Let me start by saying that this book is not her MSNBC show. It is a thoughtful and detailed explanation on how America has unmoored itself from its own military, and removed the built-in disincentives that were intentionally designed to make going to war difficult. People may be surprised that she goes back to first principles expressed by the Founders, something commonly attributed - wrongly - as just a conservative perspective, but that is what she does.
Maddow quotes James Madison as saying “The Constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.” And yet, since the end of the second world war, there has been an ever increasing push for warmaking decisions to reside in the executive branch, with Congress abdicating its Constitutional right and duty to evaluate when armed conflict is called for.
Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution grants Congress the express power to declare war. (Side note for good measure, the Tenth Amendment says “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” So there’s no inherent power in the executive to declare war. While the President is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, the power to declare war is expressly delegated to Congress by the Constitution.) Maddow takes us through the unchecked expansion of executive power from the Korean War through Obama’s conflicts, with each one expanding the concept of presidential war-making authority without Congress.
The Korean war was the first major undeclared war fought by the United States, and Vietnam was based on the flimsy Gulf of Tonkin resolution. It was, however, Ronald Reagan’s decision to invade Grenada as well as his illegal venture into the Iran-Contra scandal - where the Reagan administration sold U.S. weapons to Ayatollah Khomeni to fund “Contra” fighters in Nicaragua - that accelerated the disconnection of war from Congress and the American people. One of the major differences between the Korea and Vietnam conflicts from wars after that was in Korea and Vietnam, large numbers of reserves were called up to fight - making the American people intertwined into these conflicts. It was the Reagan administration (in particular theorized by Ed Meese, Reagan’s attorney general) that espoused the theory that the President does not need the authority of Congress to start a war.
It is true that both Iraq wars and the Afghanistan war were ultimately authorized by Congress. But Iraq 2 was based on false premises (weapons of mass destruction anyone?) and once those premises were discovered to be false, the President chose to redefine the mission and keep troops there potentially indefinitely. Additionally, the war in Afghanistan was to retaliate against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. Again, it was the President that changed the mission and turned it into the endless and fruitless nation building exercise that it has become. Obama armed and supported Syrian rebels, decided to intervene in Libya (but not Bahrain), expanded CIA drone strike operations. And so on. Congress has had the power to oversee and end these military endeavors and chose not to do so.
Back to privatization for a moment - starting with Grenada on a small scale, and embraced by subsequent presidents, many functions that used to be done by military personnel have been privatized (often in conjunction with the CIA), reducing accountabilty, oversight and impact that war has on families not directly connected to the volunteer military. These contractors are, as Maddow highlights, not exactly the people we would want representing America. Additionally, we get a view of while we spend ever increasing sums of money on military budgets, we don’t exactly take care of the military hardware we do have - in particular the neglect afflicting the U.S. nuclear arsenal. (For a more detailed and terrifying view of the state of America’s nukes, I recommend Command and Control by Eric Schlosser.) This all of course comes at a price - our constant state of war, our exploding deficits, the diversion of resources to domestic growth, such as infrastructure, research & development, health care, etc.
We are reminded that it is not too late, that we as Americans can insist on accountabilty at the ballot box. We must demand that our leaders stay true to the values of the Constitution - that the country and the decision to enter a war is bigger than just the executive. The primacy rule of law is what makes the American experiment truly exceptional. I will close by restating that this book reflects Rachel Maddow’s best stuff, showing us the Oxford Rhodes scholar that she is.