Review: Drift by Rachel Maddow

I’ll admit that I read Rachel Maddow’s new book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power only because I couldn’t believe she had waded into civil-military relations. I’ve rarely watched her show, but it seemed odd for a talk-show pundit to put out a treatise on drift in the American presidency relating to our military. I was fully prepared to be able to tear apart her argument from beginning to end — not out of personal partisanship (most know I’m more a moderate than some leftist liberal) but for her own partisanship and ignorance. Indeed, she does show these in parts of her book, but her overall argument and call to action is sound.

Let’s get one thing out of the way here, though. She and her editor need to stop with the thesaurus-thumbing. “Frowsy?” “Nosegays?” “Withal?” Not to mention spelling “fuse” with a “z.” Seriously?

Moving on.

She does a good job of tracing the expanse of executive power to commit troops to combat, Congress’ abdication of its inherent power to declare war, the dismantling of the Abrams, or Total Force, Doctrine and the rise and extensive (ab)use of private military contractors/companies. Indeed, a quick visit to U.S. Army installations stateside (Ft. Hood, Ft. Sam Houston) and overseas (Stuttgart, head of EUCOM) shows the takeover of private contractors in guarding our own posts. (Notably, the Air Force bases I’ve recently visited have had airmen manning the gates instead of civilian contractors.)

But her ignorance — and partisanship — glows when she begins to discuss “the surge” and counterinsurgency (COIN). I’m happy she read — or had her research assistant read — FM 3-24, The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, but she’d have done well to read Nagl’s classic Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, David Galula and others before claiming no insurgency has ever been quelled. And it would be helpful if she had noted — or known — that FM 3-24 wasn’t written by Gen. Petraeus alone (who truly is the closest thing to a warrior-scholar we’ve had in a long time, excepting my friend Tanner Port). The manual was written with input from many spheres: the military, NGOs, academe and others. It sounds better to blame the military and political leadership, though.

The lesson is: A quick review of history is much easier than discussing, in-depth, COIN or UAVs. So stick to one or the other. In this case, it’s best she stick to the former, and she does, for the most part.

She rightly finds that the growth of American war-making powers have been left to — and expanded upon by — presidents of all strips. She notes that this abdication of congressional powers started long ago, and not merely in the Reagan and Bush W. years, as her target audience would probably prefer. Her partisan side shows, but never to any extreme degree a la Al Franken, Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter.

Overall, it’s a decent book without too much partisanship for a quick overview of the drift in American warmaking powers from Congress and the people to the president. But it’s really for fans of Maddow. You can find such discussions of drift in much less partisan sources.

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