Drift by Rachel Maddow

Rachel Maddow, the popular TV and radio political pundit of the left, has hit the jackpot with her new book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (Crown, 275 pp., $25). The book, a well-written and well-argued essay that looks into the history of how America has raised and used its armed forces, reached the top of the best-seller lists soon after it was published late in March—and has remained there since then.

Surprisingly, given Maddow’s strong political temperament, this book is not a political screed. It even has earned praise from some prominent conservatives. That includes Roger Ailes, the chairman and CEO of FOX News whose right-wing credentials are unimpeachable.  Drift, Ailes says, “makes valid arguments that our country has been drifting toward questionable wars [since Sept. 11, 2001], draining our resources, without sufficient input and time. People who like Rachel will love the book. People who don’t will get angry, but aggressive debate is good for America.”

Maddow traces the current state of military affairs primarily to what happened during the Vietnam War when President Lyndon B. Johnson sharply escalated the conflict in 1965. “With only halfhearted gestures toward trying to keep the country on board with a war he never realy wanted to fight, Johnson set about trying to fight his war in a way the American people might hopefully not notice too much,” she says.

By that, Maddow means that Johnson famously “tried to fight a war on the cheap” by not calling up the National Guard and Reserves. Those and other similar citizen soldier units had been two important components of all of America’s wars since the Revolution.

Then came the end of the draft and the post-Vietnam War reorganization of the military in the late 1970s and 1980s, featuring the all-volunteer force and the use of the Guard and Reserves as adjuncts to the standing military. That state of affairs, Maddow argues, has led to fundamental changes in the way the U.S. has gone about taking military action in the last twenty-five years.

“As we’ve pushed military experience further and further away from civilian life, we’ve also pushed decision making about the use of the military further and further away from political debate,” she says. That seems to be a point that anyone on the left or right would agree is not a good thing.

—Marc Leepson

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