Book Review: “Drift” by Rachel Maddow

Drift, Rachel Maddow’s book on the state of the American military, was first released last year. Despite being a huge fan of Maddow, I didn’t get a chance to read the book until just a few months ago. I was massively interested in her thesis statement – namely, that the American process of war has become unmoored (i.e. has drifted) and unattached from the American public. That is to say, Maddow is arguing that it is far too easy to go to war these days. I think this is something that we can all agree on simply from watching the nightly news. But to hear Maddow explain it is truly a treat. It’s clear from reading this book that Maddow has done her homework. Maddow posits that this problem – as with many things – can be traced back to Vietnam.

Maddow begins with the war in Vietnam and how personal it became for the American public thanks to the advent of living room televisions. The carnage that Americans saw reported from Vietnam turned them off from the whole affair. Young men had been sent to their deaths and many more had come home experiencing horrific post-traumatic stress disorder. The public was not eager to return to another bloody conflict any time soon. And this, says Maddow, is the whole point of the Abrams Doctrine.

This doctrine, written by a U.S. commander who had served in Vietnam, dictated that war would need to be more inconvenient in the future if we were going to attempt it. Reserves needed to be called up, Congress needed to be consulted, and civilian life needed to be interrupted so that going to war was not simple or easy. The Doctrine sought to make war more difficult so that Vietnam was not soon repeated.

The rest of the book basically chronicles every president after Jimmy Carter circumventing this doctrine in one way or another. Reagan governed with the idea that America was perpetually under siege from some foreign power or another. This led him to beef up America’s military spending and it led to that embarrassing little incident in Grenada.

After Reagan, George H.W. Bush moved in on Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. And an exciting new element was added to the mix – mercenaries that were to be Blackwater before Blackwater was around. Everything that Reagan and Bush, Sr. did to circumvent the Abrams Doctrine was set perfectly in place when 9/11 rolled around and ol’ Dubya figured we needed to take another crack at that Saddam guy.

Cover of Drift by Rachel Maddow

Maddow doesn’t spare the Democrats, either, in this book. After all, Clinton used mercenaries in his showdown with Milosevic and Obama has not been shy about utilizing these drones of his. In fact, some of the most interesting information in this book is regarding what’s taking place right now in the U.S. military. The CIA is essentially being turned into a branch of the military and drones are being used to make war and conflict even easier than before.

In one of the last chapters of her book, Maddow talks about how just 1% of the American population has been fighting the dual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past ten years. Only 1% of Americans have been feeling the brunt of this war. The rest of us have been chugging along merrily, only reminded of the ongoing fighting for half an hour each night while we watch the news. World War II, for comparison, was not an easy war. There were rations, women pitched in at factory jobs left by soldiers, and the entire country went to war. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen anymore.

Overall, Drift chronicles a history of hawkish presidents who find themselves up against perceived threats to either America or “the American way” overseas, but with no clear, constitutional path to war. The Constitution stipulates that only Congress has the power to declare war, but did Reagan go to Congress when he wanted to invade Grenada? Did Bush ask for permission when he wanted to invade Iraq? No – all they needed to do was wave around inflammatory rhetoric like “weapons of mass destruction” and barrel forward. And they could do it all while cutting taxes!

Drift was an extremely interesting and enlightening read. If you’re a fan of Rachel Maddow’s nightly program on MSNBC, this book reads just like one of her shows. She uses her trademark humor to add a bit of levity to the depressing material she’s working with, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow. As a young “˜un, I found it very interesting to learn more about Reagan’s exploits and about Bush, Sr.’s first Gulf War. But it was equally fascinating to read about the background of George W. Bush’s war, and about the kinds of war that President Obama is currently engaged in even while we draw down troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

If you’re looking for a well-written, well-researched book about America’s military industrial complex and its development over the past three decades, Drift is the book you’re looking for.

On a lighter note, my copy of Drift is signed by Maddow herself because I got to see her do a reading event in a suburb of Chicago this past April. I didn’t get to talk to her, unfortunately, but knowing that she signed 1,000 books after traveling from New York on a night she had to do her show is impressive. She’s just as awesome speaking in person as she is speaking on her show, and I got to see her wearing those rad blue glasses! I’ll stop fangirling now, but really, go read the book!

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