Off Our Moorings: “Drift” and the American Move Toward Endless War

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It is striking how all the talk about getting back to the Constitution focuses on social services such as health care and contraception that didn’t exist as such when the Founders were around.  On the other hand, a Constitutional issue that Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and their fellow founders found crucial – the ability to take the country to war – is largely ignored by these self-same defenders of the Constitution.

Rachel Maddow attempts to correct that imbalance in her new best-selling non-fiction book, Drift: the Unmooring of American Military Power.

“We’ve broken faith with some of the best advice the Founders ever gave us,” Maddow writes in the book’s introduction.  That advice includes the Founders’ wariness about the need for a standing army, and their belief that it should be difficult to take the country into war.

One of the crucial points Maddow makes in her book is that the Office of the President has wrested control of war-making authority from Congress, which was unambiguously vested with this power by the Founders.

Maddow writes, “The Framers had been voluble in their rationale for and in their defense of Article 1, Section 8,” which states that Congress and Congress alone has the power to declare war.

She points to Madison, Hamilton and other of their fellow Founders as men who were building barriers to what they called “the darker aspects of human nature.”

The logic for putting the power to make war in the hands of Congress versus the control of a single executive is exquisite in its logic.  The lure to make war “might be too enticing for one man to resist,” the Founders believed.  But the slow-motion actions of Congress with its variety of points-of-view, was intentionally meant to clog the path to war.

“The case for any war,” Maddow writes, “would have to be loud, well-argued and made in plain view.”

This transparently clear intent of the Founders, along with the words of Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, make it all the more startling as a contrast with today’s view that the President, as commander-in-chief, has the right to do whatever he wishes as regards war-making activities.  The vision of supporters of the so-called “unitary executive theory”  – most prominently former Secretary of Defense and Vice President Dick Cheney – that the President is all-powerful in his or her decision making authority, flies in the face of the Constitutional protection of checks and balances among the three branches of government.

Maddow’s position is that the ceding of war powers by Congress to the President has encouraged a slow drift by the United States into a state of full-time war, and the absence of meaningful debate over these issues has lowered public awareness of and engagement in this process.

Part of this “drift” toward a permanent war footing is the existence of a large standing military, something feared by Thomas Jefferson – a man Maddow describes as having a “predominant and animating worry” over the consolidation of power in any one branch of government.

Maddow goes on to tell the story of how Lyndon Johnson took us into Vietnam.  He avoided substantive public discussion of his actions by refusing to call up the Reserves and National Guard.  Eventually, the Vietnam conflict soured on Johnson and cost him his presidency, and caused Congress to re-assert its war-making authority through the 1973 War Powers Act.

But subsequent presidents including Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, the two Bushes and Obama overcame Congressional actions and proceeded to take us into shooting wars in far-flung spots such as Grenada, Mogadishu, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Maddow asserts that “we need a small ‘c’ conservative return to our Constitutional roots.  We’ve drifted off that historical course.”

Drift: the Unmooring of American Military Power is both important and powerful; it deserves its perch at the top of the New York Times bestseller list.  Anyone with an interest in Constitutional authority would be well-served to read it.