Half a century ago, writing in a book called Military Organization and Society, a scholar named Stanislav Andreski surveyed the ongoing Cold War and observed that the two contending superpowers were becoming more and more alike. Soviet kids may have been listening to the Beatles, but at the same time, the folks inside the Pentagon were starting to behave more like the Politburo than Patrick Henry.
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Can a society that’s armed to the teeth, thoroughly militarized, worshipful of all things martial and constantly looking for a fight be anything but totalitarian? So Andreski wondered. And so run the outlines of the argument that liberal TV commentator Rachel Maddow picks up in Drift: The Unmooring of American Power.
The answer is sobering—and, unless you’re an arms merchant, disturbing.
It may surprise some readers that Maddow has stepped from the daily business of covering national politics—mostly on the legislative side and then mostly to document the lunacies of the party currently controlling Congress—to write in depth and at length on the role of the military in modern American society. But so she has, and what she turns up is newsworthy, not only on its own merits but also because so few Americans have any direct knowledge of what our men and women in uniform actually do.
Chalk that up to one of the key turning points in her narrative: the military’s uneasy decision, as the Vietnam War was grinding to a halt, to convert to an all-volunteer force. That was a time, Maddow notes, when the Army brought in sophisticated pitchmen to sell the institution as a fun, with-it place to hang: “The Army was now selling all the wonderful ways Uncle Sam and the military could improve your life. And he wouldn’t even make you cut your hair that short.” Those halcyon days of the mid- to late 1970s, when John Travolta was selling a stint in khaki as the cool thing to do, were a pretty safe time to be in the service, since another consequence of Vietnam was a reluctance to send soldiers off to get shot.
Enter Ronald Reagan, in many ways the villain of Maddow’s book—or at least the titular head of a gang of villains who snarled and spat at the idea of the “Vietnam syndrome.” Reagan’s bluster began in the 1976 campaign with the smearing assertion that Gerald Ford was caving in to the commies by giving up the Panama Canal, an arrangement that was completed under the luckless Jimmy Carter, who took the heat for it.
When Reagan stepped into office, his aides—men with names like Dick Cheney, to whom Maddow dedicates her book with no small irony, and Donald Rumsfeld—stepped up the sword rattling. By 1983, thanks to them, we were very nearly in a shooting war with the Soviet Union, while American warriors were stomping the ground in places like Grenada, Lebanon and, yes, Nicaragua.
But the Vietnam syndrome persisted, Maddow writes, if in odd ways. When Colin Powell was high up in the Pentagon chain of command during the first Gulf War, he articulated a policy that drove doctrinaire Reaganites to distraction: Take half a million troops along, an overwhelming force, and make sure you knew why you were there.
It wasn’t long, though, before that fizzled, and in the hands of another president who had no problem with the idea of military adventurism in the name of the greater good. Maddow writes, “By the time Bill Clinton left office in 2001, an Operation Other Than War, as Pentagon forces called them, could go on indefinitely, sort of on autopilot—without real political costs or consequences, or much civilian notice. We’d gotten used to it.”
Indeed we have, with a war in Iraq that dragged on for eight years, another in Afghanistan that has lasted more than a decade, and now talk of still another war in Iran, perhaps even Syria. Americans are now, as New York Times writer David Carr puts it, at peace with being at war. And not only have we normalized war, made it part of our daily existence, writes Maddow, but we’ve also “pushed decision making about the use of the military further and further away from the political debate.”
And so we have a Sovietized, increasingly controlled society where dissent is suppressed and reminders of that endless war—flag-draped coffins notable among them—discouraged. Andreski wouldn’t exactly be proud, but he certainly wouldn’t be surprised. A stalwart critic of things as they are, Maddow does us all a service by reminding us of the true costs of American war making.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor to and longtime reviewer for Kirkus. His latest book is Aelian's On the Nature of Animals (Trinity University Press).