Monday, December 08, 2014

Booknote: Drift

Rachel Maddow, Drift: the Unmooring of American Military Power.  New York: Crown, 2012. ISBN: 9780307460981 (ISBN for print edition).

I read this one as an audiobook. Rachel Maddow reads it, and she maintains that voice and ability to explain things so well that she displays on television. In terms of the listening experience, it was a good one. I do not do audiobooks very often, but I was glad to have taken a chance on this one. As I listened to the book, I took notes of things I found interesting or that made me think. As I write now, I may add comments and thoughts here or there. Bottom line: should you read the book? I think if you are interested in current U.S. policy, U.S. history, politics, and international affairs, and/or the military, you should read this. For me, this is a book that should get more attention, and unlike so many books out there on current affairs, that are mostly fly by night books soon to be forgotten in a remainders table, this book is substantial, interesting, and accessible. Maddow has a good way of telling it like it is in a plain tone. This was an excellent read, and it is one I highly recommend.

Giving it the full 5 out of 5 stars.

I borrowed the audiobook from my local public library, Madison County (KY) Public Library, Berea branch.

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Reading notes and comments:

The book's topic is American military power. Early on, we hear how after 9/11, there has been a boom for military and intelligence contractors; it has basically been a contractor gravy train. In her prologue, Maddow notes that the drift of U.S. military power was not inevitable, and it can be fixed. But will the nation choose to do a self-correction?

On LBJ and the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War was the conflict that disconnected the U.S. military from the people and the people from the military. Instead of calling up reserves and national guard, President Johnson extended the draft, allowed for a variety of loopholes in said draft, and went after the poor, minorities, and anyone not able to get out of the draft. And while the military forces were at war, the American people lived as if nothing was going on. Post-Vietnam, Congress tightened the laws to prevent a president from just going to war. Note that this seems to have change after 9/11 as Congress simply bent to the will of George W. Bush and his desire to go to war.

In Chapter 3, Maddow describes how the U.S. Army, and the rest of the armed forces, sold itself to get recruits using the enticements of travel and experience. They were selling the idea of the armed forces in peacetime. That was until Ronald Reagan came along, and politics served to ramp up the military machine. Maddow later discusses how many Americans believe the Soviet Union collapsed due to economic pressures from the Cold War. However, the reality was that the Soviet Union was already collapsing when Reagan came to power. In the end, the real damage to the U.S. were Reagan's deficits due to military spending. The U.S. went from the largest creditor nation to the largest debtor nation in the world, and it was all just foster a war footing with another nation that was already collapsing on its own.

Chapter 6 goes on about the corruption of military contractors and how they damage the perception of the American military abroad.Then again, this is a problem made by the American people and its leadership. As Maddow writes later on, they "handed the privateers the keys to what should be a public kingdom." In addition, Maddow convincingly presents the fact is that military contractors never improved the costs. This was the fleecing of the U.S. military pure and simple. No one can really tell how effective let alone what value, if any, the contractors added. In the end, what outsourcing did do was make it easier to go to war, without the public even noticing, and far from what the founders of the nation like Jefferson envisioned. Men like Jefferson advocated and set the idea of making going to war difficult and an act accountable to the people.

Then we have the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The CIA operates drones in places like Pakistan. It is now a "de facto branch of the military with its own troops and its own robotic air force." In essence, the CIA is now a secret military force with no visible chain of command nor rules of engagement in places the U.S. is not supposed to be. The American people have basically voted in people who not only gutted the military but then created private and secret armies waging the business of war with little to no oversight.

Overall, in the United States, war no longer really affects American society. Americans barely know war is going on as less Americans actually serve in the military. There is national culpability of settling into a way of waging war that ensures minimal political pushback all without thought or debate. This should be disturbing, or it would be if the American people actually paid attention to what their elected leaders are doing. Civilian life now rolls on uninterrupted. Aside from military families, which are relatively few, families and people do not really feel war and can easily tune out.

Further in the book, Maddow points out that General Petraeus' book on counterinsurgency is often praised. However, as Maddow goes on to elaborate, historically there has never been a successful counterinsurgency against a foreign power. As Maddow writes, you have to go all the way back to the Roman Empire. How did they succeed in their counterinsurgency operations? Well, they did things like killed all able-bodied males of their enemies and enslaving the women and children. This is not exactly what Petraeus suggests today in terms of winning hearts and minds. Americans arrogantly think that if you "stick with it" and keep an open checkbook, you can win anything. So far, this has failed. But hey, keep writing those checks.

And there is more. This is one of the best quotes from the book, which I think encompasses much of the issue:

"We have built ourselves to the exclusion of all other priorities a military superstructure that we can't use for anything other than war and that we can no longer afford, and it's going to be really hard to take this thing apart." 

Want to know why this country neglects its schools, the poor, its infrastructure, and other domestic essentials for its people? There is your answer. By the way, if you feel deja vu, it may be you read George Orwell's 1984. If you have read the book, recall the passages about the need for perpetual war. By the way, this also explains why suddenly police departments started getting tons of "surplus" military vehicles and equipment. Hey, you have to use it for something.

Here is another good quote from the book:

"Institutions have inertia. When the original justification for a huge investment goes away, the huge investment finds another reason to live. It's not just the military; it's true of all organizations. The more money and work and time it takes to build something, the more power it accrues and the more effort it takes to make it go away." 

At the end of the book, Maddow presents various solid solutions in policy and better transparency. She also appeals to reason, asking for people to see and consider the evidence, and then take some responsibility. None of this is impossible when it comes to solving the issue, but the American people have to decide to do it. Sadly, from what I often see, the American people more often than not choose not to pay attention let alone do the right thing.

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