‘Such an Instrument Is a Standing Army’

‘Such an Instrument Is a Standing Army’

‘Such an Instrument Is a Standing Army’

Eric on his return to Yale. Reed reviews Rachel Maddow’s new book, Drift.


My new "Think Again" column is called "John Bolton and the Problem with On-the-One Hand Objectivity." Read it.

By way of introduction to Reed’s post, I was up at Yale last week to give a talk to Jewish students there and it happened to be the day when the International Relations program through which I got my master’s there was celebrating its reception of Henry Kissinger’s papers, which I assume must have been inspired either by a great deal of money or by Henry’s desire to poke Harvard in the eye. John Lewis Gaddis (who appeared deeply unhappy to see me) talked about how great Henry was and then Henry moderated a panel on China with Robert Rubin, Jonathan Spence (its only China expert) William Burns, deputy secretary of state; Michael Mullen, former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. What was said during conference was off the record, it was repeatedly announced, but the let the record show that the words “democracy” and “human rights” were not spoken a single time until I was invited to ask a question from the audience. I see this as legitimate to mention because 

a) I am not reporting on anything that was actually said at the conference;

b) When I did raise the question, asking Kissinger to comment on his own record in this regard and to speak freely since we were off the record, he responded that he would be happy to respond “on the record” and then said what he has always said on the topic.

But the actual reason I am bringing this up was because I had a nice talk with Mike Mullen at the reception and we talked about the “other one percent”; those Americans with family members in the military and the disjunction between their lives and the rest of us. I brought up the sign I had seen at Springsteen in Philly the night before. “Please play Thundercrack for my dad in Iraq.” He brought up Rachel Maddow, and had some quite complementary things to say about her work.

That’s all. Here’s Reed. Happy Passover and Easter and two Bruce Garden shows. Let’s, um, go Mets. 

A Military Policy Adrift
by Reed Richardson
On June 1, 1784, General Henry Knox commanded a mere 700 men, the remainder of the Continental Army that had finally wrested America’s independence from the vast British Empire less than a year before. Congress took one look at this paltry force and decided that its size was completely unacceptable. Indeed, for them, it was much too large. So the next day, Congress summarily disbanded the army, leaving this new nation with only 80 privates as the sum total of its active-duty force. (Their lone duty was to guard the weapons stores at Fort Pitt and West Point.)

This adversarial attitude toward a large peacetime military was no mere afterthought. It was born out of the early colonial citizens’ deep-seated displeasure of bearing the costs and burdens of the large British garrisons that had been stationed among them. After ridding themselves of the British yoke, the Framers’ visceral distaste for any future empire building on the part of the United States manifested itself in the Constitution, where the military was clearly placed under civilian control and war-making powers were specifically vested with the Congress. This new American take on liberalism had little interest for the dangerous instruments of imperialism, and as Thomas Jefferson wrote during the early Constitutional debates: “Such an instrument is a standing army.”

That this historical context—as well as this Jefferson quote—shows up early on in “Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power” (Crown publishing, $25), is your first cue that that Rachel Maddow’s new book is no mere talking-points polemic tossed off to build brand synergy with her on-air MSNBC persona. Instead, as befits someone with a doctorate in politics from Oxford, “Drift” is a considered, if sometimes smirking, exploration of an oft-ignored political predicament now confronting our democracy. When it comes to building up our ability to wage war, it seems America just can’t stop itself anymore.

This wasn’t the case until recently, Maddow points out. For most of our nation’s history, our warfighting capability relied heavily upon the occasional call-up—and, once hostilities ended, rapid demobilization—of citizen-soldiers. Though commonly traced back to the Revolutionary War’s Minutemen, the most notable of these reluctant warrior archetypes dates back more than 2,500 years, to the Roman farmer Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. Cincinnatus, the story goes, famously accepted the role of Roman dictator for six months to lead a successful defense of the city against foreign invaders. Then, sixteen days after achieving victory, Cincinnatus voluntarily resigned his powerful position and went back to happily tending his farm.

It was this great disruption that war inflicted upon the lives of Cincinnatus and the Roman Republic’s polity that informed the Framers’ thinking when crafting their new nation’s laws. They, too, wanted the choice to go to war to have such a momentous political and societal impact that it would necessarily be a rare one for their new nation. In their minds, America should either be at war or at peace, either stand an army or go without—mixing and matching these scenarios were just not acceptable options. 

But as Maddow asserts in “Drift,” the built-in constitutional governors that men like Jefferson and Madison intended to act as a brake on our nation’s engine of war-making have broken down. These days, “we the people” rarely enjoy a real policy debate before a president (of either party) decides to engage our military in yet another mission of dubious value to the “national interest.” Indeed, the book’s core argument can be boiled down to this passage:

Rational political actors, acting rationally to achieve rational (if sometimes dumb) political goals, have attacked and undermined our constitutional inheritance from men like Madison. For the most part, though, they’ve not done it to fundamentally alter the country’s course but just to get around understandably frustrating impediments to their political goals. The ropes we had used to lash down presidential war-making capacity, bindings that by design made it hard for an American president to use military force without the nation’s full and considered buy-in, have been hacked at with very little appreciation about why they were put there in the first place.

Where did we start to lose our way, to think that our nation could prosecute a war and that most Americans wouldn’t really notice (or care)? The book traces the roots of this phenomenon back to President Lyndon Johnson’s fateful decision—against the advice of his Defense Secretary and Joint Chiefs of Staff—not to call up the National Guard and Reserves to fight in Vietnam. This strategy, Maddow eloquently explains, effectively cleaved the interests of the American people from that of the military for the first time. And the psychic wound to the nation that resulted, one could argue, has never fully healed.

Still, it’s not that lessons weren’t learned there. From the ugly injustice of granting exceptional exemptions to people of a certain social station (included among them a future Speaker of the House, Vice President, and two Presidents) and instead forcing mostly poor draftees to fight this war, the modern, all-volunteer professional military arose. And at the policymaking level, post-Vietnam strategizing arrived at the Total Force Policy—also known as the Abrams Doctrine—which restructured the military to make it much more difficult to avoid fully involving the Reserves and, by proxy, the American people, in the next war.

Almost as quickly as these fixes were put in place, however, they began to unravel. And the reason why, Maddow successfully argues, can be answered in two words: Ronald Reagan.

In fact, if this book has anything approaching a single antagonist, our 40th president undoubtedly fills the bill. First appearing on page 29, Ronald Reagan spends the next 100 or so pages under Maddow’s unblinking gaze, as she lays out a devastating indictment of his zeal for demagoguing foreign policy issues, trampling upon our Constitution, flaunting due process, and the violating international laws of war on everything from the Panama Canal treaty to Iran-Contra.

To understand Reagan’s first real taste of acting first and thinking later when using our military, Maddow expends an entire chapter detailing the bungled debacle that was our 1983 invasion of Grenada. Despite its macho, Hollywoodesque codename, Operation Urgent Fury actually played out more like Operation Fuzzy Urges thanks to paranoid and poorly-thought-out planning on the part of the White House. Maddow weaves together the invasion’s numerous intelligence failures, misguided operational assumptions, and unnecessarily risky gambits to paint a vastly different picture than the one portrayed to the public by a fawning press corps. (I vividly remember my first encounter with this disconnect a decade after the fact, when my Airborne school instructor, a former Ranger who was shot in the back by friendly fire amidst the chaos that reigned during the jump into Pt. Salines airfield, succinctly summed up the operation using one military acronym—FUBAR.) 

Sadly, “Drift” makes no mention of one of the most important legacies of the botched Grenada invasion—the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols reforms. Ostensibly passed to lessen the often petty inter-service rivalries of the military, these reforms streamlined the Pentagon’s operational command structure but also had the unintended effect of strengthening our military leadership’s hand vis-à-vis its civilian overseers. This phenomenon has, no doubt, only exacerbated the Pentagon’s ability to get almost whatever it wants from Congress and the president. 

This growing power imbalance, whereby military leaders enjoy a bully pulpit that equals or exceeds their funders and commander-in-chief has set a dangerous precedent. For example, while then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Colin Powell was basking in high Q ratings and rumors of becoming a possible presidential contender, his savvy political maneuverings against intervention in Haiti and Bosnia as well as implementation of gays into the armed forces received a much less rosy reception among those who study civil-military affairs. In 1993, a Journal of Military History article boldly claimed that no general since McClellan “has ever resisted civilian proposals as consistently, systematically, and as successfully as General Powell.” A year later, military historian Richard Kohn concurred in a National Interest essay—with the not-so-subtle headline “Out of Control”—that included these notable observations:

The U.S. military is now more alienated from its civilian leadership than at any time in American history, and more vocal about it.


At the Army’s elite Command and General Staff College, a respected Congressman was ‘jeered’ by the class when he ‘repeatedly lectured officers’ about Congress’s role and powers—and was greeted by ‘catcalls’ at the mention of the President.

Bringing the growing political influence of our military leaders to heel has hardly been a priority of the intervening Congresses or administrations. But this idea that American military power has, at least in part, become unmoored from civilian oversight because that’s precisely how it wants it doesn’t really get any attention in Maddow’s book, unfortunately. For the most part, she treats the military as impartial, dutiful actors under the willing thumb of an executive branch calling all the shots. (The lone exception being her brief fisking of the canonization of David Petraeus and his impossibly costly counterinsurgency doctrine.)

This is one of two primary (albeit minor) disappointments with “Drift.” While its sweep of history is vast, it is, by the very nature of its 252 pages (and small pages at that), somewhat shallow in places. Perhaps this is due to her deliberate authorial pace—in the opening sentence of her acknowledgements she says: “I’m the slowest writer on earth.” 

Still, I can’t help but think about the book that might have been, the longer one that dug deeper into the military’s own active role in drifting toward our current state of almost perpetual war. Or the chapter on how the media has continually enabled this drift through, by turns, incurious reporting, relentless cheerleading, and an almost wholesale organizational retreat from foreign coverage. In addition, one would think that a more comprehensive book would lend itself to more insightful and satisfying policy remedies than the ones she concludes with. To wit: “If we are going to use drones to vaporize people in Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia, the Air Force should operate these drones, and pull the trigger. And we should know about it.” Or, you know, maybe we should stop doing this altogether, since no matter what part of the U.S. government does it, it’s arguably still illegal, immoral, and counter-productive in the long run.

Granted, faulting a book for what it doesn’t have in it can be an exercise in intellectual misdirection. And Maddow deserves credit for avoiding that same trap herself. “Drift” offers up a readily accessible tone to its readers and lets Maddow’s sarcastic wit artfully color the sometimes absurd nature of the subject matter. Yes, these punch lines, at times, resemble either the worst of a Borscht Belt comic from 50 years ago or the vacuous ruminations of a bored teenager, but they’re easily overlooked if they’re not your cup of tea.

Her methodology for sourcing facts and citing them, on the other hand, is a bit harder to brush aside. With nary a footnote, the book settles for breezy, conversational-style endnotes that “are not intended to be comprehensive.” As a result, when a striking fact appears—“In the past decade, the US Army has lost more soldiers to suicide than to enemy fire in Afghanistan”—the end notes provide no way to easily check this or even learn more about why. (Unsurprisingly, the Army’s latest report shows that more deployments closely correlate with more suicides.)

To be clear, I’m not impugning the book’s veracity. Maddow’s writing style, though cheeky and light-hearted at points, nonetheless conveys a mastery of the subject at hand. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in her discussion of the massive privatization of our nation’s warfighting capabilities, which she spends the last third of the book unpacking. (As it happens, the National Magazine Award finalists were announced this past week. Among those listed in the Public Interest category was Sarah Stillman, whose powerful New Yorker exposé from last summer, “The Invisible Army,” detailed yet another part of the private contractor archipelago where fraud, abuse, and exploitation are brazenly conducted in our country’s name and thanks to our tax dollars.)

To illustrate the frightening degree to which our military is now beholden to these third-party warfighters she cites example after example, but it was a recent quote from the current Director of National Intelligence that sent shivers up my spine: “If all the contractors failed to come to work tomorrow, the intelligence community would stop.”

This is where we are now, as a country. Maddow’s book makes for a compelling argument to change directions.

In the end, calling her book ‘Creep’ might have been a more obvious choice for Maddow, as ‘mission creep’ has long been the favorite phrase to describe a military plan gone astray. But I prefer her choice of ‘Drift.’ That’s because besides describing the broader unmooring of American military power, drift also has a very narrow military definition that brings with it a powerful symbolism. When firing at a target that can’t be directly viewed, artillery units must account for types of drift—spin, wind resistance, the rotation of the earth—in their plotting lest they miss badly and hit something else. And as the size of the projectile grows ever larger, the potential drift that can push a round off-target increases as well—almost to the point where it’s hard to tell what you’re really aiming at anymore.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

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