The Short Version: Presenting the facts in her unmistakable voice, Rachel Maddow examines the radical changes that have happened to the U.S. Military over the last near-century. She makes the strong case that we’ve drifted (get it?) from the way the Founders intended war to be waged – and it’s put us in a truly intenable position as a result. This is a book about how we got to where we are today – and with a few ideas on how we can get back.
The Review: I don’t think it’ll come as a surprise to anyone who follows this blog that I’m a politically aware individual. My other degree is in political science, as the bumper sticker might say. A regular reader of this site (and future politician), Jake Braithwaite, has been pushing me to get back into political non-fiction of late and mentioned that this book was, absolutely, the one to jump back in with. His recommendation was so strong and so unequivocal that I had to pick up the book. Plus, I love The Rachel Maddow Show.
In general, I’ve been wary of picking up non-fiction political writing because a) I read so freaking much of it in college but also b) because I often find so much of it to be… frustrating. Sometimes it’s boring and dry. Sometimes because it’s so clearly slanted in one political direction that I can’t take it seriously – even if it slants in my own direction. Rarely do I read something that’s written with tact and poise and intelligence that transcends the natural pitfalls of writing about Serious Issues while also keeping the bias on the DL.
Maddow’s liberal bent is well-known and obvious – but I think this book (hopefully) presages a new trend in political literature. The bias of this novel is the one bias I can deal with: a bias against stupidity. A smart individual standing up and looking at the facts and saying “how could we let this happen? do you even KNOW what’s happening?!” And that’s what makes this a compulsively readable treatise.
Firstly, let’s talk about the actual writing. Perhaps it was the jaunty author photo on the back cover or even just recently tuning into the show more often – but I could not only hear Maddow’s voice throughout the entire novel, each chapter break is essentially only missing a “we’ll be right back” and a commercial break. The way she writes flows in segements that, when pieced together, provide an arc – she’ll reference things in passing from chapters ago or tease something that’s coming up and you can’t help but feel the TV training seeping through.
But the thing is, her show isn’t a TV show of talking heads that might result in a frustrating read. She is, in many ways, a monologuist – and it serves her well here. She takes a topic that has, quite literally, been forced out of the public eye and does her damndest not to wrench it back in… but simply to raise her hand while pulling on it and shout “hey! people! over here!” The topic in question is that of the American military. She starts with a look at how the military apparatus of this country was designed – keeping the power of war out of the hands of one man, something that would seem shocking to probably most of the country today. The Founding Fathers believed that the power to go to war in the hands of one man was a sure-fire way to end up in a monarchy – and so they put the power to declare war in the hands of Congress, instead. The idea is thrilling: let’s get down and dirty, in public, and debate the shit out of any attempt to commit our country to a forceable action anywhere in the world. Let’s make sure that we feel it – and that’s the refrain that Maddow keeps coming back to. We don’t feel wars anymore. We’ve been in two of them for nearly half of my life at this point and I’m ashamed to say that I don’t feel them. I have friends who have decided to join the armed forces in some way but guess what? They weren’t close friends. They’re people I went to high school with or a friend of friends who I can say “oh, wow, that’s crazy” when they tell me that they’ve joined the Army or Marines or whatever. The closest I have to a direct connection to the armed forces is my cousin, who was in the Air Force… and over the last few years has made a concerted effort to get out, having successfully done so recently.
But why don’t we feel it anymore? Why haven’t the wars in the Middle East inflamed the populace in the way Vietnam did? That’s the drift Maddow is talking about. She takes us from Vietnam through the explosion of the military in the Reagan years – and the book, if I had to sum up the largest chunk, becomes an examination of how it was, without a doubt, the Reagan administration that dismantled an apparatus that had existed for nearly 200 years. Sure, the President had overstepped his bounds several times between the end of World War II and the 80s – but it was Iran-Contra that sealed the deal. Maddow doesn’t go after Reagan like you think she might – she’s fair to him and even paints a rather heartbreaking picture of the man at the end of his Presidency as Alzheimer’s wracked his brain and the American people had no idea. But she does go after the people like Ed Meese, who systematically consolidated power around the executive and then came up with workarounds when Congress tried to get in the way. She then tracks quickly into the 90s and how Clinton - CLINTON! – pushed us further into a privatized military force that operated outside the bounds of government while quietly being sanctioned by said government.
It’s really a terrifying thing, when you think about it. How is it that we’ve allowed our leaders to so blatantly disregard what I will call “the rules” of how this country is to be governed? Even if you treat them “more like… guidelines,” you’ve still got to muster up some revultion when you see how blatantly our leaders do not give a shit. They’re either too cowardly to take it on or too manaical to do anything but plow forward.
Maddow ends the book with a sobering assessment of our nuclear arsenal – and it’s incredibly keep-you-up-at-night state of disarray. The little anecdotes about nuclear accidents that have happened in just the last few years… Maddow says they keep her up at night and I swear to god they’re going to do the same thing to me. Then she, on the last pages, lists a few possible ways that we can start to reverse the drift. I support all of them. But it’s going to take a lot – more than just reading a book, I’m afraid. That’s a good start though – and this is a damn good start to start with.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. Maddow doesn’t condescend, she doesn’t talk down to you – but she also isn’t afraid to get her wonk on. She’s not afraid to get indignant but knows when to dial it back. Mostly, she’s just damned intelligent and speaks rationally. It’s a strong blow against fearmongering, against stupidity, against temerity – but it’s going to take a lot of people reading this book and then DOING something in order to change our course. And I’m afraid that too many people won’t even do the former, let alone the latter.
Also, I’d just like to take this opportunity to formally extend an invitation to Mr. Braithwaite – we’d love to have his thoughts on the book on this blog in whatever format he’d like, be it a comment or an entire guest review. It’s important that this conversation continue in some way or another, in as many forums as possible.