away from traditional formal ways of waging war through declaration and mobilization.  Maddow writes of the  of the standing army  after 1945,

We had 150,000 troops in the Far East, 125,000 in Western Europe, and a smattering in such diverse and far-flung locations as Panama, Cuba, Guatemala, Morocco, Eritrea, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Samoa, and Indochina. Wary as never before of the Communist threat—now a constant “speck of war visible in our horizon”—America had come to see Jefferson’s preoccupation with standing armies and threats from inside our own power structure as a bit moldy. We were, after all, the only country still capable of keeping the planet safe for democracy.

The Cold War set a precedent for war with a goal but no foreseeable ending. Most people thought that the Cold War would never end, precisely because it was cold. Until the twenty-first century, Americans had not considered the possibility that that a Hot War would not have no foreseeable ending but also no articulated purpose. Maddow takes the reader on a Long March from the Viet Nam War into Iraq and Afghanistan, but her purpose is not to refight these endless wars but to discuss why we are fighting them in the first place. The answer seems to be a particularly male or males—the President and the military— need to feel manly and a rather frightening willingness on the part of a temporary leader, i. e., the President, to alone be responsible for the spending of blood and treasure.

In laying out how Maddow made her case, I want to first, move directly past the Viet Nam War into the peculiar non-wars of Ronald Reagan and second, to use the “Reagan Wars” as examples of the lingering Viet Nam Syndrome. The reason for skipping over the conduct of the war in Viet Nam is because this was an inherited war, with long, long roots back to the French Empire. After the Second World War, the tiny Asian nation wanted to be independent of the French who, after surrendering to Germany, were driven to retrieve their dignity by reclaiming parts of their “empire,” such as Viet Nam. The French dragged America into this dubious enterprise through blackmail: if we gave them military and monetary assistance, they would join NATO. And then, the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in the summer of 1954. They withdrew and left America holding the bag, so to speak.

Viet Nam became an “American” war by circumstance, doubly damning the conflict as having nothing to do with “our” vital interests. Even though all Viet Nam wanted was national self-determination, as promised by American President Woodrow Wilson, the American government decided that this was the ground where they would fight a proxy war against Communism. From 1959 to 1975 American fought a war that was never declared. Maddow recounts that in an ill-considered desire to carry out the supposed wishes of the deceased President John F, Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson slip-slided into war sideways through a draft of marginal young men. Privileged young men, future President George H. W. Bush and future Vice-President Dick Cheney and future Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, could receive  draft “deferments.” 

The point that Maddow, in laying out her argument concerning wars ordered at the whim of the Executive Branch makes, is that by the 1960s, in the midst of the post-war boom, it was unwise to both wage war and the mobilize the population for war. People did not want another war, not the kind of war that involved the entire population. In order to fight this new war, President Johnson sought recruits from the sons of citizens who had no political clout.

So from the first 3,500 combat Marines Johnson sent ashore near Da Nang on March 8, 1965, to support the first sustained bombing of North Vietnam to the 535,000 American troops who were in Vietnam at the end of his presidency, something like 1 percent would be Guard and Reserves. The active-duty armed forces shouldered the burdens of Johnson’s land war in Asia—fleshed out by draftees, chosen at random from among the ranks of young American men who were unable or unwilling to get themselves out of it.

A dangerous step had been taken—fighting a wrong war with the wrong—or unwilling people—all in the name of an abstraction: The Cold War. Unfortunately, for President Johnson, television had been invented and Americans indicated strongly that they did not want to send their children off to foreign wars, nor did they wish to see nightly battles on television. So for future presidents, the problem would be compounded: how to go to war with the minimum amount of soldiers—no need to call attention to the fact that wars are fought by real people—and with as few witnesses as possible, all the while achieving maximum glory. And here is where Ronald Reagan rode to the rescue with the solution to the problems Lyndon Johnson had left behind.

The Viet Nam War ended in a humiliating defeat for America. The greatest nation in the world had to withdraw ignominiously from an inglorious conflict that had been fought to make a political point for an opponent who was never present. The “manhood” of America had been emasculated, damaged by  a guerrilla force impervious to traditional warfare and offended by occupation and division of their nation by colonial masters. Instead of studying the experience of the war and coming to the realization that the myth of American isolationism could make an excellent reality, President Ronald Reagan wanted to help America to “man up.”

The Reagan Solution

However, Reagan was thwarted by a belated law passed by a chastened Congress, a law to curtail adventurous presidents and to limit their War Powers. As Maddow descibes it,

The War Powers Resolution of 1973 was an imperfect law. But by passing it, the legislative branch was putting the executive on notice—it no longer would settle for being a backbencher on vital questions of war and peace. If the president wanted to execute a military operation (any military operation), he had to petition Congress for the authority to do so within thirty days; if Congress didn’t grant explicit authorization, that operation would have to end after sixty days by law. The Oval Office would no longer have open-ended war-making powers.

Rather than putting an end to  the unfortunate “foreign entanglements” that George Washington warned of, the War Powers Resolution became an obstacle for annoyed Presidents to overcome. At this point, Maddow begins to describe how one president after another strove to wage war by other means. Reagan’s answer to the Resolution was to order strange little “interventions” or tiny wars, waged on defenseless territories. Reagan was considerably boosted in his Presidential aspirations by his contention that America should reclaim the Panama Canal. The fact that his jingoism, as Maddow puts it, struck a nerve with many Americans suggests that the post-Viet Nam War syndrome—the shame of defeat—was, twenty years later, a national mood.

Once he became President, Reagan immediately began building up the military. To the end of his Presidency, he dreamed of a fantastical mirage of the conquest of space with a weapon called “Star Wars.” Indeed, there was always a strange and surreal aspect to Reagan’s military adventures: he ran when attacked and attacked when there could be no reply. As Maddow explains, Reagan seemed to lack the ability to separate rhetoric from reality and it appears that he actually believed that America had “lost” the Panama Canal and that it was necessary to invade Grenada and then to attempt to overthrow the government of Nicaragua with secret stashes of arms to contras. War under Reagan became a curious mixture of secrecy and public relations.

Maddow lays out how the Reagan administration worked very hard to write a metanarrative that was both teflon and atomic: it was an untouchable story and it would have a long half life. The untouchable narrative was that America had to be Number One and that it had enemies everywhere. Therefore, regardless of facts to the contrary or regardless of the lack of facts, America was in danger, ringed with enemies, in constant danger. From today’s vantage point, the paranoia of the Reagan years seems predictive: a Republican administration frightens the American people with a threat that does not exist, calls those who dare to bring facts to the table “Communist stooges” and what have you, and ignores the impact on those outside of America, who are observing these antics. As Maddow writes,

The Soviets put their own intelligence services on high alert, watching for any and every sign of American military movement. And their ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, who spent much of his adult life in Washington, was gently passing the word to his bosses in the Kremlin that Reagan really did believe what he was saying. Dobrynin later wrote in his memoir that “considering the continuous political and military rivalry and tension between the two superpowers, and an adventurous president such as Reagan, there was no lack of concern in Moscow that American bellicosity and simple human miscalculation could combine with fatal results.” In 1983, when fear at the Kremlin was at an all-time high, the Reagan administration was more or less oblivious to it.

The dangers of this story with a long half-life and this myopic inward vision is apparent. Clearly, Reagan believed everything he was told (he apparently neither read daily briefings nor spent much time in the Oval Office) and clearly he was playing to a local audience for political purposes. Otherwise, why, out of all the nations in the world, invade Grenada? Maddow writes in an ironic spritely style that, in certain contexts, can be somewhat disconcerting, but here, in her description of the Battle of Grenada, excuse me, Operation Urgent Fury, the amused detached tone of near-parody is perfect. The trick the Reagan Administration needed to pull off was to both keep this Operation a secret but to convince the nation that a small group of American medical students were being threatened by an evil Latino dictator.

The story of Operation Urgent Fury reads like a script from the Keystone Cops. It would be a funny story, except for an earlier event that would prove to be prophetic:

On the morning of October 23, 1983, a suicide bomber drove a truck containing six tons of explosives and a variety of highly flammable gases into the US Marine barracks at the airport in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 soldiers there on a don’t-shoot peacekeeping mission. Fourteen months into the deployment, and after an earlier suicide bombing at the US embassy in Beirut, Reagan was still unable to make clear to the American people exactly why US Marines were there.

The answer to an unanswerable attack in Lebanon was to invade Grenada and to save medical students from Fidel Castro. Except that, according to Maddow, “Fidel Castro, knew about the invasion well before the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.” Not only had the rescue teams not bothered to locate the students, who were scattered in various locations, but also, in Maddow’s words, “The chancellor of the medical school had already been telling reporters that their students hadn’t needed rescuing.” Indeed, some students were left behind, never to be “rescued.” But never mind, America was getting its macho back and the public’s attention was diverted from the 240 Marine deaths in Lebanon. Therefore, the Administration took its eye off a very significant ball: the Middle East to gaze southward to Latin nations, where Communism was supposedly fomenting at America’s very doorstep.

Although Congress was not pleased with Reagan and slapped his (now popular) hand, these unilateral actions continued under Reagan’s not always certain management. Maddow quotes the Speaker of the  House, Tipp O’Neill:

“He only works three and a half hours a day. He doesn’t do his homework. He doesn’t read his briefing papers. It’s sinful that this man is President of the United States. He lacks the knowledge that he should have, on every sphere, whether it’s the domestic or whether it’s the international sphere.”

The Iran-Contra experience is now a matter of history and it is still unclear  who was in charge or whether or not Reagan was or was not in the grip of Alzheimer’s. What is certain is that the “victory” in Grenada gave the President a sense of entitlement and he was determined to have another war in Nicaragua. As Maddow states,

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. In his scramble to save himself from that scandal, Reagan’s after-the-fact justification for his illegal and secret operations left a nasty residue of official radicalism on the subjects of executive power and how America cooks up its wars.

In order to have his war and eat it too, Reagan and his sidekick, Oliver North, privitized this little war, which was funded through wealthy (Republican) donors and the Saudis. This unlikely enterprise—too strange to unwind here—came undone and the clear illegalities were exposed to withering investigations. As Maddow summued up this misadventures of Ronald Reagan,

Even before all the indictments and the convictions of senior administration officials, Reagan’s new way—the president can do anything so long as the president thinks it’s okay—looked like toast. In fact, Reagan looked like toast. Whatever his presidency had meant up until that point, Iran-Contra was such an embarrassment, such a toxic combination of illegality and sheer stupidity, that even the conservatives of his own party were disgusted. “He will never again be the Reagan that he was before he blew it,” said a little-known Republican congressman from Georgia by the name of Newt Gingrich. “He is not going to regain our trust and our faith easily.” The president had been caught red-handed.

However, due to the wonderous alchemy of Republican spin, “Reagan could be reimagined and reinvented by conservatives as an executive who had done no wrong: the gold standard of Republican presidents.” Maddow goes on to describe and recount further adventures of the Presidents who came after Reagan. Reagan laid down not just a gauntlet to a meddling Congress but also a path to Executive Power to use the military. The key was not to wage war but to sent out the troops. The problem was that the Draft had been eliminated and the President had to use a professional or volunteer army and the National Guard or the Reserves. It is interesting to note that the liability of not having a large standing army was now an asset. A small but flexible force, especially when combined with an international force, as in the Balkans and in the Gulf War, enabled the President to sent out a focused force without “waging war” and without declaring war.

Once Reagan had established the (specious) “legal” precedent that the military was the President’s tool, there was no check to balance this power. As Maddow states,

Congress has never since effectively asserted itself to stop a president with a bead on war. It was true of George Herbert Walker Bush. It was true of Bill Clinton. And by September 11, 2001, even if there had been real resistance to Vice President Cheney and President George W. Bush starting the next war (or two), there were no institutional barriers strong enough to have realistically stopped them. By 9/11, the war-making authority in the United States had become, for all intents and purposes, uncontested and unilateral: one man’s decision to make. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

I have been moving through Maddow’s book, or drifting through her arguments by trying to set up, step by step, the trajectory from waging small but satisfying wars somewhere else with a tiny number of military personnel with low psychological cost to the public and with high pay-offs in bragging rights. I think that Maddow is correct to put the starting point of the rise of executive power over war with the Cold War and its ambiguities. That said, during the nineteenth century, there was also a long history of expansion and empire via military campaigns that were informal “wars.”  The lack of large and formally declared wars led to the misleading myth of America rousing itself only when necessary while overwriting a longer and more complete story that was actually laced with combat.

The Two Wars of the Bushes

In order to solve the pesky “Viet Nam Syndrome,” or the reluctance on the part of Congress venture into pointless and costly wars, Reagan had solved one problem by seizing the power to put troops in the field and solved the problem of cost by financing the action with a deficit: fight now, pay later. But Reagan’s wars, in and of themselves, were dubious and unsatisfying. What America needed was a “real” war, something that would wipe out the stain of defeat in Viet Nam and when Saddam Hussein invaded the very small and very rich nation of Kuwait, the opportunity to re-masculinize presented itself. After a long and winding wrangle with a recalcitrant Congress, President George Bush put together an international coalition to drive Saddam out of Kuwait.

Thanks to Reagan, Bush felt that he could call up an army without consulting Congress. While Congress complained, Bush and the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, Colin Powell, planned. Powell, a veteran of the Viet Nam fiasco, had his own theory of the case on how to fight a war—with deep preparation and with overwhelming force. As Maddow explains,

Powell wanted an overwhelming, decisive use of force to meet American military objectives clearly and quickly. The whole Powell Doctrine of disproportionate force, clear goals, a clear exit strategy, and public support was designed to create a kind of quagmire-free war zone. He was unequivocal—he and his commander on the ground, Norman Schwarzkopf, had agreed: two hundred thousand more troops was what it would take. And they’d already made sure the president understood the numbers would go up if he decided he wanted not only to eject Saddam from Kuwait but to destroy his army, or to depose him. The mission objectives would have to be clearly defined before H-Hour. In any case, Powell and Schwarzkopf wanted five, maybe six, aircraft carrier task forces deployed to the Persian Gulf, which would leave naval power dangerously thin in the rest of the world. By the time the offensive capability was in place, about two months down the road, there would be something in the neighborhood of 500,000 American troops in the Middle East—nearly as many as at the high-water mark in Vietnam. Two-thirds of the combat units in the Marine Corps would be deployed in the Gulf. There would be no more talk of rotating troops home after six months. Soldiers had to understand they were in the Gulf until the job was done, however long that took.

This was the famous “Powell Doctrine,” which was designed to guarantee success. And it worked magnificently in the Gulf War, resulting in a great victory over an inept foe in a truly stupid war that ended in a graceless slaughter along the Highway of Death. Only after long and protracted fight did Congress agree to go to war. According to Maddow, Congress objected to fighting a war in which American interests were not directly involved, but Congress was also disinclined to accept the consequences of not saving Kuwait. The Bush Administration fought a successful war and Kuwait, a nation that circumcised the women, was restored to its (male) owners, but there were hidden costs for the future.  The jumping off point into Kuwait was Saudi Arabia and that meant that to one very indignant man infidels were on sacred soil. Osama bin Laden would wait a decade to take his revenge.

Since the “good” Gulf War was fought with Reserves, it was fortunate that the engagement was, thanks to Colin Powell, a short one. But in this short amount of time, certain rules of engagement were laid down—not for the enemy but for fellow Americans. The Viet Nam War had run into trouble as much at home as in the field due to the fact that this was the first war since the Civil War that was uncensored. The military would not make that mistake again.  The Gulf War was stage managed, information was controlled and doled out, and press and public was placated with video games of the “smart bombs” over Baghdad.  As Maddow said,

Our military dazzled. The First Gulf War was all Powell could have hoped for: a clear mission, explicit public support, and an overwhelming show of force. It was fast—the ground assault lasted just a hundred hours, the troops were home less than five months later. It was relatively bloodless for the away team—fewer than two hundred American soldiers were killed in action. It was cost-effective—happy allies reimbursed the United States for all but $8 billion spent. And it was, withal, a riveting display of our military capability, almost like it was designed for TV. Americans, and much of the world, watched a Technicolor air-strike extravaganza every night. The skeptics were forced to stand down; our military had proved beyond doubt or discussion that we were the Last Superpower Still Standing.

But for longer missions, the Reserves and the video games would not be enough to placate the public. Although, thanks to Reagan, there was no serious thought given to balancing a budget and the military was given whatever it needed or wanted or desired. Aside from boys and their toys, supporting an adequately sized volunteer army was proving to be a very expensive proposition.  The military had always supported itself. A young man could enlist or be drafted and find himself, not fighting, but doing laundry or providing food or doing mechanical work. For every combat fighter, there were a dozen or so working in the support systems, as engineers or office workers.

Once the military Draft was ended in 1973 under Richard Nixon, the armed forces all became “volunteer.” At the time, those who were opposed to the Draft, complained of “opportunity costs,” or the economic losses incurred by middle class white males, now likely to have the prospect of high salaries during the post-war boom. Once the white males moved out the way, the males of color could raise themselves socially and economically by volunteering for the military where new “opportunities” could be found. Those who were opposed to the end of the Draft, felt that the ethnic and social mixing that occurred in the military knitted America into a whole nation, instead of a divided country. There was some discussion of patriotism and service to the Flag, but the urgent voices of disgruntled white males had to be heard.

Twenty years later, the all volunteer army was an excellent career choice, but only certain demographic groups took advantage of what the government was offering: young men and women of color and young men and women from the South. The rest of the youth were not interested.  The result of these very different life paths would have consequences that would take another twenty years to play out. In the short run, there was the sheer unexpected cost of maintaining a large and long term military full of careerists and their families. As opposed to the draftees, these “volunteers” did not cycle out after a couple of years, they stayed and got married and raised families. Each soldier could easily have three or more dependents living on the base and needing care and feeding.

Maddow brings up a very interesting point about the sheer financial scale of the obligations the government takes on when it commits to a Volunteer Army. The cost of maintaining soldiers and their spouses and children and all the attendant services was huge. As Maddow explained,

In the ten years after 1985, the procurement budget had dropped from $126 billion to $39 billion and represented a paltry 18 percent of total defense expenditures. Sure, the active-duty force had been pared by nearly 30 percent and a few bases had been closed, but that didn’t come close to solving the problem. How were we supposed to ensure our Last-Superpower-on-Earth superiority when just the overhead cost of keeping our standing army milling around was swallowing between 40 and 50 percent of the Pentagon’s annual cash allotment?

The problem was solved by a now familiar term, “outsourcing.” Now, on one hand, it is more expensive to privatize and the corruption when private companies take the place of military personnel is vast, unchecked, and continues today unabated. However, outsourcing can be a very good thing, as Martha Stewart would say, because one can outsource actual soldiers. If one outsources soldiers, not just food services, then the President who is in charge of deploying the mercenaries is now undeterred by such nuisances as Congressional approval. The corporation, such as Xe, assumes the risks and the expenses of the mercenaries who are not eligible for Veterans’ benefits—hospitalization, education, legal protection—but they are paid accordingly with very high salaries that, unlike benefits, have end points. The government is off the hook and the mercenaries can be charged with all kinds of illegal and dishonorable tasks, off the books.

Outsourcing began in earnest in the 1990s. President Bill Clinton was wise enough to not fight wars but to participate in peace-keeping missions, such as the one in the Balkans, where some kind of military presence needed to be in place for years. By the 1990s, the problem of going to war was solved and now it was easy to avoid the skepticism of Congress or the suspicions of the American people or the high cost of casualties. As Maddow explains,

President Clinton never really expended much effort on the politically costly task of convincing the American public of the need to arm the Bosnians or Croatians, or the need to unleash American air power on Miloševic and the Serbs, or the need to put US boots on the ground. Instead, he found a way to do something without the necessity of making any vigorous public argument for it, and without much involving his own balky Pentagon…

So it was soon after the peace accords were signed that those twenty thousand American peacekeepers—who would be joined by twenty thousand private citizens under contract to provide support services—arrived in Bosnia and Croatia as part of an international force to keep Miloševic and his Serbian military under heel. And did Clinton have a hard time selling that manpower commitment to the American people? He did not. He was helped greatly by—what else? Outsourcing.

The civil war and the genocide in the former Yugoslavia needed to be quelled and then order had to be restored, a process that took years. Private Contractors, as these mercenaries were then called, made their first appearances in the Balkans. The consequence of the decision to privitize were disastrous, as Maddow says,

…the acute and lasting problem was that they cut that mooring line tying our wars to our politics, the line that tied the decision to go to war to public debate about that decision. The idea of the Abrams Doctrine—and Jefferson’s citizen-soldiers—was to make it so we can’t make war without causing a big civilian hullabaloo. Privatization made it all easy, and quiet.

By the time President Barack Obama inherited two wars, one in Afghanistan and Iraq, the private contractor was a fixture in the American military. During the second Iraq War under a second President Bush, the ratio of the Reserves on active duty and the Private Contractors/Mercenaries was one to one. When the American public is told how many men and women are on active duty in these two war zones, this number should be doubled. In terms of the troops in the field, the actual force is twice as large as we are told. Unfortunately, the troops and the mercenaries are unsuited to the task of “nation building” or modernizing and westernizing a Medieval culture that has no history of democracy or equality.

Into the Cauldron

By the twenty-first century, reasonably good excuses had to be given for rounding up the Reserves and one had to attend to public relations and “nation building” or “bringing democracy” to benighted places seemed to be worthy causes. The invasion of Afghanistan, a barren land, suitable only for the breeding of war and poppies, should have been short-lived once the objective had been obtained—to drive Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan and to kill or capture the architects of the “attack on America” on September 11, 2001. The problem conceptually was that “objective” or goal was not a “victory,” and the second Bush administration cast about for an alternative war on better terrain where a good old-fashioned war could be fought.

Perhaps in the distant future, psycho-historican will explain the psychology of launching a “preemptive war,” also known as the “Bush Doctrine.” The invasion and occupation of Iraq was a strange and surreal event, too familiar to be retold here, but there is one element that remains intriguing—the willingness to not just lie but to create an alternative reality. In contrast to the Cold War, which has been deemed a Simulacra of a war, the Iraq War was a real war fought for fictitious reasons in the fevered mindset of a neo-con fantasy. As with the Reagan administration, it is unclear if the major players actually believed their own rhetoric, if they actually inhabited the alternative universe they created out of whole cloth or whether for unknown reasons they simply wanted to send men and women off to kill other men and women on a whim.

Experience suggests that it is futile to argue with alternative universes and no manner of proof to the contrary will convince the perpetrators otherwise. But what the Iraq was does demonstrate is another step towards executive capriciousness. The second Bush Administration proved to be incapable of governing but the energy of the government was wholly swallowed up in dreams of glory. Maddow suggests that we have now reached the point where the Executive Branch is nearly unchecked and the Pentagon has, thanks to generous Republican (deficit-fueled) spending on defense, the military has taken on a life of its own, regardless of need or regardless of real conditions on the ground.

A fact that’s underappreciated in the civilian world but very well appreciated in our military is that the US Armed Forces right now are absolutely stunning in their lethality. Deploy, deploy, deploy … practice, practice, practice. The US military was the best and best-equipped fighting force on earth even before 9/11. Now, after a solid decade of war, they’re almost unrecognizably better. Early worries such as how much gear we were burning through in Iraq were solved the way we always solve problems like that now: we doubled the military’s procurement budget between 2000 and 2010.

Obama Country

New President Barack Obama won the office, partly on “hope and change,” and partly because he was against “dumb wars.” He inherited two dumb wars and virtually unchecked Executive Power to go to war. Obama is no cowboy. A thoughtful man, he is an intellectual with an analytic mind and it seems that somewhere along the line, he has gently and silently slipped the nation into the new century. As the Obama administration is demonstrating daily, the way in which President George H. W. Bush waged war was old-fashioned and outmoded, a nineteenth century idea of fighting with twentieth century weapons.

To return to a point I made earlier, if the starting point is the “good war,” the Second World War, then the post-war dream is already an outmoded one, one of “victory” and “glory” and “win.” These terms, in the twenty-first century, are without definitions. Even the Powell Doctrine, invading with maximum force, only gets you so far—into the territory—but does nothing in terms of a long occupation and is a hindrance when it is time to get out. And the Powell Doctrine was totally disregarded when the Bush Administration decided to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Iraq War was a horribly expensive war, fought on the cheap in terms of the numbers of troops deployed. While bending to public disapproval of the unnecessary war in search of Weapons of Mass Destruction, the Pentagon kept the number of Reserves low but augmented with Contractors. Iraq is a huge territory that did not want to be invaded or occupied and the shoestring forces could not control the reluctant population. The major objective when waging an unpopular war, justified in a variety of confusing and conflicting ways, is to win this war. But to do so, the Powell Doctrine must be put into play, an impossibility if the war is a “War of Choice.”

Maddow does not spent much time on the fiasco of the Iraq War, already ably covered by other incredulous historians, but she notes that

By 2001, the ability of a president to start and wage military operations without (or even in spite of) Congress was established precedent. By 2001, even the peacetime US military budget was well over half the size of all other military budgets in the world combined. By 2001, the spirit of the Abrams Doctrine—that the disruption of civilian life is the price of admission for war—was pretty much kaput. By 2001, we’d freed ourselves of all those hassles, all those restraints tying us down.

Iraq and Afghanistan, of course, did not go well. The British, how had tried to contain Iraq in the 1920s and the Soviets who had tried to control Afghanistan in the 1980s could have warned the deaf Americans of their ridiculous quest. No amount of time or effort could bring about a “victory” or a ” success” in these ancient lands of Mesopotamia. As if to satisfy himself that the Neo-Conservative assertions that these wars could be won with more troops (remember that the actual number of soldiers is double what we are told), Obama conducted a “surge.” In male military language a surge is an increase of personnel for a limited period of time. The hope is to stabilize the situation long enough to get out of Dodge. Obama’s surge allowed America to save face and taught the President that surges are futile.  To ask for a surge is like asking for the price in a fancy boutique—-if you have to ask, you can’t afford it; it you have to surge, you’ve lost the war.

Quietly, Obama took the advice of his Vice-President, Joe Biden, to use commandos instead. And this is where the book ends. Maddow makes the point that every step along the way disconnects “war” from national responsibility, national participation, and democratic participation. As Obama pulls out of the Twin Wars of Bush’s devising, he is escalating the ultimate dislocated war, a War of Drones waged by the CIA, augmented by occasional strikes by elite Special Forces. The Administration has a supposed “secret kill list” of those who are to be removed through long-distance strikes and the rule of engagement are unknown. Congress is kept in the dark about the details but the benefits are clear.

First, the President and the CIA and a small portion of the military can operate at will. They are not engaged in a war but in a program of planned assassinations, designed to take out the leaders and discourage the followers. Compared to a large number of “boots on the ground,” the Drone Program saves lives and money, blood and treasure. The result is the Ultimate Video Game. As Maddow explains it,

When one of those Blackwater-armed drones takes off with a specific target location programmed into its hard drive, it is operated remotely by a CIA-paid “pilot” on-site, in a setup that looks like a rich teenager’s video-game lair: a big computer tower (a Dell, according to some reporting), a couple of keyboards, a bunch of monitors, a roller-ball mouse (gotta guard against carpal tunnel syndrome), a board of switches on a virtual flight console, and, of course, a joystick. Once the drone is airborne and on its way to the target, the local pilot turns control over to a fellow pilot at a much niftier video-game room at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The “pilot,” sitting in air-conditioned comfort in suburban Virginia, homes the drone in on its quarry somewhere in, say, North Waziristan. Watching the live video feed from the drone’s infrared heat–sensitive cameras on big to-die-for-on-Super-Bowl-Sunday flat-screen monitors, the pilot and a team of CIA analysts start to make what then CIA chief Leon Panetta liked to call “life-and-death decisions.” Maybe not sporting, but certainly effective.

According to an article by NPR, the local pilots are required to wear uniforms and there are programs to help these people to cope with the after effects of frequent killing, even at a distance. Maddow’s concern is that there is such a dislocation between the decision making process and the public and the distance between the moral responsibility of waging war that it is easy to be in a state of constant conflict without any accountability. She is concerned that the breakdown is between Congress and the President, but I think that there is another trajectory that also needs to be looked at—the increase in distance between the target and the triggerman.

The real question might be another kind of separation, one that dates back to the bombing of civilians in the 1920s. When these bombings first occurred, there was little concern, because the victims were in Iraq and Ethiopia. Only when Europeans were assaulted in Guernica did any outcry occur but these moral qualms vanished, and ten years later, the Allies had firebombed Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo and had dropped two atomic bombs on non-military targets in Japan—all on civilians.

The ethical aspects of killing helpless human beings was wiped out by the blanket assumption that the populations of Germany and Japan were complicit in the Second World War. The rationale for these civilian bombings was that the morale of the people had to be broken. Studies after the war have suggested that these bombings, such as that of London, were not effective in either lowering morale or in slowing war time production, but it was hard to break the spell of cost-free or effective aerial warfare.

In fact, Powell had dissuaded Clinton from attempting to settle the Serbian conflict through bombing. Maddow quotes Clinton assistant, Nancy Soderberg, who reported that Powell had advised, “ ‘Don’t fall in love with air power because it hasn’t worked,’ [he said]. To Powell, air power would not change Serb behavior, ‘only troops on the ground could do that.’ ” Indeed, the Second World War was won on the ground in a long slow and deliberate drive to capture and hold territory. In the end, the most effective bombing was those two that were dropped in the end on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, the second Bush Administration was still enraptured by air power and treated the helpless and blameless Iraqis to “shock and awe” in 2003…again to no avail.

Wars in the Mideast were quite different from wars in Europe. These new wars were asymmetrical, tribesmen with a cache of modern weapons against a large contingent of well armed twenty-first century warriors who become mired down in what is part of an ongoing tribal conflict. Even though America was convinced that it was fighting a “War on Terror,” the nation was confronting an old culture that was fighting against modernism or modernity. In addition to fighting unwelcome change and colonialism from the outside, these tribes were fighting each other for religious reasons that were unclear to Westerners. But however sectarian these local issues, America is committed to fighting a condition that has been named a “War” to give the American public a framework through which to “read” the traumatic “event” of September 11th.

Obama has definitively changed the way in which this non-war is not waged. The troops are coming home, while the Drones carry on the killing. On one hand, if we follow this line of thinking—kill at a distance—from the bombing of Dresden to the Drone attacks on terrorists in Pakistan, the two points are certainly connected. What remains unclear, even in Maddow’s book, is why a President would want to take sole responsibility for body bags, ours or theirs. Drift seems to imply that one President after another “drifted” into taking more and more power because they could do it, because there was no power capable of stopping them. As the wars became more and more arbitrary, from Viet Nam to Iraq, the personal responsibility became greater, and, as Johnson and Bush found out, the consequences, the judgment of history can be harsh for those who wage war unsuccessfully and for no good reason.

But if the costs of blood and treasure are relatively low, as with the secretive Drone Wars, then the power shifts decisively towards to the Executive Branch. If “war” is redefined as tracking down designated targets on a “kill list,” then the ostensible cost of war goes down as does the size of the military.  If Drone attacks can do the job of people, then the need to attack or invade or occupy should diminish. The public will be happy to allow this kind of invisible war to continue, no questions asked. No more flag draped coffins. Maddow ends her book with a list of problems that need to be solved—what she calls a “to do list.” Most of the points on her list concerning going to war, the role of the citizen soldiers, privatization and the disposal of nuclear weapons, will resolve themselves within a few years.

Two of her objections—the “secret” Drone Wars and Executive Power—are here to stay and are the future of war: a President in the Situation Room waiting for the outcome of a covert operation by a team of Seals or for a report on a strike on a target thousands of miles away. If we accept the “necessity” of dropping an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, how can we complain about a single Drone strike on one person? If we want to balance the budget, then how can we not accept this cheap and reliable manner of taking the war to the terrorists? If we could go back in time and assassinate Osama bin Laden, would we do it? If so, then targeting other individuals before they do their worst is a moral act.

Although, such strikes now come under the auspices of the CIA and are “secret” and based on”intelligence” that the public and Congress do not know, Rachael Maddow ends hopefully,

We just need to revive that old idea of America as a deliberately peaceable nation. That’s not simply our inheritance, it’s our responsibility.

I wish I could agree with her hopeful assessment. America has not been a “deliberately peaceable nation,” but we decidedly do not want to take responsibility for these new wars. I was shocked to learn that one of my former art students has become a Drone Pilot. Happy and satisfied in a military career, he is in charge of sorting out the designated target from innocent civilians, and he is convinced that these assassinations save money and lives. What is the more moral position—send thousands of men and women off to die or quietly kill the “terrorists” identified by “intelligence?”

This could well be a question that we will never be asked in any formal way. While there are those who are questioning the Drone War, the real Drift is away from taking collective responsibility. So war becomes the provence of the President who wages it in secret and we may be told from time to time of its causalities. This is the future.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger



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