Nathan reviews Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow, Crown, 2012, 275 pages

Have you ever wondered who has the legal power to declare war? Is it Congress or the president? The Constitution of the United States is actually surprisingly clear (right?). Rachel Maddow answers this question about who is allowed to declare war and so much more. When I say her writing style feels like talking to a friend about politics while having a few drinks, I mean that positively. She mixes solid and thorough facts and quotations into every point and still finds a way to make quick jokes and jabs about the content (sometimes too many). Her tone throughout was almost casual and conversational even though the subject matter is of great importance.

I will go ahead and answer the question I started with: Congress. The legislative branch of the national government is, legally, the one responsible for declaring war. However, that has not stopped a few commanders in chief from trying their damnedest to circumvent that historic document without it looking like they were doing just that. Maddow explains how Presidents Reagan, Bush (H.W. and W.), Clinton, and Obama all did what they could to get around the explicit language of the Constitution after President Johnson was reluctant to call up National Guard and Army Reserve troops during the Vietnam War and the following War Powers Resolution brought the role of the president into focus when deciding when to go to war. To get into any of the fine details of how each president tried to sneak around the law would spoil the fun. Plus, there are far too many to even begin to appropriately summarize them.

While safeguards and procedures were put in place long ago to ensure that the executive branch (the president) did not have the first and final say about declaring war, they were rarely used, at least not to the extent to which they would have been properly effective. The Abrams Doctrine, for example, is one such statute that helped ensure the United States did not jump into a new war without first taking the proper steps–don’t worry, this is explained in the book. Still, Maddow illustrates expenses and variables many would not have considered when a country has a large standing army preparing for war. One such example is preschool (potentially a $3 billion annual cost!). Maintaining a fighting force has far more hidden costs than just maintenance (wing fungus, ew), new uniforms, and weapon spending. Privatization led to control in certain areas being taken away from government oversight even if it was government funded. It also made it easier, however, to conduct military operations without “causing a big civilian hullabaloo.” Over and over and over, administrations still found (or created) ways around alerting the general public to their intentions of war. (Let’s not even get into CIA operations or the drone program. The nuclear capability [and mishaps] of our nation is another major discussion all by itself, though it only gets one chapter.)

For quite some time, a deterrent for going to war was the image of (and literally) disrupting the lives of those in the armed forces. This applies to primarily the active ranks, but having to call up the reserves is arguably more disruptive. By staying in some form of waging war for so long, the general populace is no longer disrupted; a state of disruption becomes the norm. No longer are the reservists or guardsmen and guardswomen “weekend warriors”; they are practically full-time now, further separating soldiers and civilians and shaping how Americans think of war.