MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has been aggressively congratulating herself on the success of her first book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. And well she should. It debuted atop the New York Times bestseller list, features an unexpected blurb from Fox mogul Roger Ailes, and returns forgotten history to public discourse. Yet despite her boldness and success, Maddow repeats one of journalism’s easiest and most common fallacies.
Maddow traces the gap between America’s stated beliefs and its military policy back to Lyndon Johnson. Landslide Lyndon thought he could fight an open-ended overseas engagement without Congressional say-so as long as it wasn’t a formally declared “war.” Despite political pushback that nearly killed the Democratic party, Johnson’s policies eventually found their unlikely champion, and their ne plus ultra, in the Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan.
In contrast, Maddow extols James Madison and the Founding Fathers. The framers of America’s constitution, she says, distrusted unchecked executive control of the military. Though they invested the President as commander-in-chief, they forbid the executive to move the military without congressional approval, making declaration of war a Senatorial prerogative. The implication is that the framers would look on recent executive privilege with great shame.
And there, Maddow makes her mistake.
Commentators on the arc of American history have some tacit agreement to hold the Founding Fathers aloof from criticism. They must surely have been men (and some women) molded by the hand of Providence, gifted with profound insight, and never given to self-aggrandizing behavior or folly. They stop being real people or historical figures, and become mere vessels of high-minded principle.
No. The Founding Fathers had the foibles of ordinary politicians. For our purposes, their rash handling of the military is fully as appalling as Vietnam or Iran-Contra. Less than two years after ratification of the Constitution, George Washington himself rallied the militia to crush the Whiskey Rebellion, an uprising of citizen farmers who wanted merely to resist usurious taxes on the only way they had of profitably moving their produce to market.
Most American history textbooks mention the Whiskey Rebellion. After all, the rebels were white. Most textbooks elide that America’s first three Presidents funnelled illicit support to the Haitian Revolution. (Loyalties varied, though: Washington and Jefferson, slaveholders both, supported the French. John Adams, who had no slaves, supported the black rebels.) And Washington prosecuted Indian wars in the Ohio River valley throughout his administration.
According to the US Army’s own statistics, over half our 250-ish shooting conflicts have been against Indians. I don’t know if this includes pre-Revolutionary conflicts like King Philip’s War or the Pequot War, sometimes called the Pequot Massacre. Many of these wars have been very long and cripplingly expensive. And our Indian wars were, to a one, undeclared.
Much was made when the war in Afghanistan exceeded Vietnam to become America’s longest overseas engagement. Many commentators called it America’s longest war, but they were wrong. Historian James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, insists our longest war was the Second Seminole War, but even he is mistaken. From 1849 to 1886, there were not ninety consecutive days of peace between the US and the Apache Nation. Skirmishes continued as late as 1924.
After America ran out of Indian nations to fight, our forces began undeclared wars away from the mainland. Though textbooks claim the Spanish-American War lasted only two months, they subtly lump that together with the Philippine War. This conflict dragged on for four years of combat in swamps and jungles. Beginning patterns repeated in Vietnam and Iraq, it ended only when news back in the homeland challenged Americans’ views on what kind of people we are.
Robert Kaplan, in An Empire Wilderness, observes that, in peacetime, Presidential policies matter less than the policies of the chairman of the Federal Reserve. Presidents know this. That’s why the US has been engaged in a shooting conflict somewhere on earth, with someone, continuously, since 1948. These undeclared wars burnish a President’s reputation, as Clinton discovered in Bosnia, but they cost America political capital worldwide.
The US Senate has exercised its Constitutional prerogative to declare war only five times. Given the risk inherent in today’s complex network of alliances, it will probably never declare war again. Yet we keep getting involved in conflicts that start out popular, and peter out into national disillusionment. As a nation, we are better than our leaders’ petty ambitions. We have the power to rein our Presidents in. The question is, do we have the will?