Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power - Rachel Maddow (2012)

Epilogue. You Build It, You Own It

If the military drifts away from
its people in this country, that
is a catastrophic outcome we as
a country can’t tolerate.

—Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2007–2011

HAVING GROWN UP IN THE SUBURBS IN CALIFORNIA, WHEN I moved to rural New England I was surprised by how much god-awful work it takes to keep a still-life landscape looking unchanged. Leave stuff alone and it blows up. Not metaphorically, literally: if you leave wet hay in a silo, the decomposition of the plant material can make the hay (and your silo) catch fire. And when the trick isn’t keeping things dry, it’s keeping things wet. The logging company I buy firewood from turns its sprinklers on big piles of logs (hey, that’s my firewood!) to stop them from spontaneously combusting on cold days. Rot’s the problem there too—simple, inexorable decay. Rot makes heat, and if there’s dying wood in the middle of that big pile, cold air hitting that rot-generated heat can create a chimney effect. If that channels enough heat over the dry layers of wood in there, then kablooey: your firewood pile has just turned itself into a bonfire without virtue of a match. It catches fire just from sitting there too long, unattended.

Our place in Hampshire County looked like a horror-movie haunted house when we moved in—broke-down busted, overgrown, spongy stairs, clapboards gaping like black teeth. It looked like that because it had been abandoned for … one winter. One long winter untended rendered the place virtually uninhabitable. In our beautiful, unforgiving little hamlet, we developed a shorthand for explaining what had caused the need for a repair of some kind: “The earth took it back.”

It is unsettling to realize that the earth takes back even nuclear missiles, that they’re growing wing fungus down in Shreveport. But stuff left sitting around, unused, still needs attention; there’s a cost and a duty that attend to everything we own. If we built it, we’re responsible for it, unless we take it down and take it apart. Maybe it’s a variation on Colin Powell’s cautionary “Pottery Barn Rule”—you not only own it if you break it, you own it if you build it too. If you’ve ever built it, you own it. And after two centuries of a standing army, and two generations of massive military buildup—the defense budget doubling and then doubling again—we’ve built ourselves a whole lot of national security state. We haven’t made a habit of taking this stuff down, ever, of taking it apart. And we haven’t made a habit of considering the consequences of just letting it roll along unchecked.

That’s not to say that some of it isn’t amazing. A fact that’s underappreciated in the civilian world but very well appreciated in our military is that the US Armed Forces right now are absolutely stunning in their lethality. Deploy, deploy, deploy … practice, practice, practice. The US military was the best and best-equipped fighting force on earth even before 9/11. Now, after a solid decade of war, they’re almost unrecognizably better. Early worries such as how much gear we were burning through in Iraq were solved the way we always solve problems like that now: we doubled the military’s procurement budget between 2000 and 2010.

Consider also the state of the reserves. Thanks to the unprecedented deployment pace of the post-9/11 wars, gone are the days of the weekend warriors and the three-weeks-a-year training at some run-down outpost in the States. “For years, [reserve] soldiers would walk out the door on Fridays and say, ‘I’ve got to go play Army this weekend,’ ” the adjutant general of the Utah National Guard told a reporter from the Salt Lake Tribune. “I don’t think that’s the case anymore. We are the military to most citizens today. If you think of a uniform, you’re probably thinking of a Guardsman or a Reservist, who is your neighbor.” Probably your very physically fit neighbor. As a first sergeant who joined the National Guard in 1986 told the same paper, “There were a lot of overweight soldiers in the Guard back then who stuck around forever and talked big.” Not anymore. Not with the way we use the Guard and Reserves now, he explained: “You can’t [be overweight] if you have to put on body armor.”

America’s reservists have been in top gear or on high idle for ten years now, and their bosses say they want to keep them that way. “If we’re going to train to that level,” says the general in charge of the Army Reserves, “then my position is we’ve got to use them.”

Contrast that with LBJ explaining in 1965 that he didn’t want to call up the reserves because that would be “too dramatic”—it would be a shock to the nation’s system to tap the Guard and Reserves, even with eighty thousand US troops already deployed in Vietnam. Peacetime and civilian life used to be the norm for reservists; war, the unsettling aberration. Now that’s reversed.

As the gap has closed between regular active-duty forces and the reserves, the gap between those fighters and the rest of us has never been wider. One of the stranger political developments of the post-9/11 era was the backlash against efforts to close that gap. On Wednesday, April 28, 2004, about a month after the first anniversary of the Iraq War, Ted Koppel announced that on Friday, April 30, his program, Nightline, would honor Americans killed in Iraq by showing their faces and reading all of their names. It would be a televised memorial to those who had died in a year of war. There are, of course, war memorials to fallen heroes in every town and hamlet in America, but critics pounced on Koppel as though he’d proposed mugging the wounded at Walter Reed rather than airing a solemn memorial to the dead. His critics accused him of undermining the war effort, of being unpatriotic. The pro-war Washington Post accused Koppel of mounting a cynical ratings stunt, headlining its news article on the subject “On Nightline, a Grim Sweeps Roll Call.” The conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group immediately announced they’d boycott Nightline on all of their stations that were ABC affiliates.

Koppel said he was surprised by the controversy. But the controversy itself showed that something had changed about how a war abroad was being viewed at home. The simple and actual fact of American lives lost in the post-9/11 wars was not just a shared source of grief and national honor but had become something to be kept at a distance; casualties, for a time at least, became bad politics.

From 2003 to 2008, the Bush administration exercised a tight hold on imagery about the cost of the wars. Not only were news photographers banned from the solemn transfer ceremonies for flag-draped caskets at Dover Air Base, but the president and vice president did not attend military funerals. Even when families of fallen soldiers wanted to invite the media to cover a funeral or the return of remains, the government maneuvered as best it could to prevent such coverage. The Pentagon ultimately even effectively banned images of wounded troops in Iraq when it quietly changed its rules to require that news agencies get signed consent forms from soldiers photographed after they were wounded.

With tax cuts in wartime, with no sense of collective national sacrifice on behalf of the war effort, with less than 1 percent of the American population taking up arms to fight, with US casualties politically and literally shielded from public view, the cumulative effect was to normalize our national wartime. We’ve become a nation “at peace with being at war,” in the words of the New York Times media critic David Carr.

And as the country learned to be untroubled by the fact that we had troops at war, troops coming home from those wars learned to look out for themselves. “It’s like AIDS was thirty years ago,” Iraq veteran Paul Rieckhoff told me in 2011. “It’s a huge crisis for us, but no one else in the country thinks they’re us. No one even thinks they’re like us.” Shortly after his return from Baghdad in 2004, Rieckhoff founded Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the first and largest group of veterans of our post-9/11 wars. IAVA’s slogan is “We’ve Got Your Back”—with the implication that it might not feel like anyone else does. Online, they’ve organized a “Community of Veterans” social media site, essentially a version of Facebook for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans only. Their 2010 public service announcement, titled “Alone,” won the advertising industry’s Ogilvy Award for its disorienting turn-Norman-Rockwell-on-his-head depiction of a soldier’s lonely homecoming, until he finds other Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

Another PSA, called “Camo,” shows empty street scenes, and a newly returned veteran at home, sitting at his computer; the voice-over says, “You may feel like you’re all alone,” and then the seemingly empty streets are revealed to be camouflaging other veterans, hiding in plain sight. The visual trick gives way to the emotional payoff of the ad—the palpable relief of the once-isolated soldier who finds other veterans to connect with.

A 2011 Pew poll found that 84 percent of post-9/11 veterans felt the public didn’t understand the problems faced by service members and their families. It also found that more than two-thirds of Americans believe the disproportionate burden shouldered by those who have served is “just part of being in the military.” Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are nearly twice as likely as veterans of other wars to say they found readjusting to civilian life to be difficult. The distance between the lived experience of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and the rest of the country since 9/11 ought to unsettle all of us, not just veterans.

As we’ve pushed military experience further and further away from civilian life, we’ve also pushed decision making about the use of the military further and further away from political debate.

“We don’t have any enemies in Congress,” a senior defense official told me in 2011. “We have to fight Congress to cut programs, not keep them.” And those are basically the only fights the Pentagon ever loses. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan plagiarizing Sen. James F. Byrnes talking smack about government bureaucracy, if you want to achieve immortality, see what you can do about getting yourself turned into a Pentagon program. You may eventually grow wing fungus, but you’ll never die. The nuclear weapons complex, the counterinsurgency nation-building apparatus, $20 billion worth of mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles with V-shaped hulls to disperse the energy from bombs underneath—we built ’em, we own ’em, and we’re looking for ways to use ’em. “The Army has only recently started to plan to incorporate MRAPs into its force structure to take advantage of this investment,” a recent think-tank study found, “instead of mothballing them as they withdraw from Iraq.” Maybe we could park them on top of malfunctioning missile silos. The tasks we assign to our service members are hard enough without asking them to get their work done in the world’s largest organization, dragging around decades’ worth of clattering battle rattle in the form of defunct and deathless programs.

We all have an interest in America having an outstanding military, but that aim is not helped by exempting the military from the competition for resources. With no check on its growth and no rival for its political influence, the superfunded, superempowered national security state has become a leviathan.

The artificial primacy of defense among our national priorities is a constant unearned windfall for some, but it’s privation for the rest of America; it steals from what we could be and can do. In Econ 101, they teach that the big-picture fight over national priorities is guns versus butter. Now it’s butter versus margarine—guns get a pass.

Overall, we’re weaker for it, and at enormous cost.

As the national security state has metastasized, decisions to use force have become painless and slick, almost automatic. The disincentives to war deliberately built into our American system of government—particularly the citizen-soldier, and leaving the power to declare war with Congress instead of the president—we’ve worked around them. We ought to see that constitutional inheritance as a national treasure, yet we’ve divested ourselves of it without much of a debate.

It’s not done and forever, though. We can go back. Policy decisions matter. Our institutions matter. The structure of government matters. They can all be changed. We saw that happen over the last forty years. There were specific decisions made in time that set us on our current war-is-normal course. If specific decisions in time landed us where we are today, we can unmake those specific decisions. We can walk them back. We could at least start with a to-do list.

        •  Going to war, being at war, should be painful for the entire country, from the start. Henceforth, when we ship the troops off to battle, let’s pay for it. War costs money. Lots and lots of money. Whenever we start a new one, we should raise the money to pay for it, contemporaneously. Taxes, war bonds, what-have-you. “Freedom isn’t free” shouldn’t be a bumper sticker—it should be policy.

        •  Let’s do away with the secret military. If we are going to use drones to vaporize people in Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia, the Air Force should operate those drones, and pull the trigger. And we should know about it. If the CIA is doing military missions, the agency needs to be as accountable as the military is, and the same goes for the policy makers giving them their orders. The chain of command should never be obscured by state secrets. Special Forces can be unconstrained and clandestine to the bad guys, but not to Congress.

        •  Let’s quit asking the military to do things best left to our State Department, or the Peace Corps or FEMA. And let’s please stop expecting military leaders to make judgments and decisions about policy. If presidential candidates talk about “deferring to military commanders” as to whether or not to bomb Iran, stand up and point at them and holler until they understand how backward they’ve got it. That’s got to stop. It’s no favor to the military, and it’s an affront to the Constitution.

        •  Our Guard and Reserves need to be the Guard and Reserves again, which is to say the institutions that weave civilian life and military life together. The life of a National Guardsman or Guardswoman should be mostly a peacetime, civilian life. When we ship these men and women off to war, civilian communities all over America should feel that loss.

        •  Let’s wind back the privatization of war and the military’s dependence on contractors for what used to be military functions. Our troops need to peel their own potatoes again, drive their own supply trucks, build their own barracks, guard their own generals. Enough with the LOGCAP boondoggle. Private contractors are not cheaper, and they are certainly not indispensable. We operated without them for a long, long time, and did just fine, thank you very much. And when private contractors on our payroll commit illegal acts, like statutory rape, or murder, or outright fraud, they should be prosecuted, not given more contracts.

        •  If all those Team B cranks in the hawk nest want to indulge in exhaustive paranoia, they can knock themselves out. But the rest of us should try to keep it together. We can cede their point that the world is a threatening place. We can cede their point that the US military is a remarkable and worthy fighting force. But we ought to realize by now (see Korea, see Vietnam, see Afghanistan, see Iraq, see Iran) that deploying the US military, or dealing billions of dollars a year of arms to our ally of the moment that can serve as a regional rival to our enemy of the moment, is not always the best way to make threats go away. Our military and weapons prowess is a fantastic and perfectly weighted hammer, but that doesn’t make every international problem a nail.

        •  Let’s ensure that our nuclear infrastructure shrinks to fit our country’s realistic nuclear mission. Let’s decide exactly what we mean to deter with our nukes, and expend just exactly what we need to do that. There’s a cost to keeping these chemistry experiments lying around for decades. Let’s up the way-too-slow decommissioning process and shrink our nuclear inventory before another pylon of live missiles goes walkies.

        •  And finally, there’s the Gordian knot of executive power. It needs a sword something fierce. The glory of war success will always attach itself to the president, so presidents are always going to be prey to the temptation to make war. That’s a generic truth of power, and all the more reason to take decision making about war out of the hands of the executive. It is not one man’s responsibility. 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, is a radical departure from previous views of presidential power, and it should be taught and understood that way. This isn’t a partisan thing—constitutionalists left and right have equal reason to worry over the lost constraint on the executive. Republicans and Democrats alike have options to vote people into Congress who are determined to stop with the chickenshittery and assert the legislature’s constitutional prerogatives on war and peace. It would make a difference and help reel us back toward balance and normalcy.

None of this is impossible. This isn’t bigger than us. Decisions about national security are ours to make. And the good news is that this isn’t rocket science—we don’t need to reinvent Fogbank. We just need to revive that old idea of America as a deliberately peaceable nation. That’s not simply our inheritance, it’s our responsibility.