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Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow. Crown Publishers, 2012, 252 pp.

Drift is an extended monograph of nine chapters, including a prologue and conclusion that might be characterized as a constitutional discourse on war-making powers disguised as a critique of the growth and abuse of US military power by recent presidents. Or, perhaps the opposite: it is a discourse on the growth and abuse of military power disguised as a critique about constitutional war-making powers. It is difficult to discern because the author, Rachel Maddow, does not indicate which subject she prefers to address in any rigorous fashion.

Maddow is a television personality known for fearless opinions that manage to both delight and enrage people who hold political views across the spectrum. Maddow is not your typical television pundit: she attended Stanford University and later earned a PhD in politics at the University of Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. Maddow is a self-professed “defense wonk” and does not hesitate to point out perceived national security transgressions regardless of political party origin. It would be a mistake to categorize her national security views based on voting record or party preference—she is an equal opportunity thorn in the sides of both conservatives and liberals with respect to national security issues. Drift gives Maddow a platform to air her particular defense views while capitalizing on her ability to deliver a narrative that is breezy, witty, and showcases her national security bona fides. Each chapter title is an ironic bon mot such as “Mylanta ‘Tis of Thee” or “An $8 Trillion Fungus among Us.”

The prologue title is a hint that the subject matter itself resists an easy study: “Is It Too Late to Descope This?” suggests that the author recognized the difficulty of presenting a compelling narrative that is readable for her fans and admirers but also adequately explains to a general readership why US military power became unmoored from its original purposes—a study perhaps more suited to the scholarly arena. Her intent appears to introduce the theme that the US military complex had grown too large and needs retrenchment to fulfill its original purpose, but a casual reader will be unable to recognize a central argument early in the reading. Maddow does not present a discernible declarative thesis in the prologue or chapter 1 that indicated why US military power was disconnected from its original purposes or the essential evidence that points toward the unmooring. Readers may be easily confused as to the object of extended analysis: did she seek to critique the growth of the national security apparatus and its effect on decisions about using military power, or was she more interested in the constitutional struggle between the presidency and Congress related to employment of the military? The evidence Maddow presents throughout suggests her primary concern was mainly the constitutional implications of congressional inaction and presidential activism in foreign conflicts, prone to abuse an overgrown and out of control national security apparatus, but it does not become clear until page 96, where she states that “America’s structural disinclination toward war . . . is the system.” On page 125, she clarifies and concludes that “the war-making authority . . . had become . . . one man’s decision to make. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” Her criticisms of the military seemed to be a MacGuffin that moved the narrative along and an afterthought, despite the book’s subtitle that suggests otherwise.

The narrative begins with an attempt to create an analogy between security additions to a small pump house in her postage stamp–size hometown and the explosive growth of security organizations and spending following 9/11. The contrast is amusing, but her beef is really about how the original intent of national security set forth in the constitution was by nature delimited through the constitutional authority of Congress vis-à-vis the president. In the case of war-making powers, Maddow insists that presidential power is limited by design, and Congress solely has the ability to authorize the use of military power. It would be difficult to argue against her stance on principle, but history suggests that the authority to use military force has always been contested. Maddow acknowledges the intent of the founding fathers, but the narrative jumps to the Vietnam War and ignores more than a century and a half of conflicts that preceded the modern era yet yielded historical insights as to why there has always been a constitutional disagreement between the branches of government over war-making powers. “Mr. Madison’s War” of 1812 and the quasi-war with France were early examples. Prior to the approval of Congress and a declaration of war, President Polk authorized sending forces into Mexican territory that led to battles between US and Mexican forces. Maddow also ignores the scholarship of others who have weighed in on the subject, to include Cecil Van Meter Crabb’s Invitation to Struggle that covered similar ground.

The author zeroes in on Ronald Reagan as her bête noire and fountainhead for all modern ills associated with presidential power. Although she highlights important points related to presidential overreach, she diverges from the essential narrative with long passages about the personality and foibles of Reagan and delights in character attacks by third parties. She spends far too much energy going after former defense secretary Dick Cheney, when her efforts should have more properly addressed Pres. George W. Bush and his role in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was no discussion, for example, of Bush’s controversial preemption strategy. In between she provides details of Pentagon mismanagement and nuclear negligence.

The strength of this book is that it is an easy read that can be digested in a day. There are many amusing stories that enliven the narrative, and Maddow has a flair for weaving the actual words used by key players from speeches or recordings into the overall picture. Despite her credentials, I was surprised, nonetheless, at her mixed metaphors of drift, unmooring, brakes, and wobbly steering. It was largely unsatisfying in that you were left asking exactly what had become unmoored—the US military or her thesis? Serious students of national security or constitutional issues related to war-making powers will not learn anything substantial from this book. The average reader with little to no background in these issues may find her narrative compelling.

LTC Kurt P. VanderSteen, USA, Retired

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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