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Rachel Maddow's Lament: Adrift

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I recall a vivid passage in Kai Bird's fine book about the Bundy brothers, McGeorge and William, when Mac Bundy was John F. Kennedy's national security adviser. It was early in JFK's presidency, and Bundy was being briefed by Daniel Ellsberg, then a wunderkind of the nuclear priesthood, on U.S. nuclear war making plans. Bundy was shocked to learn that a relatively minor provocation, such as Soviet troop movements into West Berlin, could prompt a rapid escalation to full-scale nuclear war. Bundy demanded of the military chiefs to see the plan, which they refused to do.

This telling anecdote came to mind when reading Rachel Maddow's entertaining little book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. I like Rachel Maddow's MSNBC program, especially the seriousness with which she engages public policy issues while her very human persona -- funny, charming, challenging -- keeps the topics from being dreary; it is a rare talent at work.

The book is similar. Her distinctive voice comes through, mixing the serious with the bizarre and humorous. She carves out an important message -- namely, that American society has allowed political and military leaders to go to war with too little restraint and too little attention. This she attributes mainly to Ronald Reagan, the elder Bush, and others since the end of the debacle in Indochina. War is now remote and involves only a tiny fraction of the American people. "As we've pushed military experience further and further away from civilian life," she writes, "we've also pushed decision making about the use of the military further and further away from political debate."

It's an attractive idea, but not altogether convincing. The story about Bundy and nuclear war fighting is but one example of how uninvolved with war civilians have been, and that was 50 years ago. The Korean War is even more telling. The war began when North Koreans invaded South Korea in June 1950. It was an enormously bloody affair: in three years, between three and four million people died, most of them civilians. Even at the time of the conflict, in which more than 30,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in action, it became known as "the forgotten war." The level of interest in the war was pathetically low, demoralized perhaps by the scale of carnage and the uncertain outcome.

War has long "nourished the presidency," in the words of historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., from Lincoln to Franklin D. Roosevelt. The national security state that Eisenhower warned against was built by him and Harry Truman. The number of lies told by Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon on their way to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos can't be counted.

So the notion that the country is less involved nowadays with the military and therefore wars are more easily begun seems shaky at best. The run up to war in Iraq was hotly debated, and the 2006 setback for the Republican Party in congressional elections was largely due to Iraq. Obama himself may owe his rise to his well-timed opposition to the war.

What is certainly true is that American society long ago became comfortable with high levels of military spending, which sustains a military-industrial complex, but the spending levels differ little throughout the post-1945 period. Add the manufactured fear of terrorism into the mix, which comes from politicians, contractors, Fox News, and the like, and you have a permanent, covert war machine as well, as was so brilliantly exposed by Dana Priest and William Arkin in Top Secret America. That is new, but mainly in scale.

The American people's involvement depends on information, and the news media generally have been far more interested in the Beltway politics of war -- who lied, who will pay, which insiders are fighting -- than with the consequences of war. War becomes just politics, in its derisive meaning, or even gossip. Meanwhile, we actually learn very little of what is happening to people in the war zones, and this was true of Korea and Indochina as well as the recent and savage wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are not much aware of the destruction these wars cause, and if we don't know or feel that, why should we be more likely to restrain the politicians and generals when the next war looms? War without consequences is like a freebie. Why not try another?

MSNBC certainly isn't telling us much about the people of Iraq or Afghanistan or Libya. Nor did the news media tell us much about the lives of Koreans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, or Laotians. There were a few extraordinary journalists of those wars -- Homer Bigart, Reginald Thompson, Jonathan Schell, Harrison Salisbury, and a precious few others -- who reported on what was happening to civilians. But the dominant attitude of the news media, the political establishment, and the military is simply to ignore the human consequences of war.

So the central weakness of Maddow's account is not just her cardinal conjecture -- that the American people are more disconnected from war than ever -- but how her own oversights, the neglect of war's consequences, may feed the indifference and "drift" she so laments. For such a gifted journalist, that is its own tragedy.