Rachel Maddow loves to throw in a sarcastic “Whoopsie!” and a wry “What could possibly go wrong?” — and to good effect. Happens all the time on her piercing opinion show weeknights on MSNBC.
It’s the same in her new book, “Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power,” an intricate discourse that goes down easy because it’s written the way she talks, a fair bit of wonk with an occasional dose of silly.
No one will mistake Maddow for a modern-day conservative. But in her book she makes a constitutionally conservative argument: The nation’s founders were adamant that the country’s war-making powers not be vested in one person or office, yet that’s pretty much what we’ve engineered.
Just as bad, we’ve all but eliminated meaningful public debate about launching and responding to hostilities big and small. And we’ve masked the true costs.
“America’s structural disinclination toward war is not a sign that something’s gone wrong,” Maddow writes. “It’s not a bug in the system. It is the system. It’s the way the founders set us up — to ensure our continuing national health.”
Maddow comes to Kansas City Sunday to discuss her book. Here’s an edited conversation with her.
Q. Q. What was the trigger that made you want to tackle this topic in a book?
It wasn’t a single moment. My thing before on radio and now on the TV show is to explain stuff going on in the news. But there was this one thing that I thought was really important, contextually important, but it was just something that couldn’t be sound-bited.
As a liberal, particularly, I know there’s this instinct to look at post 9/11 national security politics and to blame this on George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and I didn’t think that was the situation. This has been building long before 9/11.
The history of this shift in war-making responsibility has been no secret, right? Also, no conspiracy.
None of the things I’m documenting are secret. What I’m trying to do is connect the dots.
Through a series of political decisions, we have made changes in the politics of national security and the politics of where we go to war. And all of those changes have gone in the same direction, so that making war is less hassle. Less hassle and less friction for the civilian population.
All of the decisions are understandable. I don’t think the people making these decisions were trying to hurt the country.
But you think we should be bothered by what we’ve created.
It should be bothersome to us. The founders, from their historical perspective, were upset about contributing to British wars by a British king. They wrote eloquently that kings always say the wars they start are in the peoples’ interest.
The founders didn’t want those powers vested in a kingly way. With studied care they vested the decision in the legislature. They said it can’t be one guy.
They didn’t want us to be pacificist. They wanted there to be a high bar in this country about whether or not we got involved in foreign entanglements.
You write about our shift to private contractors to perform military duties, plus the use of drones operated by the CIA. Is the public tuned in to those issues?
In the 2008 Democratic primary, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were going to get rid of the scourge of contractors. But the word from Washington is that it’s just too hard. It can’t be done.
I wanted to write about how we got the contractors in the first place. And now we’re saying we’re incapable of deploying forces without contractors. Then how do you explain the military roughly before the Balkans, which is when we started these massive logistical contracts?
If it’s true that our military can’t act without private companies, we should see it as a national security weakness. But I don’t buy it. The idea that it can’t be undone is bullpucky.
With the drones, more complicated than whether they’re effective is that the CIA is functioning as a branch of the military, and that is something we haven’t really debated. We now have a secret branch of the military. That’s new.
But isn’t any talk of possibly limiting American military reach politically, even culturally, off-limits?
I have to say that the numbers of people who want to come and talk about this issue has been heartening to me, and I don’t mean on an ego level. There is this feeling that we don’t go to war as a country. We send the military to war. We have a civilian population unconnected to these wars.
That’s an unsettling feeling for everybody, for the left and the right. I would like that feeling to be defined as a political question, something we need to fix. Let’s not define it as personal guilt or emotion but as a political situation for us to talk about.