American Militarism: Part One (Rachel Maddow)

On April 14th my better half and I dined with another couple at Tre Scalini in South Philadelphia before scurrying over to Irvine Auditorium on the University of Pennsylvania campus to listen to Rachel Maddow speak about her book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. Ms. Allyson Schwartz, currently a member of the U. S. House of Representatives and a recently announced candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania, gave Ms. Maddow a glowing introduction. So, too, did Philadelphia’s Mayor, Michael Nutter.

Although she charmed her audience with wit, humor and a velvety-fisted critique of the many idiocies that pass for policies in the Republican Party these days, one might guess that the people who actually came to hear Ms. Maddow speak about her book were disappointed. After all, for nearly thirty minutes Ms. Maddow spoke almost exclusively about just one part of her book, before taking questions. Unfortunately, many of those questions had nothing to do with her book.

(In fact, nobody actually challenged anything written in her book. I stood in line to do so, but the question and answer period ended before I got to the microphone.)

At the outset of her speech, Ms. Maddow informed her audience that she had scrapped the speech she had delivered at other venues – one that addressed America’s deteriorating nuclear weapons – and hurriedly crafted a speech about Ronald Reagan earlier that day.

Why Ronald Reagan? Because, as she correctly explained, America’s myopically nationalistic mainstream news media treated Margaret Thatcher’s recent death as though she were a mere footnote to the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Ah, yes, the great Ronald Reagan — the hero of Republicans everywhere.

But Ms. Maddow began by asking her audience to imagine how Republicans and conservatives would have reacted, had they discovered that President Barack Obama had secretly sold missiles to Iran. Yes, Iran. Wouldn’t they have called him a traitor?

She then asked her audience to imagine the intensity of the boiling anger of Republicans and conservatives once they learned that Obama also used the secretly and illegally obtained arms-sale money to finance an illegal CIA-led proxy war against a third world country — in defiance of the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Constitution.

Undoubtedly, Republicans and conservatives would have demanded Obama’s impeachment – and with ample justification. But, as Ms. Maddow emphasized to her audience, it was not Obama who committed those crimes, but Ronald Reagan.

In fact, fourteen Reagan administration officials were indicted and eleven convicted for their participation in these crimes. Reagan deserved impeachment, but escaped punishment by pleading what Maddow’s book calls “exhaustive ignorance and confusion.” Indeed, his plea rang true, if only because Reagan actually was an often-confused dunderhead.

Worse, he didn’t care! He worked three and a half hours per day, didn’t read his briefing books and occasionally fell asleep at meetings. He was so wishy-washy and easy to persuade on most issues that many members of his administration tried to be the last person to speak to him about policy recommendations, in order to have the last, and presumably, final say on an issue.

My favorite story attesting to Reagan’s formidable confusion and stupidity took place 30 months after Reagan gave his historic missile defense (“Star Wars”) speech. Although the speech was hailed as “visionary” by right-wing ideologues, 30 months later Reagan still needed to ask George Schultz to tell him once again “the difference between a ballistic missile and a cruise missile.”

Nevertheless, right-wing ideologues subsequently whitewashed Reagan’s laziness, his stupidity, his criminality in “Iran-Contra” as well as the lies (or was it Alzheimer’s?) he spread when he denied trading arms for hostages. Today, Reagan remains the hero of the Republican Party, which tells you how low they must go to find a hero and how hard they must work to fabricate one. Unfortunately, as Ms. Maddow pointed out on Sunday, the mainstream media has bought into the whitewash.

In the course of her brief speech devoted to Reagan, Ms. Maddow briefly touched on the basic theme of her book, i.e., how ridiculously easy it is these days to take America to war. In her book, Maddow claims: “As the national security state has mestastasized, decisions to use force have become painless and slick, almost automatic” [p. 248]

As most educated Americans know, that wasn’t the intent of our Founding Fathers. Standing armies were viewed to be a threat to individual liberty. James Madison, for example, asserted: “War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.”

Until the beginning of the Cold War, America’s peacetime standing army had been quite small for such a large country. As Maddow notes in her book: “The professional military was an institution of limited reach and power; in times of peace we kept the regulars building defense works and ports and bridges. Whenever we went to war in a big way, we went to war with citizen-soldiers; a small nucleus of an active-duty army swelled with militiamen, reservists, National Guardsmen, enlisted persons, and draftees.” [p.10] The small nucleus trained the rest, who quickly demobilized after each war.

For example, “Within eighteen months of the conclusion of World War I, Congress had completely dismantled the American Expeditionary Forces and reduced the active-duty military from four million soldiers back to the prewar number of less than three hundred thousand.” Twelve million people were on active duty in 1945, but that force was reduced by 88 percent, to one and a half million by 1950. [p. 11]

However, with the emergence of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and a hot war in Korea, the U. S. ramped up to an active duty force of nearly three million people by 1955. Even by 1965, the year in which (according to Ms. Maddow) President Lyndon Johnson made the fateful decision to use the Selective Service (draft), rather than activate the National Guard and reserves to fight his expanded war in Vietnam, the number of people on active duty stood at more than two and one-half million. By 1970 the U. S. again would have some three million people on active duty.

Nevertheless, Ms. Maddow decries LBJ’s refusal to call the guards and reserves to active duty. Refusing to activate them, she asserts, “tore the military from the heart of the country, and tore the country from the heart of the military.” Unfortunately, her assertion does not withstand scrutiny.

Implicit in her assertion is the assumption that many members of the guard and reserves already had families, jobs and lives that would be jeopardized by active duty in Vietnam. Thus, not only would they have been more inclined than draftees out of high school or college to reject U. S. participation in unnecessary wars, their rejection also would have had a greater political impact.

Such reasoning explains why Ms. Maddow welcomed the Abram’s Doctrine of 1972-74. It integrated citizen soldiers (guardsmen and reservists) into the active duty force, making them an essential part of any U.S. military that might be sent off to war.

But Maddow’s interpretation tells less than half of the story. As we know, draftees and prospective draftees were quite effective in expressing their opposition to the war. Not only was the military riddled with soldiers who opposed the war – I was one of them! – prospective draftees populated the antiwar demonstrations that swept across the country.

(Tough-talking “patriots” like Dan Quayle and George W. Bush voiced support for the war from the safety of guard and reserve units that were unlikely to be activated.)

In fact, it was the unrest provoked by the draft that led to the decision to create the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) in 1973. Although Ms. Maddow says virtually nothing about the AVF, it became our large standing army. Unlike our active duty force during the Vietnam War, virtually everyone in the AVF wanted to be there and, thus, readily bought into the military ethos.

Because this force was composed of professional soldiers, not citizen soldiers, the decision to create the AVF “tore the military from the heart of the country, and tore the country from the heart of the military.”

The second decision that “tore the military from the heart of the country” was the decision to implement the Abrams Doctrine. Contrary to Ms. Maddow’s contention that the integration of guardsmen and reserves would populate the military with citizen soldiers who would serve as a check to America’s “drift” into war, integration actually transformed many citizen soldiers into professional soldiers. Repeated deployments solidified that transformation.

Thus, given their integration, improved training and readiness, Andrew J. Bacevich is closer to the truth than Ms. Maddow when he claims: “Rather than a state-based militia activated in emergencies, the National Guard became an adjunct of the standing military.” [Daedalus, Summer 2011, p. 132]

Thus, when we say today that we have approximately 1,400,000 active duty members and 850,000 guards and reservists, we actually are saying that we have approximately 2,250,000 people “who accept the social legitimacy of violence and the infliction of pain, suffering, death, and anguish on other human beings.” They emphasize “organizational and collective effectiveness, discipline, and commitment rather than individual rights, prerogatives, and liberties.”

Finally, “the advent of the all-volunteer force has also created an attitude among military personnel that they are, in a variety of ways, ‘better’ than or ‘superior’ to civilians.” [Robert L. Goldich, “American Military Culture from Colony to Empire,” Daedalus, Summer 2011, pp. 58-74]

Ms. Maddow is on firmer ground when she examines the subversion of another ostensible post-Vietnam check on going to war: The War Powers Act of 1973. As she demonstrates, President Reagan did much to undercut the act by illegally invading Grenada and trading arms for hostages and money with Iran in order to fund a proxy war against Nicaragua.

To defend the Reagan administration’s illegal behavior, Ed Meese trotted out legal mumbo-jumbo which, as Maddow claims, “invented” the “unitary executive theory.” In essence, Meese’s theory claimed that the Constitution gives the president free rein to do whatever he wants when it comes to national security. Dick Cheney, not only supported the unitary executive theory then, but also later, when he orchestrated America’s illegal invasion of Iraq.

Ms. Maddow also is quite correct to link the expanding use of mercenaries employed by private contractors with the unmooring of American military power. Beyond obscuring the much larger actual size and cost of American military forces, thus rendering it easier to drift into wars, the performance of mercenaries also has been difficult to control and assess. In addition, their deaths in combat, unlike the deaths of soldiers, seldom cause Americans to question the wisdom of any given war.

As Deborah D. Avant and Renee de Nevers have recently written: “More than one-half of the personnel the United States has deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003 have been contractors.” [Daedalus, Summer 2011, p. 88]

Another significant factor contributing to the unmooring of America’s military power was the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ms. Maddow mentions it, but largely in the context of freeing up soldiers to wage war elsewhere.

Robert Goldich, however, focuses attention on the collapse as it “created the largest transformation in the American strategic situation since 1917.” In turn, strategic transformation led to “the most profound change in military culture.”

“No longer did the U.S. armed forces have a primary mission of planning for war against peer adversaries.” The planning and training for apocalyptic (existential) war was replaced by fairly continuous “expeditionary warfare” against militarily inferior adversaries. Because these wars were not existential, they were easier to contemplate and undertake. [Goldich, pp. 63-64]

Ms. Maddow also mentions another source contributing to the unmooring of American military power, the CIA. She quotes a Washington Post reporter who put it best: “The CIA now functions as a military force beyond the accountability that the United States has historically demanded of its armed forces. The CIA doesn’t officially acknowledge the drone program, let alone provide public explanation about who shoots and who dies and by what rules.” What better way to “drift” into war!

Although the administration of President George W. Bush launched the first missile-carrying Predator drone on 7 October 2001, despicable and cowardly drone attacks have proliferated under President Barack Obama and appear to have supplanted boots on the ground – and thus unpopular American deaths – as America’s way of easily waging war.

America’s troublesome drone warfare suggests another phenomenon that has facilitated the all-too-easy drift in war, but one which Ms. Maddow has overlooked. It’s called technological utopianism and it manifested itself for nearly two decades, during the period 1985-2005, in the form of the “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA).

As MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray put it: “The obsessions of the technological utopians derive equally from the deeply and quaintly American belief that all human problems have engineering solutions and from the profoundly un-American … post-Vietnam search for technological silver bullets that will permit U.S forces to wage war without suffering – or perhaps even inflicting casualties.”

Proponents of the RMA claimed that revolutionary technological and organizational advances in command, control and communications would enable American forces to operate in an environment in which only the enemy would be plagued by the confusion known as the “fog of war.” Consequently, future wars would be quick, victorious and relatively painless for American forces.

America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have exposed the conceptual failures of the technological utopians. But, given America’s long tradition, Ms. Maddow and others should be alert to its inevitable re-emergence as a phenomenon facilitating “drift.”

Finally, although Drift is far from being comprehensive, Rachel Maddow has given readers a clear, concise, thoughtful and often humorous examination of a seldom-discussed problem. Ms. Maddow ends her examination by providing a list of 8 actions Americans could take, which would make going to war more difficult. As such, they constitute a quick read that every thoughtful American should undertake.

Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including Dissident Voice, The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is President of the Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA). He can be reached at: Read other articles by Walter C., or visit Walter C.'s website.