Author Interviews
1:49 am
Mon May 7, 2012

'Drift': Rachel Maddow On Why We Go To War

Originally published on Mon May 7, 2012 11:34 am

In past wars, the U.S. practically dismantled its military after the troops came home. But today, says MSNBC News anchor and writer Rachel Maddow, we find ourselves in a state of almost permanent war.

In her new book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, Maddow invokes Thomas Jefferson, pointing out that one of Jefferson's main concerns was the danger of having a large military.

"That was a really animating thing going on for the Founding Fathers. I mean, they were very upset about what was going on with the British Empire and the British king, and there's a reason that the 'quartering soldiers' thing, which seems so random, is foundational in our founding documents," she says.

Her book argues that the U.S. military has grown bloated partially because the nation is insulated from the wars its soldiers fight.

We gave ourselves a tax cut before Sept. 11, 2001, and then went to war in Afghanistan without debating whether to give it back, Maddow notes. Two years later, we gave ourselves another round of tax cuts after going to war in Iraq.

"Those are not the actions of a country that feels that it is sacrificing alongside its men and women in uniform. And that divide, I think, Americans feel emotionally, and I'd like that emotional divide to become defined as a political problem that we should solve," Maddow says.

She joins Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep to talk about the ideas in Drift.


Interview Highlights

On military vs. nonmilitary spending

"Military preparedness is absolutely a form of strength. And how we maintain that is again something that needs to be considered, I think, in the broader forum of all different kinds of American strength. We're doing some things with our military superstructure that I think are leftovers, in part because military resources don't have to compete with nonmilitary resources. Pentagon dollars are essentially seen as a different kind of funding that doesn't have to stand for itself and make an argument for itself in the house of Congress."

On the reasons for the wars of the last decade

"I think that we have looked around the world, found foreign policy problems, and looked for military solutions to those problems, because that's the best tool we had to address those things. I think that when you look at the expansion of the mission in Afghanistan and in Iraq, when you look at what the justification was — I mean, in Iraq, awkwardly, the justification was weapons of mass destruction that were not there. Once we had gone, though, ultimately by the time we left, what we were trying to do was establish Iraq as a democratic ally of the United States in the Middle East. As proud and capable as it is, I think the idea that the military can build new countries is a tall order, and it's the sort of thing that we would only expect from a military that we have superresourced and thought of as supercapable."

On using Thomas Jefferson in her argument

"I sort of did that on purpose. ... You do try to pick people in order to, I think, attract attention across the aisle, to constantly sort of make the point, 'Listen, this isn't a partisan thing. Even if you hate me because I'm a liberal, you may still find some worth in this argument.' "

On the ironies of Jefferson's and Obama's presidencies

"[Thomas Jefferson] is a perfect example of the way that presidents adapt to the idea of executive power. I mean, if you look at our current president — as a constitutional law professor, and as somebody who was, I think, reacting to the 'imperial presidency'-style excesses of the George W. Bush administration, I mean, President Obama opined beautifully on the radical expansion of executive power and how he did not think that was right for the country and it was ahistorical and all these other things, but I defy you to find any part of executive power that President Obama has yielded since he has been there."

On the limits placed on presidential power

"I think that presidents don't give up power that has accrued to them by the precedent of previous presidents. Even when they say they would like to, I think once they get there they don't give it up. And I think that's why the Founding Fathers didn't put the specific power of waging war in the hands of the president — because they knew that the temptation would be too great, that human nature what it is, with good presidents and bad, you would end up with more wars than you needed as a country if one man could essentially make the decision about whether we waged the wars. And so knowing that Congress was going to be much more unwieldy in making that decision, they with steady care put that decision in the hands of Congress."

On the growing discomfort with a continual state of war

"All the efforts to insulate the American public from the cost of war — so that we don't notice, so that a state of war is normal — all of those insulating efforts fail a little bit, because I think there is a core American emotional value to the idea that our military shouldn't be secret, that our military shouldn't be separate from us, that people who fight in our name shouldn't be people other than us. And the idea of waging war constantly makes us uncomfortable enough, but I think that it's becoming politically impossible to keep up this pace. ... I think the American people are uncomfortable with where we have landed, and I think that politicians who pay attention to that will not only reap electoral rewards, but I think they will find that if they start pushing on this issue, they're going to get far. It's going to be pushing on an open door. People want this to change."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The television anchor Rachel Maddow has been arguing that we've been looking at America's wars the wrong way. More properly, Maddow contends we're not really paying attention at all. Maddow of MSNBC contends that most American civilians were not asked to sacrifice at all as U.S. troops fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

RACHEL MADDOW: We gave ourselves a giant tax cut before 9-11. We were attacked on 9-11. We went to Afghanistan. We did not debate giving back that tax cut. Then two years later, when we were thinking about starting a second simultaneous war in Iraq, we gave ourselves another round of tax cuts, and then started the second simultaneous war. Those are not the actions of a country that feels that it is sacrificing alongside its men and women in uniform. And that divide, I think, Americans feel emotionally, and I'd like that emotional divide to become defined as a political problem that we should solve.

INSKEEP: Rachel Maddow makes that argument in a book called "Drift." She contends that after past American wars, from the Revolution to World War II, the U.S. drastically cut back its military when peace arrived. Now, she says we have a more permanent military which seems to be set perpetually into conflict somewhere.

MADDOW: The drawdown that we've had after conflicts have ended over time, the drawdown has become less and less dramatic. There was a drawdown after the Cold War. I think that we are going to see shrinkage now, already starting to see shrinkage now in the military as we wind down the war in Afghanistan, as we have ended the war in Iraq. But starting after Vietnam, in particular, the drawdown has been less and less. And so we've ended up with a larger force than we had before the thing that we built up for.

INSKEEP: Is that really a bad thing? I mean, I think about the fact that, yeah, after World War II, the United States practically dismantled the army. And then a few years later, they got into the Korean War, and thousands of Americans died because they really weren't ready for that conflict.

MADDOW: Military preparedness is absolutely a form of strength. And how we maintain that is, again, something, though, that needs to be considered, I think, in the broader form of all different kinds of American strength. We are doing some things with our military super structure that I think are leftovers, in part because military resources don't have to compete with non-military resources. Pentagon dollars are essentially seen as a different kind of funding that doesn't have to stand for itself and make an argument for itself in the halls of Congress.

INSKEEP: Are you suggesting that part of the reason that we've been at war for a decade is not just because we're attacked, but because we had a large military so we could, and so we've used it?

MADDOW: I think that we have looked around the world, found foreign policy problems and looked for military solutions to those problems because that's the best tool we've had to address those things. I think that when you look at the expansion of the mission in Afghanistan and in Iraq, when you look at what the justification was, I mean, in Iraq, awkwardly, the justification was weapons of mass destruction that were not there. Once we had gone, though, ultimately, by the time we left, what we trying to do was establish Iraq as a democratic ally of the United States in the Middle East. I think the military, as proud and capable as it is, I think the idea that the military can build new countries is a tall order. And it's the sort of thing that we would only expect from a military that we had super resourced and thought of as super capable.

INSKEEP: You know, it's interesting. In your book, you quote Thomas Jefferson, who is one of the Founding Fathers who spoke about the dangers of a large military. And I found that interesting, because this is a guy who I think is more often quoted by conservatives. I mean, he's the ultimate proponent of limited government. Did you find any irony in the fact that you find yourself drawn to Thomas Jefferson arguing for a smaller government here?

MADDOW: Less irony than the fact that Roger Ales blurbed the book. Roger Ales from Fox News blurbed the book (unintelligible).

INSKEEP: Sure, sure, go ahead.

MADDOW: No, I mean, I sort of did that on purpose. I mean, when you're looking to the Founding Fathers to talk about their concerns about making war too much, that was a really animating thing going on for the Founding Fathers. I mean, they were very upset about what was going on with the British Empire and the British king. And there's a reason that the quartering soldiers thing, which seems to random, is foundational in our founding documents. You do try to pick people in order to, I think, attract attention across the aisle, to constantly sort of make the point, listen, this isn't a partisan thing. Even if you hate me because I'm a liberal, you may still find some worth in this argument.

INSKEEP: Although Jefferson is such a funny example to choose in this issue, because he was a big proponent of limited government, until he actually became president of the United States and then used a lot of power, including looking over and realizing he still had a Navy, and he sent it over to whack a bunch of Barbary pirates. I mean, he went to war.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MADDOW: In that, he is a perfect example of the way that presidents adapt to the idea of executive power. I mean, if you look at our current president, as a constitutional law professor and as somebody who was, I think, reacting to the imperial presidency style excesses of the George W. Bush administration, I mean, President Obama opined beautifully on the radical expansion of executive power and how he did not think that was right for the country and it was ahistorical and all these other things. But I defy you to find any part of executive power that President Obama has yielded since he has been there.

INSKEEP: It also seems that you're suggesting that he's basically doing what presidents do. It's the office that, in the end, shapes the situation, shapes the person.

MADDOW: I think that presidents don't give up power that has accrued to them by the precedent of previous presidents. Even when they say they would like to, I think once they get there, they don't give it up. And I think that's why the Founding Fathers didn't put the specific power of waging war in the hands of the president, because they knew that the temptation would be too great, that human nature, what it is with good presidents and bad, you would end up with more wars than you needed as a country if one man could essentially make the decision about whether we waged the wars. And so knowing that Congress was going to be much more unwieldy in making that decision, they, with studied care, put that decision in the hands of Congress.

INSKEEP: But are you suggesting that if the political system doesn't change, that really, we're just going to be set up to get ourselves into more conflicts? We're going to find more conflicts as quickly as we get out of the old ones.

MADDOW: Yeah. I do think that is what's going on, and there's an important caveat, which is that all the efforts to insulate the American public from the cost of war so that we don't notice, so that a state of war is normal, all of those insulating efforts fail a little bit because I think there is a core, American emotional value to the idea that our military shouldn't be secret, that our military shouldn't be separate from us, that people who fight in our name shouldn't be people other than us.

And the idea of waging war constantly makes us uncomfortable enough that I think it's becoming politically impossible to keep up this pace. I think the debate about whether or not there should be intervention in Syria is affected by that. I think the debate whether or not we ought to start another war in Iran is affected by that. I think the debate about what we ought to do in Libya was affected by that. I think the American people are uncomfortable with where we have landed. And I think that politicians who pay attention to that will not only reap electoral rewards, but I think they will find that if they start pushing on this issue, they're going to get far. It's going to be pushing on an open door. People want this to change.

INSKEEP: Rachel Maddow is the author of "Drift." Thanks very much.

MADDOW: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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