The Meaning of ‘War’

Here is a trivia question for you:  When was the last time the United States officially declared itself to be at war?

Answer:  December 8, 1941, the day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, inducing the United States to formally enter World War II.

That was it.  So far as the official record is concerned, every American military engagement since 1945—Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq again—has been strictly off-book.

This is not to say that those conflicts (and plenty more besides) did not really happen, or that the United States has officially been in a state of peace for some 68 years.

Rather, it calls into question what terms like “war” and “peace” mean in the first place.  In point of fact, such definitions have never been clear since the founding of the American republic.

This is no small matter, both in theory and in practice.  As the current scuttlebutt surrounding Syria has reminded us, a great deal hinges on how the United States involves itself in foreign entanglements and, in particular, on who has the final say on whether to do so.

The U.S. Constitution states, in Article I, Section 8, that “Congress shall have power to […] declare War,” but offers no opinion as to precisely what war is or, indeed, what form such a declaration should take.  The president, as commander-in-chief, has the authority to conduct hostilities once they have commenced, but has no explicit license to commence them himself.

As a consequence of such constitutional vagary on this subject, it has been left to subsequent generations to fill in the blanks.

Two weeks ago, when President Barack Obama announced his desire to launch a series of strikes against the Syrian government, he said, “I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress,” but also that “I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.”

I could not have been the only one who felt slightly ill at ease by the contradiction between those two clauses.

The president said that he was taking his Syria case to Congress because he believes that in so doing, “the country will be stronger […] and our actions will be even more effective,” but would it not be more in the spirit of checks and balances if he were actually required to do so?

The fact is that, while the Constitution delegates the power to declare war to the Congress, the ambiguity with which the very notion of war is understood has allowed the executive branch extremely wide latitude on the actual employment of the U.S. Armed Forces.

In practice, chief executive after chief executive has managed to sneak America into a large-scale armed conflict simply by not calling it a war.  While the president himself may well intend a limited military action not to escalate into a full-blown commitment, history has demonstrated a clear pattern of the former giving way to the latter.

In 1964, for instance, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—based on false information, it turned out—which authorized President Lyndon Johnson “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States” and “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.”

The words “declaration” and “war” did not appear in the resolution, yet the document unmistakably gave the president permission to do whatever the heck he wanted vis-à-vis the conflict in Southeast Asia, which he and his successor, Richard Nixon, unmistakably did.  Their combined policies in and around Vietnam, licensed by the Tonkin Resolution, led to the deaths of some 58,000 American soldiers and several hundred thousand Vietnamese civilians.

If that isn’t war, what is?

And so I humbly ask:  With the prospect of a fresh new American-sponsored military thingamabob in the Middle East, should we not clarify America’s war-making laws once and for all?

Can the president send American troops into harm’s way of his own accord, or not?  If he can, does it not infringe upon Congress’s prerogative to declare war?  Can the president do whatever he wants so long as he does not call it war?  Or is any deployment of the U.S. Armed Forces axiomatically an act of war, period?

Or:  In today’s world, where the United States and others can inflict great damage without proverbial “boots on the ground” and in which violent conflicts are not nearly as linear as they used to be, have these sorts of questions become obsolete?  And if that is the case, of what use is our 226-year-old Constitution in the first place?

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