Perhaps I’ve been too hard on Rachel Maddow in the past. Her trip to Afghanistan two years ago was too sympathetic to the military perspective, I believed. But time passes and, after a look at her new book, Drift, I now hope she will run for national office, or at least threaten to do so. She has the smarts and charm to get there, and would be her generation’s leading critic of our insane, imbalanced military priorities. She does so more in the spirit of Mark Twain than Noam Chomsky.
No one in Congress seems able to say, like Maddow, that starting the Iraq war “took deceit and trickery on the part of the Bush Administration and severe chickenshittery on the part of Congress.”
Iraq is easy to criticize in hindsight. Condemning the national security state as a self-perpetuating “leviathan” shows her creeping boldness, and here’s the stuff that separates her from the current generation of the “best and brightest” who take us to one war after another:
The Think Tanks and very important Committees of the permanent national security peanut gallery are now so mature and entrenched that almost no one thinks they’re creepy anymore, and national security liberals have simply decided it’s best to add their own voices to them rather than criticize them. But like we lefties learned in trying [and failing] to add a liberal network to the all-right-wing, decades-old medium of political talk radio, the permanent defense gadfly world can’t really grow a liberal wing. It’s an inherently hawkish enterprise.
Straight talk like that from Maddow – and others including Andrew Bacevich – may ironically may lead to invitations to join the closed club of “crackpot realists” (the phrase is C. Wright Mills’).
Maddow smartly roots herself in the patriotic tradition of those Founders who warned against entangling alliances and standing armies. She therefore dares to challenge the demonizing of peace advocates as “isolationist” and “soft on national security” if they question the deployment of secret operations killers, military advisers to sectarian armies, or keeping more nuclear weapons than everyone else at hairtrigger readiness. She usefully recalls the right-wing counter-movement in response to the Sixties which almost blocked the Panama Canal Treaty and swept away senators like George McGovern, Frank Church, Birch Bayh, Clifford Case and Jacob Javits before bringing on the mindless charm of Ronald Reagan. It may take someone with Maddow’s humor, debating skills, and years ahead of her, to now take up the challenges she defines. Thousands of Americans should read her book and make it their talking points.
Maddow’s repeated tendency to idealize the military, however, leads her to a faulty narrative of American history. She brags at times about how many wars we won before the permanent military-industrial complex came along, saying we were “something like 9-0” by 1950, basically ignoring the slaughters of native Americans, Mexicans, Cubans, Hawaiians, and Filpinos along blood way (see Stepen Kinzer’s Overthrow). At the end of 252 riveting pages, we still don’t know of Maddow would have opposed Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan from the start, or only when the folly became embarrassingly evident. As a candidate or an elected official, she would have to focus her braininess on yes-or-no votes, and those choices may be too narrow for her sensibility. In that case, she should remain a provocative pundit.
Maddow, ultimately, is a process person. How she would have voted matters less than her focus on restoring public debate, congressional oversight and democratic restraints on executive power, all of which are desperately needed if grass-roots activists are to matter. Her process proposals are these:
- Make the politicians and people pay taxes for any wars ahead;
- Do away with the secret military. (A weird example of her thinking: “If we are going to use drones to vaporize people in Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia, the Air Force should operate those drones and pull the trigger. And we should know about it.”)
- Quit asking the military to do things best left to our State Department;
- Activate the National Guard and Reserves in future wars to ensure that, “civilian communities all over American should feel that loss.”
- Wind back the drive to privatize wars through contractors.
- Shrink the nuclear weapons infrastructure to fit “our country’s realistic nuclear mission,” whatever she means by that.
One suspects that Maddow believes that these civilianizing processes would block the rush to war in all but the most extreme situations. At the very least, the processes would give peace advocates a greater chance against the ediface of bureaucratic military now dominated by secrecy.
More power to her.