Hiding behind the flag. (Jeffrey Alan Love for The Washington Post)

One author is a liberal pundit on the MSNBC television network. The other is a professor at the University of Southern California Law School. Both writers grapple with the same critical questions about contemporary military affairs and have arrived at comparable conclusions.

How did the national security state become so pervasive, and what is its cost to the American system of law, government and civic cohesion? “No matter how long the troops slog through the muck, no matter how many deployments they endure, the American public can no longer really be touched by war,” asserts Rachel Maddow in her first book, “Drift.”Mary L. Dudziak, author of “War Time,” observes: “We are routinely asked to support our troops, but otherwise war requires no sacrifices of most Americans. . . . War has drifted to the margins of American politics.”

Drawing thoughtfully from the literature of legal studies, political science, history and sociology, Dudziak crafts a fascinating and nuanced narrative tracing the progressive expansion of U.S. national security interests and the complex ramifications. “Military conflict has been ongoing for decades, yet public policy rests on the false assumption that it is an aberration,” she writes, charging that “ ‘wartime’ serves as an argument and an excuse for national security-related ruptures of the usual legal order.”

Among the ruptures to that order, Dudziak cites the Sedition Act of 1918, passed by Congress during World War I to criminalize the expression of political views deemed injurious to the war effort.In the years before America’s formal entry into World War II, Franklin Roosevelt used his excecutive powers to provide military aid to American allies abroad and to enhance federal surveillance capabilities at home. The author also laments the “vast incursion on civil liberties” embodied in FDR’s imprisonment of Japanese American citizens and immigrants in internment camps in the midst of the war.

America’s victory in World War II did not mark a cessation of “war time,” Dudziak explains, but rather a transition to a period of protracted military mobilization catalyzed by the dawn of the Cold War. The National Security Act of 1947, she writes, created an enduring foundation for American military power and a new structure for the U.S. government. “The Department of War became the Department of Defense, and there would be a secretary of defense instead of a secretary of war.”

’Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power’ by Rachel Maddow (Crown)

In the aftermath of the Soviet acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability and the Chinese communist revolution in 1949, President Harry Truman instructed his national security team to reassess America’s geostrategic interests. That canonical analysis, a study known as NSC-68, characterized the Soviet Union’s hegemonic ambitions as the defining threat to international security and served as the conceptual basis for a broadly bipartisan foreign policy. In the four-year period that followed, the U.S. military budget exploded from $14 billion to $53 billion annually. As Dudziak reminds us, it was the former supreme Allied commander in World War II, President Dwight Eisenhower, who 51 years agowarned of the dangers posed by “the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” which he defined as “a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.”

Although Maddow does not mention Ike’s famous farewell address, his cautionary vision seems to animate her analysis in “Drift.” “With no check on its growth and no rival for its political influence,” she argues, “the superfunded, superempowered national security state has become a leviathan.”

Today it is simply too easy for the United States to go to war, Maddow contends, and the burden of the country’s military commitments has become fundamentally disconnected from politics and society. “While America has been fighting two of its longest-ever boots-on-the-ground wars in a decade following 9/11, and fighting them simultaneously, less than one percent of the adult U.S. population has been called upon to strap on those boots,” she observes. “The country has perfected the art of frictionless war.”

The historical survey of American military affairs in “Drift” selectively appropriates case studies and data points ranging from the founding fathers to the Obama administration’s drone attacks in Pakistan. Maddow’s critique, the product of robust and eclectic research, is consistently and carefully respectful of the men and women in the armed services. Yet Maddow evinces an inherent skepticism about the projection of U.S. military power, which in her narrative occurs too frequently and too permissively.

A brief interruption of this pattern, notes the author, was induced by an activist Congress determined to end the Vietnam War. In April 1975 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, strengthened by an assertive bipartisan consensus, denied President Gerald Ford funding for further military operations. Gen.Creighton Abrams, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972 and subsequently Army chief of staff, receives generous praise from Maddow for preserving military readiness despite a major drawdown in troop strength and for enmeshing Army Reserve forces into any deployment plan to go to war, thus raising the political costs of military action. For Maddow, this post-Vietnam period represents the apogee of effective balancing between Congress and the commander in chief.

Maddow’s distinctive voice in “Drift” is highly intelligent, often incredulous and intermittently and humorously profane. In fact, Maddow is so gifted at and deeply practiced in the art of public policy debate — reflecting the discipline that earned her a doctorate in politics from Oxford University — that one senses she has been training with weak sparring partners who have not challenged the less rigorously developed elements of her analysis. It seems that her ingrained mistrust of the ends and means of American national security strategy predisposes her to treat all instances of U.S. military intervention critically, glossing over arguably important distinctions.

Maddow assiduously recounts the dubious rationale for President Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada in 1983 and the folly of that administration’s covert program to trade arms for hostages with Iran and then funnel the proceeds to anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua. She is less persuasive, however, in her critique of the diplomatic and military strategy to reverse Iraq’s 1991 invasion of Kuwait.

Maddow’s narrative here is too narrow, focused principally on the path to a congressional vote authorizing the use of force in the Persian Gulf — legislative approval that Dick Cheney, then secreatry of defense, fought aggressively against seeking. As a result, the author does not adequately convey the extraordinary accomplishments of President George H.W. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, who collectively overruled Cheney and overcame enormous obstacles to assemble and maintain a diverse global coalition of 32 states to counter Saddam Hussein’s aggression and, remarkably, won passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 678, which legitimized real collective military action at the global level for the first time in the history of the U.N. system. In many respects, this exercise in geopolitical coalition-building and disciplined military strategy — crushing the adversary swiftly with overwhelming force and abjuring a ruinous occupation of Baghdad — serves as the direct counter-example to the second war with Iraq in 2003 that critics such as Maddow have so strenuously denounced.

And with respect to Maddow’s interest in the role of Congress, she overstates the resistance of the 41st president to seeking House and Senate authorization for war. As Baker reports in his memoir, “The Politics of Diplomacy,” in mid-October 1990 the president and the secretary of state began focused discussions about Baker’s plan to “go to the Congress and the U.N. for” dual resolutions supporting “the possible use of force.”

Maddow is also dubious of the 1995 American intervention in the Balkans to halt Serbian genocide, ending a war that claimed more than 200,000 lives. Her account is far too truncated, not even mentioning the pivotal role of Richard C. Holbrooke, the brilliant U.S. diplomat who was the key architect of the Dayton peace agreement, which finally concluded the most violent conflict in Europe since the end of World War II and was enforced by a long-term deployment of 60,000 NATO peacekeepers. In restoring stability to the former Yugoslavia, the United States had applied limited but effective military force in concert with its allies, and deployed ground troops to maintain the peace subject to congressional approval — all to end ethnic cleansing. Isn’t this precisely the template for how liberals such as Maddow would like to see America leverage its global power?

Throughout her work, Maddow repeatedly invokes the vital role of Congress in constraining the president’s warmaking authority. She implores voters and their representatives to energetically “assert the legislature’s constitutional prerogatives on war and peace.” It is a legitimate concern, and Maddow cites numerous examples of Congress exercising greater wisdom than the president with respect to key national security decisions. Yet history demonstrates that requiring legislative assent is an unreliable check on misguided military ventures because Congress gives in all too easily. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson rammed through the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, a broad and imprecise authorization for the use of force in Vietnam that was overwhelmingly embraced by a pliant Congress in a rushed spectacle later dismissed by his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, as “a vaudeville show.” And as Dudziak notes in “War Time,” in 2002 a lengthy joint resolution of Congress authorized preemptive war against Iraq, citing the nonexistent threat of Baghdad’s program to build weapons of mass destruction and its support for international terrorist groups.

These counterpoints to Maddow’s critique, however, do little to dilute the overall force of her thesis, which is passionately and effectively articulated, reminding us of how far we have drifted from linking the sacrifices of our armed forces around the world to the citizens at home they so selflessly serve. Indeed both Maddow and Dudziak have provided readers with a timely and perhaps necessary provocation to examine the far-reaching consequences of the American way of war.


Gordon M. Goldstein is the author of “Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam” and the essay “Richard Holbrooke and the Vietnam War: Past and Prologue” in the recent volume “The Unquiet American.”


The Unmooring of American
Military Power

By Rachel Maddow

Crown. 275. $25


An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences

By Mary L. Dudziak

Oxford Univ. 221 pp. $24.95