On April 14th my better half and I dined with another couple at Tre Scalini in South Philadelphia before scurrying over to Irvine Auditorium on the University of Pennsylvania campus to listen to Rachel Maddow speak about her book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. Ms. Allyson Schwartz, currently a member of the U. S. House of Representatives and a recently announced candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania, gave Ms. Maddow a glowing introduction. So, too, did Philadelphia's Mayor, Michael Nutter.
Although she charmed her audience with wit, humor and a velvety-fisted critique of the many idiocies that pass for policies in the Republican Party these days, one might guess that the people who actually came to hear Ms. Maddow speak about her book were disappointed. After all, for nearly thirty minutes Ms. Maddow spoke almost exclusively about just one part of her book, before taking questions. Unfortunately, many of those questions had nothing to do with her book.
(In fact, nobody actually challenged anything written in her book. I stood in line to do so, but the question and answer period ended before I got to the microphone.)
At the outset of her speech, Ms. Maddow informed her audience that she had scrapped the speech she had delivered at other venues -- one that addressed America's deteriorating nuclear weapons -- and hurriedly crafted a speech about Ronald Reagan earlier that day.
Why Ronald Reagan? Because, as she correctly explained, America's myopically nationalistic mainstream news media treated Margaret Thatcher's recent death as though she were a mere footnote to the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Ah, yes, the great Ronald Reagan -- the hero of Republicans everywhere.
But Ms. Maddow began by asking her audience to imagine how Republicans and conservatives would have reacted, had they discovered that President Barack Obama had secretly sold missiles to Iran. Yes, Iran. Wouldn't they have called him a traitor?
She then asked her audience to imagine the intensity of the boiling anger of Republicans and conservatives once they learned that Obama also used the secretly and illegally obtained arms-sale money to finance an illegal CIA-led proxy war against a third world country -- in defiance of the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Constitution.
Undoubtedly, Republicans and conservatives would have demanded Obama's impeachment -- and with ample justification. But, as Ms. Maddow emphasized to her audience, it was not Obama who committed those crimes, but Ronald Reagan.
In fact, fourteen Reagan administration officials were indicted and eleven convicted for their participation in these crimes. Reagan deserved impeachment, but escaped punishment by pleading what Maddow's book calls "exhaustive ignorance and confusion." Indeed, his plea rang true, if only because Reagan actually was an often-confused dunderhead.
Worse, he didn't care! He worked three and a half hours per day, didn't read his briefing books and occasionally fell asleep at meetings. He was so wishy-washy and easy to persuade on most issues that many members of his administration tried to be the last person to speak to him about policy recommendations, in order to have the last, and presumably, final say on an issue.
My favorite story attesting to Reagan's formidable confusion and stupidity took place 30 months after Reagan gave his historic missile defense ("Star Wars") speech. Although the speech was hailed as "visionary" by right-wing ideologues, 30 months later Reagan still needed to ask George Schultz to tell him once again "the difference between a ballistic missile and a cruise missile."
Nevertheless, right-wing ideologues subsequently whitewashed Reagan's laziness, his stupidity, his criminality in "Iran-Contra" as well as the lies (or was it Alzheimer's?) he spread when he denied trading arms for hostages. Today, Reagan remains the hero of the Republican Party, which tells you how low they must go to find a hero and how hard they must work to fabricate one. Unfortunately, as Ms. Maddow pointed out on Sunday, the mainstream media has bought into the whitewash.
In the course of her brief speech devoted to Reagan, Ms. Maddow briefly touched on the basic theme of her book, i.e., how ridiculously easy it is these days to take America to war. In her book, Maddow claims: "As the national security state has mestastasized, decisions to use force have become painless and slick, almost automatic" [p. 248]
As most educated Americans know, that wasn't the intent of our Founding Fathers. Standing armies were viewed to be a threat to individual liberty. James Madison, for example, asserted: "War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few."
Until the beginning of the Cold War, America's peacetime standing army had been quite small for such a large country. As Maddow notes in her book: "The professional military was an institution of limited reach and power; in times of peace we kept the regulars building defense works and ports and bridges. Whenever we went to war in a big way, we went to war with citizen-soldiers; a small nucleus of an active-duty army swelled with militiamen, reservists, National Guardsmen, enlisted persons, and draftees." [p.10] The small nucleus trained the rest, who quickly demobilized after each war.
For example, "Within eighteen months of the conclusion of World War I, Congress had completely dismantled the American Expeditionary Forces and reduced the active-duty military from four million soldiers back to the prewar number of less than three hundred thousand." Twelve million people were on active duty in 1945, but that force was reduced by 88 percent, to one and a half million by 1950. [p. 11]