AS ANYONE WHO’S TRIED to do antiwar work over the last few years knows, not only can the President pretty well get away with murder any time he wants to these days, but it can sometimes be hard to find many people who seem to care about it when he does. As Rachel Maddow sees it, this is anything but an accident. Her first book, Drift, tells the story of a decades-long effort to “cure” the country of “Vietnam Syndrome,” which, the popular television host argues, also means supplanting the war-aversive structures on which the nation was founded in a drift toward an imperial presidency under which war becomes a routine aspect of American life.
When Lyndon Baines Johnson asked Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Richard Russell whether he thought he needed to call a joint session of Congress on the occasion of his first escalation of the Vietnam War, Russell responded: “Not as long as you don’t call up any Reserves and all, I wouldn’t.” Johnson took the chairman’s advice and did neither. Even when he’d sent 535,000 troops over there, no more than one percent were National Guard and Reserves. In the past, when the US had fought wars, the reservists had gone. But back then, the American public had largely believed that the country needed to fight the wars it had fought. Perhaps it was delayed reaction to the murky rationale for the Korean War, but as the Vietnam War grew it became clear that the government was not going to get a free pass on another war it did not obviously need to fight. So, rather than tap reservists who voted, the government ultimately decided to go with draftees who would be shipped off at age 19 before they ever really knew what hit them.
By the time it was over, everyone knew what “Hell no, we won’t go” referred to. LBJ was dead, his successor, Richard Nixon, politically destroyed, and Congress had reasserted itself as the body with the ultimate responsibility to decide questions of war and peace with its passage of the War Powers Act. Nor would military operations remain unchanged by the disaster. Appointed Army chief of staff in 1972 after presiding over the withdrawal of the bulk of American forces from Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams put in place a “Total Force Policy” designed to firmly embed the country’s reserves in any major future military operation. The policy was so successful that in 2005, the third year of the Iraq War, Maddow writes, “more than half the soldiers in Iraq were from the National Guard. This was a first in American history.” And yet, the country’s policy makers have still managed to wage war without the informed consent and involvement of the population at large. How? Privatization, secrecy and concentration of presidential power.
Maddow dedicates her book to former Vice-president Dick Cheney, with the plea: “Oh, please let me interview you.” He’s that central to the story. Shortly before the end of the first George Bush administration, the Brown & Root Services Corporation became the first private contractor signed on for the Logistics Civilian Augmentation Program (LOGCAP) introduced by Secretary of Defense Cheney. Four years later, citizen Dick Cheney was prospering as the CEO of Brown & Root’s parent corporation, Halliburton, even as then Vice-president Al Gore hailed LOGCAP for “Outsourcing or privatization of key support functions, with the strong prospect of lowering costs and improving performance.” Meanwhile, the Democratic Clinton administration was thoroughly normalizing the privatization of the military. By way of illustrating the abuses the system brought, Maddow tells the story of employees of DynCorp, a company hired to provide a private police force in Bosnia, involved in the purchase of sex slaves but never prosecuted because “Army lawyers had told military investigators that neither Bosnian law nor US law applied to the contractors, so the Department of Defense had no authority to prosecute any crimes private contract workers committed over there and therefore no responsibility for them either.” If the story sounds familiar, it may be due to the Hollywood movie “The Whistleblower,” in which Rachel Weisz played Kathryn Bolkovac, the DynCorp employee who brought these events to light. Most tellingly, by the time of the film’s 2011 release, few reviewers even found it noteworthy that the security officers we sent abroad were now employees of a private company rather than of a government agency. (None of its employees were ever punished and DynCorp is still getting contracts, by the way.)
Still, some may be surprised at one area of privatization: intelligence operations, where private contractors now fill about a quarter of all jobs in the field. And to give you some idea of just how big a deal that is, consider that a 2010 Washington Post investigation found that the federal government “had deputized 854,000 people with top security clearances.” We have, in other words, privatized government secrets. The overall result of the privatization trend, Maddow writes, has been that “While America has been fighting two of its longest-ever boots-on-the-ground wars in the decade following 9/11, and fighting them simultaneously, less than one percent of the adult US population has been called to strap on those boots.”
And let’s not dwell on that one percent, either. In 2004, when Ted Koppel announced that Nightline would air the names and faces of American soldiers killed in Iraq, the Washington Post denounced it as a publicity stunt and a conservative broadcasting group threatened to drop the show if it carried through on the plan. After all, these days war is a private matter. Focus too much attention on casualties and people might just start asking why. Not only were taxes lowered rather than raised to pay for them, but the only mobilization the government has ever requested of the general public over the course of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars was that it continue to shop in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. And we shouldn’t be expecting our two pro-war presidential candidates to spend much of their campaign time and money arguing about our war efforts in the next couple of months. What’s to talk about?
That the Central Intelligence Agency has been engaged in killing and violating the law has been an open secret for decades. Part of the visceral anti-Americanism endemic to some parts of the world stems from the Agency’s efforts that were supposedly undertaken on our behalf. Why do some people in Iran hate us? Well, the CIA did arrange the overthrow of their democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. And in Guatemala? President Jacobo Árbenz in 1954. Cuba? The CIA failed to get their man here and its antics veered so far toward the preposterous, with exploding cigars and efforts to make Castro’s beard fall out, that the whole episode is often treated as something of a joke. Wouldn’t be a joke if the shoe were on the other foot, though. Nicaragua? Oh, the CIA mined their harbors in 1984, an act the International Court of Justice judged a violation of international law but was barely noticed back here.
Yet all of that pales compared to the present situation where, as Maddow writes, “the CIA is now a de facto branch of the military, with its own troops and its own robotic air force.” If you need convincing of that, she points out that the Agency’s new director is General David Petraeus who has commanded American military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan but has no background in civilian intelligence. Obviously, while the American public may remain largely oblivious to CIA operations, they are no secret to those at the receiving end where they predictably produce anti-Americanism. Ironically, this too can prove useful to their perpetrators, as it enhances the sort of “They all hate us anyhow — let’s drop the big one now” sentiment that Randy Newman so memorably sang about. Civilians killed in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan? What CIA drone strikes? And why do those Pakistanis hate us anyhow, after all we’ve done for them?
On the question of authorizing the president to wage war, Dick Cheney goes way back. As the principal author of the minority dissent in the congressional investigation of the Iran-Contra scandal, the then Wyoming Representative Cheney wrote that “The President was expected to have the primary role of conducting the foreign policy of the United States.” To remind us that it isn’t always so when Republicans proclaim their obeisance to the intent of the Founding Fathers, Maddow quotes one of those Fathers, James Madison: “The Constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of government most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.”
Unfortunately, what Maddow calls the “crazy talk” of the arguments about unlimited presidential power to wage war that were cobbled together to justify Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra fiasco have become the new normal through both of the Bush administrations as well as Bill Clinton’s. Any thought that Barack Obama took a different view on the matter should have been quashed even before he took office, with the announcement of his plan to carry over Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense from the Bush Administration. Maddow reminds us that then Deputy CIA Director Gates’s name is the title of chapter 16 of the Iran-Contra independent counsel report, which states: “Gates was exposed to information about [Oliver] North’s connections to the private resupply operation that would have raised concern in the minds of most reasonable persons about the propriety of a Government officer having such an operational role.” As we know, this President has gone on to bomb Libya and explain that he didn’t need congressional authorization because none of our guys were going to get killed. Tuesdays, we are told, are the days when he personally selects targets for the drone bombing program that does not officially exist.
Maddow proposes a number of reforms designed to reverse our drift toward getting comfortable with permanent war, including levying taxes to pay for it, ending the secrecy and privatization that now surround it, and, most of all ending “the ‘imperial presidency’ malarkey that was invented to save Ronald Reagan’s neck in Iran-Contra, and that played as high art throughout the career of Richard Cheney.”
Does any of this have a chance, though? It’s hard to be optimistic in the short run. Obama’s people appear to think the image of the President personally signing off on assassinations is political gold. Hey, he got Osama bin-Laden and even Bruce Springsteen liked that one! There may be some cause for hope in the slightly longer run, though. Sixty years ago, under the general rubric of the War on Communism, the government got away with a war in Korea that didn’t have to be fought. Ten years later, though, the American people were not so ready to be fooled twice and the government couldn’t pull off the war in Vietnam without turning the country upside down. A decade ago, the government was able to start two wars in rapid succession as part of a global War on Terror. Today, the degree to which both have been fiascos becomes clearer by the day. Currently the main debate over the Afghanistan War seems to be whether the so called “green on blue attacks” of Afghan soldiers against their supposed liberators among western forces are due to increased infiltration by the Taliban, as it claims, or whether they’re actually just the product of widespread hatred of westerners among the Afghan military. So far as Iraq goes, the main bone of contention between our government and theirs seems to be that they’re becoming best friends with, of all things, Iran, our current enemy of the hour! Maybe we won’t want to do this again soon.
Remember those T-shirts you used to see Vietnam Vets wearing, the ones that said “Forget Nam? Never”? They had it right.