This recent book by one of my favorite news commentators is subtitled The Unmooring of American Military Power. With the title and subtitle, you can get a good idea of what the thesis of the book is. Think of the Constitution as the dock, with the US Ship of State tied up securely to it. The lines tying the ship to the dock are the laws of the United States, the executive, legislative and judicial branches that create, administer and enforce those laws, and the people that work in those branches of government. Now, consider that two, sometimes all three, branches, or lines, have become frayed and worn, even purposely cut, to the point that they stretch and occasionally snap, leaving the ship to drift away from the dock, completely unmoored to land, subject to the vagaries of currents. And we have forgotten why we tied the ship to the dock in the first place.
The ropes we had used to lash down presidential war-making capacity, bindings that by design made it hard for an American president to use military force without the nation’s full and considered buy-in, have been hacked at with very little appreciation about why they were put there in the first place.
That’s the point of this book. Maddow methodically takes us through a few periods of our history (Vietnam, post-Vietnam, Grenada, Iran-Contra, 1st Iraq War, second, Afghanistan) to show us that in matters of war, while the Constitution clearly places war making decisions in the hands of the legislature, that legislature has slowly allowed the Executive branch to circumvent that requirement, ceding responsibility to the President to make decisions about using our armed forces in a manner that the Founding Fathers would spin in their graves over.
Starting with the Vietnam war, and following the decisions of Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Shrub and Obama, this country now habitually and without much legislative oversight, conducts war exclusively by direction of the President. The chapter on Reagan was particularly eye-opening. He was incredibly disdainful towards Congress, and its Constitutional obligation to approve of war. He lied to them, he broke laws, and he should have gone to jail, yet there are people who want to place his face on Mt. Rushmore. Reading this, in my opinion, the slide from greatness to second or third world status, should it occur, will have originated with Reagan.
And not only that.
War is now conducted significantly, and in some cases predominantly, by non military personnel – contractors – hired by the government to do jobs that would otherwise have to be authorized by Congress. Bush, during the conduct of the Iraq war, systematically kept the reality of war from the public. Remember his decision to bar photos of the flag-draped caskets returning to Dover Air Base? Or his refusal to attend the funerals of dead marines? Less than one percent of the population has been directly affected by recent wars, leaving the rest of us somewhat oblivious to the realities of war. This was never the case in our history, until recently. Think war bonds, and rationing, and black-out curtains. Think of FDR going before Congress asking for a formal declaration of war. Think of our significant civilian casualties and those of our allies (we never seem to cry over our enemies’ deaths).
All of this makes it easier for the President to send troops overseas to die, without affecting our lifestyle (except for that of the military families involved) or our standard of living. Half of all Americans polled claim that they have not been affected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Try asking your parents if that was true in 1945. The reason why our Founders thought that Congressional approval was important was because they wanted to make it difficult to go to war, or as Maddow says “to disincline us towards war as a general matter”. Now, during budget cutbacks and spending fights in Congress, the cost to conduct war is not even negotiable, despite the size of the Defense budget. We now spend more money on our defense budget than all of the defense budgets of every other country in the world – combined!
The really scary chapter in the book is the last one, where she describes in detail the aging of our nuclear weapons stockpiles. Were you aware that we’ve lost 11 nuclear weapons since the 1960s, when we started MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) as a policy to prevent nuclear war with the Soviet Union? Some of them blew up (not in a nuclear way, but still, effectively as dirty bombs). Two of them exploded in Spain, and for 40 years we’ve been paying reparations, and the cost to keep hauling “hot” soil from Spain to the US, for disposal. There is one buried about 20 feet deep in a North Carolina field, apparently unrecoverable, that the country now has a easement to prevent digging into. Another was lost off the coast of Greenland, waiting for the ice to melt from global climate change to recover.
We’ve also had to upgrade the weapons themselves, but in the process we have forgotten how to do so. The original engineers have died or retired, and no one thought to write down the specs to redo the important safety features. Seriously! We really have no idea whether these weapons will work properly if they are ever used. And I suppose that the same goes for those pointed at us. We certainly don’t seem to have the same handle on them we had during the Cold War.
We have drifted from a sensible nation to an insensible nation when it comes to war. The money powers have taken over. It’s been a slow, evolving process, but it’s not irreversible. Maddow suggests some sensible measures to put us back on track, from making sure we have to raise the money to pay for it, rather than simply mortgaging our kids future, to getting rid of contractors to handle the dirty work.
This should be required reading for Obama, his cabinet, his Secretary of Defense, and all 535 members of Congress. Then we should hold them to it.