Review: Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power

by Rachel Maddow


by: Rachel Maddow
ISBN: 9780307460981
276 pages
Publisher: Crown
Published: March 27, 2012

Current Events, Foreign Policy, History, Politics

This book is deceptively short, but not because it gives short shrift to its subject. The reason for its brevity is its laser-like focus on the topic. Drift reads like an extended version of the first ten to fifteen minutes of the author’s nightly MSNBC program (very extended, as the audiobook version, read by the author, clocks in at a little over seven hours). She states her thesis and spends the following 270-odd pages relentlessly backing it up.

Her thesis is straightforward: It’s supposed to be hard for the United States to go to war. Obstacles to unfettered warmaking by the Executive branch are built into our Constitution, and since Vietnam, the Executive Branch has been doing it’s level best to brush those impediments aside or trample them underfoot. Those efforts help explain why America is still trying to extricate herself from two wars that have required little notice or sacrifice of the American people.

Historically, with or without Constitutional restraints, the United States has been a nation reluctant to go to war. Recent history may cause you to greet that statement with a degree of cognitive dissonance. Perhaps more accurately, the American people have been reluctant to leave home and hearth to be soldiers, but more than willing when someone else is called upon to make the sacrifice. Soldiering gets in the way of the harvest or tending the herd (or in modern terms, watching football, yoga, and soccer practice), so better them then us.

The Abrams Legacy

Before Vietnam, this wasn’t the case and Drift is the story of how it became the case. Before the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, President Johnson had campaigned as the peace candidate, more interested in building the Great Society at home than sending American boys to fight someone else’s war in Southeast Asia. After that dubious provocation on the night of August 2, 1964, LBJ was looking for a way to send American boys to Southeast Asia without making people too angry. His solution was not to call up the reserves and National Guard, the part-time citizen soldiers whose dislocation was one of the reasons that American had been reluctant warriors. Deploying the nation’s plumbers and accountants is bound to disrupt a lot of lives, so the President better have a good reason. In place of the reservists and guardsmen, the Pentagon would use draftees to augment the regular troops.

This is why George W. Bush’s Air National Guard post was a cushy shield against going to Vietnam. It should not have been. Poppy Bush’s little boy and his squadron should have been on the way to Hanoi with the rest of the troops. If he had been, if the units deployed to Vietnam had included the Reserve and the National Guard, the war probably would have been a lot shorter and much more unpopular much sooner. We might not have needed to wait for the Tet Offensive to see the clusterfuck under way.

This is did not please General Creighton Abrams, successor to William Westmoreland as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam (and whose name graces our M1 battle tank). When Abrams become Army Chief of Staff, he instituted the Total Force Policy, or “Abrams Doctrine,” which intertwined the Regular Army, Reserves and National Guard units in such a way that it would be impossible for the United States to go to war the same way it had in Vietnam, to ensure that war disrupted the normal lives of the citizen soldiers. And it worked for almost two decades.

Drift documents how both the Abrams doctrine, and the authority of Congress to declare war, were undermined in the intervening years. Conspiracy theorists may see plots within plots behind the executive power grabs of the Reagan/Bush and Bush/Cheney years, but the reality portrayed by Maddow is both scarier and sadder. It just sort of happened, for both good reasons and bad.

Imperial Teflon

Probably without knowing it, Maddow credits Ronald Reagan with inventing the “reality distortion field” that Steve Jobs would go on to perfect. The world was however Reagan convinced himself to see it, facts often be damned. Such well-known liberal stalwarts as William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and John Wayne registered frustration and exasperation at the Great Communicator’s version of the facts.

Perhaps this ability to filter reality to his own liking, as much as the need to distract the public from the degenerating situation in Lebanon, where 299 people had just died in a suicide truck bombing, allowed Reagan to see a Soviet/Cuban plot behind the plan to build a new airport on the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada. In the invasion that followed, U.S. forces proved to be their own worst enemy, doing more damage to each other than the opposing forces managed to do. The mission to rescue the medical students who were in danger of being hostages ran into a couple snags. They weren’t all where the U.S. government thought they’d be (and the soldiers probably needed tourist maps to the places the students actually were). The students were also mostly unaware that they needed rescuing.

Congress was upset that they weren’t informed almost until the Rangers were hitting the beach and they asserted the War Powers Resolution to compel President Reagan to bring the troops home. Reagan was annoyed that Congress was poking their noses into his presidential prerogative to conduct foreign policy as he saw fit. He was also exasperated that neither Congress nor the American people appreciated the threat represented by the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. To the Reagan administration, Daniel Ortega was just another Fidel Castro without the cigar and the beard, and his government represented a Soviet foothold in Central America.

Prehaps still annoyed about Grenada, Congress had specifically barred the Executive branch from using U.S. funds to support the Contra guerillas fighting the Sandinistas. Fully buying into the “Nixon doctrine,” that if the President does something in the name of national security, it’s not illegal, Reagan got creative. He attempted to privatize the Contra war, funding it with proceeds from the ill-advised, ill-fated and thoroughly illegal sales of weapons to Iran in the quixotic, forlorn hope of securing the release of American hostages in Lebanon.

That the Iran/Contra affair did not bring down the Reagan White House is beside the point, because it was the aftermath that mattered. The effort to justify their actions produced some truly creative legal writing from Attorney General Ed Meese, in much the same way that tax evasion produces some truly creative accounting, laying the groundwork for the “Imperial Presidency” with regards to foreign policy.

The Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq: War for Hire

Future administrations would refine this over the years in the run-up to the first Iraq war (really the Kuwait war) in 1991, the war in Afghanistan after 9/11 in 2001, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Maddow asserts that Congress meekly acquiesced to the Presidents Bush, especially with regard to our wars in Iraq. Her detractors might point out that the president did seek and get Congressional approval for their actions, so their role in warmaking is not as weakened as the author suggests. Maddow believes that the administrations did little more than allow Congress to approve what was already inevitable. Both Bushes backed Congress into a political corner and left them with but one “patriotic” option. Agree or disagree, you can’t say she makes a weak or half-hearted argument for her position.

The erosion of the Abrams doctrine was a fringe benefit of the end of the Cold War and the draw down of U.S. forces with no global enemy left to fight, or so we thought. There would other conflicts in Somalia and the Balkans during the 90s. The Mogadishu debacle documented in Black Hawk Down left the country skittish about committing U.S. troops to another war zone.

At the same time, Vice-president Al Gore was launching a much-touted initiative to streamline government, making it leaner and meaner at all levels. One of these programs sought to make the military more cost-effective by assigning some job functions, such as those most often done in war time by reservists and National Guardsmen, to private contractors.

When Croatia and Bosnia pleaded for help in holding off the Serbian ethnic cleansing onslaught, it was not politically feasible for the Clinton Administration to send American troops or other forms of direct U.S. military aid. The capacity to use contractors, however, allowed the President’s foreign policy team to side-step the normal political and constitutional hurdles.

It was not without positive results. After having their clocks thoroughly cleaned by the Serbs in battle, the Croatians faced their enemy one last time, but now with the advantage of new training from a private military contractor with a large number of former U.S. officers on staff. The difference in the results was eye-opening. The Croats not only routed the Serbs, but independent observers remarked that their battle plan looked suspiciously American in character, as if H. Norman Schwarzkopf himself had defected to Croatia and joined their army.


There were a few snags in the new U.S. love affair with military contractors. They were not all that cost-effective and on one troubling occasion, employees of a specific contractor were regular customers of Serbian sex traffickers. This was offset by the flexibility they gave the chief executive when it came to waging war. The presence of these contractors undermined the Abrams doctrine by making the reserves and National Guard superfluous to the support role, but it also freed them up to act as regular combat troops in a way they had never been before, or at least not since WWII.

Maddow makes her case methodically and is never afraid to get wonky with her facts. She delivers her facts with the same cheerfully snarky attitude familiar to her TV viewers. Some critics have huffed that this sort of insolence is inappropriate for such a serious subject. But this is Rachel Maddow’s voice, and for her to deliver her point with the same somber sobriety of Dan Rather would be as dissonant as Rather himself reading the news wearing a spiked, rainbow-hued Mohawk.

I didn’t need a lot of persuading as to Maddow’s depiction of the current status of our national security posture, and the fact that the CIA is now a de facto, virtually unsupervised arm of the military was not news to me. Drift’s primary value to me was its cogent, reasoned, and detailed explanation as to how we got to where we are.

Let me know what you think!