By Catherine Lutz
San Francisco Chronicle


By Rachel Maddow?(Crown, 275 pages, $25)

Rachel Maddow’s Drift is a book full of head-smacking stories about America’s military meddling and muddling since World War II. There is the account of a map-free 1983 invasion of Grenada to rescue medical students who didn’t need rescuing, and an invasion planned in 72 hours that resulted in more U.S. military deaths from friendly fire than Grenadan guns.

There are the stories about American nukes gone disastrously astray, like the ICBM warhead that was spat out of its silo near Damascus, Ark., because of a socket-wrench mishap. There are tales of counterinsurgency quackery like the Fallujah sewage treatment facility, an unrequested gift to the Iraqis who survived our 2004 assault there. It featured a 300 percent cost overrun and five-year delay, and is a gift that will keep on giving because the $105 million price tag did not cover “odor control facilities.”

These are stories not just of incompetence and of many dollars down a hidey-hole, but of people, in uniform and in civilian clothes, who did not need to die in wars that did not need to be fought.

Thankfully, the head smacking is cushioned throughout by the ironically cheerful persona of the storyteller. Side-smiling throughout an otherwise dark narrative, Maddow, the MSNBC political commentator and newswoman, brings the reader at a fast pace to her conclusion: These misadventures have come about not so much through the ineffectiveness and institutional overreach of military leaders as through the desire of the last five presidents to radically expand the use of the military for their own often political and ideological ends. The result has been a state of permanent war.

Congress comes in for sharp criticism for relinquishing its constitutionally assigned duty to declare and fund war, but it is Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush 1, Bill Clinton, George Bush 2 and Barack Obama whom Maddow calls out most energetically. Each innovated new ways to circumvent Congress and override the brakes of public opinion.

The long, creative list includes using private contractors in place of a reserve force to make it easier to go to war without the public feeling the pinch; expanding secrecy under the aegis of intelligence operations to black out more and more of the budget; perfecting sales pitches and information control for those military interventions that do become public; and deferring to the generals for decisions about not just how but even whether to go to war.

Drift highlights the power of the feel-good, feel-strong imagery that Reagan’s World War II propaganda work prepared him to exploit as a president. This imagery has since proliferated: the Air Force jets overflying football stadiums, “smart” missiles threading the needle of Iraqi target chimneys, missile-bristling destroyers speeding toward crisis zones, young volunteers in TV ads informing their proud parents about their plans to join up.

The Pentagon’s $600 million in annual ad spending has helped capture the public’s imagination and appetite for war, asking for little in return but a salute and a mortgaged future. These images, Maddow says, have made both the facts of world affairs and the Constitution irrelevant to political debate about how the military should be used. They have also made the soldier a super-citizen, and the citizen a mere bystander.

Her TV call-and-response style suggests that she really does expect us citizens to step up to the plate she’s served and demand a public reckoning and reversal of the militarizing process.

So, in reference to the elephantine complex of U.S. counterterrorism facilities and activities growing in the Virginia suburbs and around the world, Maddow asks: “If no one knows if it’s making us safer, why have we built it? Why are we still building it, at breakneck speed? Liberty Crossing, the 850,000-square-foot National Counterterrorism Center, is slated to almost double in size over the next decade. Remember the fierce debate in Congress over whether or not it’s worth it to do that? No? Me neither.”

While Maddow critiques the increased use of contractors, her analysis gives the war profiteers too little credit for this metastasizing mess. Lockheed Martin had annual military contracts that exceeded the budgets of the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Labor, combined. The contractors’ lobbyists, campaign contributions and revolving-door employment for Pentagon workers are critical determinants of the imperative for war.

But Maddow sounds an alarm this country needs to hear. It is a warning about the deep erosion of perhaps the central aim of the country’s founding document: A standing army is a threat to freedom, and a government of free people must place the responsibility for deciding to use force in the hands of multiple actors if we are to prevent the rush to violence. Until we reverse that loss, we will continue to have a government of, by and for war.