Questions of war need to be carefully thought out…

July 11, 2009

Something that has never been clearly resolved in the United States is how the authority to declare and conduct war is delineated. Since Vietnam it seems that the president has the most power concerning war. If the president decides to use the authority as commander in chief to take military action anywhere, from then on he (or she) is in control and can charge treason (in the political sense, not legally) against anyone who objects.

It’s always a wise move to get congress on the record with some kind of resolution, such as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, upon which the whole long, drawn out and disastrous Vietnam War was based. And even the “decider” George W. Bush got resolutions out of congress to fight his War on Terror.

I wished this was a coherent and well researched essay, but it’s just a blog off the top of my head. It occurs to me that there may not be much difference between a declaration of war which the Constitution gives the congress power to decide upon and a resolution. I really need to research this.

But I will observe here that when congress makes a declaration of war then it would seem to have shown a clear resolve.

Resolutions by their very nature appear to be something temporary, but they are not, i.e., the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which resulted in a costly decade-long war, carried out year to year almost as if it were temporary – no wonder we didn’t win. If congress had gone on record as declaring war, it might have had the resolve to actually win. Instead much time was spent debating how much and exactly what authority was given to the president.

The War on Terror resolutions seem to have created a war with no end in the Persian Gulf (yes we are supposedly easing out of Iraq, but it is pretty questionable what will eventually happen there — the violence is up again).

And it is hard to even envision how a victory would be achieved in Afghanistan, although I hasten to add it might not be impossible, if it can be figured out what a victory would be – a stable western-friendly government with no Taliban and Al Qaeda? And how long would that last? And wouldn’t we have to occuppy the whole region forever to make sure insurgents don’t rise up again? (These are the kind of questions that need to be asked and debated but are not.)

There is a question as to just what the president’s (any president) power as commander in chief means. Is the president simply in charge of the armed forces and not answerable to congress? Many people seem to think so.

Congress can effectively end a war by holding back on the funding (which it has unquestionable constitutional power to do), and did so eventually in the case of Vietnam. But that was only done after so many long years and casualties and the acceptance by the public that the cause was indeed in vain, giving congress the will and cover to act.

During the last Bush administration congress was intimidated by charges that to withhold funding while troops were in the field would be treasonous – and I agree that for the government to order troops to fight on the one hand and cut off their funding on the other seems at least is wrong morally and impractical. But eventually the only tool the congress, as the representative of its constituents, would have to effect a withdrawal if the executive resisted would be to not continue funding the war.

What made me think of all of this is that, as I blogged earlier, I am reading the late Robert S. McNamara’s book “In Retrospect, the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam”.

I plan to review it via a future blog. But for now, I can say that it points out that narrow thinking predisposed the nation to go to war in Vietnam. President Johnson, who had mixed emotions about the affair from the start, concealed vital information from congress and the public and essentially had the Tonkin resolution written up before the Tonkin incident happened, that is a resolution calling for increased authority to deal militarily with the communist threat to South Vietnam. The Tonkin incident provided a pretext to introduce that resolution before congress. It was implied that it was simply for something temporary. I remember in the early days of Vietnam it was called a “police action” (as Korea was) and then when it heated up it was called the Vietnam “conflict” and finally, even though “war” was never officially declared, it was called the Vietnam War.

I think I was a sophomore in high school when the Tonkin resolution was passed. And I know when it was decided to send in the troops and air power and take an active instead of advisory role, it was thought the U.S. would surly overwhelm the enemy. I thought certainly it would be all over by the time I graduated from high school.

The Vietnam War caused me to make a kind of illogical decision to join the Army, based in part that I would be drafted anyway, and maybe joining would give me some advantage, and I needed something to do. I ended up going to Germany. One of my brothers was drafted and served in Vietnam. So lucky for the both of us – and the luck was especially for him since he faced the danger – we both managed not to be names on the Vietnam Wall.

And today I have two grandsons, one born a few weeks ago and one almost ten years old. What happens today in world affairs will impact their lives. And really I should mention I have a granddaughter too just entering high school, and the same goes for her.

That is why I think it is important that we have a system in which such momentous decisions as war are carefully thought out. While the president needs the authority to deploy forces or take military actions in immediate emergencies, one person should never be given a blank check to wage continuing war and then pass it off to his or her successor.

It should be kept in mind that at least 58,151 Americans died in Vietnam, 4,322 in Iraq so far (46,132 wounded), and 677 in Afghanistan.

Remember, the numbers started out small in Vietnam.

And shouldn’t we be seriously considering whether the notion of pepetual war makes sense? And since terrorists can pop up most anywhere, are we obligated to occupy every inch of the world to maintain U.S. security?

ADD 1:

I should mention the War Powers Act of 1973, but at this time I cannot find much to note of it. I think I am correct in saying that it essentially has been ignored or circumvented since its passage. And I would think since it deals with war powers and war powers are enumerated in the Constitution, then maybe the act is unconstitutional. The Constitution cannot be amended by simply passing a law. The whole point of this blog is that the power to get into and out of war is an unsettled matter and it should be settled. At lot of people thought that, I think, at the conclusion of the Vietnam fiasco, but all that was come up with was that War Powers Act — so really no progress.

There is one sure way to get out of  a war. When the public mood turns decidedly against a war, eventually the nation withdraws, but at major cost in the meantime.

Political confusion, division, indifference…

September 16, 2008

(Copyright 2008)


By Tony Walther

While I don’t think one can put all the blame on the wars we are fighting for our current economic crisis, they sure play a major role. You just can’t spend billions of dollars every week on war and not have it take a toll on the U.S. treasury (estimated total, $3 trillion). We don’t tax directly to supply the war effort. Instead we borrow money from foreign nations, to include the oil-rich Middle East nations and China.

And I would like to write a blog without mentioning the lipstick on a pig woman (and I’m not really calling her a pig – I actually have a soft spot for pigs, real swine that is), but I read an opinion piece in the New York Times online that suggests that some conservatives are uneasy with John McCain’s vice presidential pick. They actually think experience matters. The piece is interesting in that the author brings out something I have noticed but would have had a harder time describing. It has to do with the fact that conservatism in America has a divide between traditional conservatism and a kind of uniquely American populist conservatism (and then there is neo conservatism, but I’m not going into that today). The best example I could think of along these lines is that in my neck of the woods folks whom might normally be considered part of the base of the Democratic Party, so-called working class or tradespeople, more often than not align themselves with conservative Republicans. They liken Democrats to the flag-burning, pot smoking, unpatriotic hippie war protestors of the past. Now for sure there is a lot of contradiction here. Some of those who detest the so-called left wing radicals of the past (the 60s) were part of that rabble themselves. I actually had a right wing guy confide in an e-mail to me that he was a hippie war protestor back in the 60s and never served in the military. He changed his mind. Today he sees politics as basically Bush or Reagan type Republicans against left leaning appeasers who would sell out their own country and run away from a fight in a second. Also, as a truck driver, I worked with a lot of guys who seemed to follow the conservative line, but admit that they were pot smoking anti-war, almost hippie types, but they served in Vietnam (and most seem proud of it, even though they realize it was a hopeless and misguided cause).

While I think that the bulk of the troops who were drafted and actually served in combat in the Vietnam War from the lower end of the economic scale, there were also those from nearly every level of society and every political persuasion (and as in society as a whole, no political persuasion). They were drafted, they did their duty as required by law, and if they were fortunate, they got to come home after two years or less, one year approximately of Vietnam service required.

Not to disparage our current all-volunteer military, but it primarily has to draw from those in search of employment who might not be able to find it elsewhere. Even though that force is fighting valiantly (by all accounts), it seems there is something inherently unfair in having primarily one part of society do our fighting and sacrificing for us. If all were subject to service and all were subject to sacrifice, we would as a nation be more selective in our use of military force, but more committed  toward meaningful results once the decision was made.

Another way to look at all of this is that in the world of politics, you have college educated people who look at things one way, and non-college educated people, who tend to see things from another perspective. To the latter, right and left and liberal and conservative are esoteric terms that carry little meaning or significance or even clear recognition (although calling someone “liberal” and “leftist” does seem to be an epithet). To them, you are either common sense and practical or you are someone with your nose in books and your head in the clouds and just don’t get it (in effect, you are too smart). You are either willing to defend your country (and that means support any military adventure the president initiates) or not. You either support the troops or not.

At any rate, I’m not sophisticated enough to do links correctly, but you can find that column I referred to earlier by calling up New York Times, Sept. 15, David Brooks column, “Why Experience Matters”.

I’m not in favor of re-instituting the military draft at this point, but I do think that if it were, we would quickly be out of our wars. The problem with instituting a draft would be that we have never resolved the issue of how it is we decide to go to war. It seems that despite the fact that the Constitution gives the power to declare war to the Congress, in reality it plays out another way. The president as commander in chief (as designated in the Constitution) can commit troops or take military actions and then essentially black mail the Congress to go along, with the argument that not to do so amounts to treason, and much of the public buys this or is indifferent to this.

The draft would force many to drop their indifference, but it would be unfair to call up people to fight in an unjust war under threat of imprisonment if they don’t.

I may have written here that many people still mistakenly believe we went to war because Iraq attacked us. In reality, I don’t think many believe that by now. It seems apparent that a primarily indifferent or apathetic public just went along with it content that without a draft, who cares? and besides, maybe we can whip those Arabs and get their oil, that would pay them back for gouging us and would send a message to Islamic terrorists (after all we are fighting over there in that world).

Supposedly, there is a lot more interest in the current presidential election than has previously been the case, with voters unhappy about the economy and the war. The turnout in November will tell the tale.

Indifference or not, reckless and unethical practices in the financial markets and the monetary cost of war is responsible for the economic crisis we now face.

Also I agree with a line out of a Barack Obama speech today that blamed our financial mess on: “policies that reward manipulation rather than productivity.”

John McCain rather weakly, I think, claims that he realizes that some things are amiss and that he will work for reform. Rather hard to believe since he has been in Washington for 26 years, and although he has differed from Republican administrations on some issues, for the most part he has gone along. Besides he is counting on the support and votes from the so-called Republican base who got us into this mess. While he may be trying to reach out to undecideds there is no indication he would abandon his base if elected.

When the cost of war and the cost of indifference and apathy toward both war and the out-of-whack financial practices really hits home, the mood will change.

Actually, that gives me hope, for no matter whether Obama or McCain is elected, they will face that mood of the public, who probably won’t be so indifferent anymore.

As to our war effort, strangely I see little difference between Obama and McCain, except that McCain has a natural proclivity for armed conflict.

Maybe Obama is closer to being anti-war, but he wouldn’t dare be too direct about that. I remember what happened to George McGovern.

The war issue is confusing in that there is certainly a terrorist movement, at least somewhat coordinated, and now centered in the Middle East, that means to do us harm (in the manner of 9/11 or worse).

But that just means we need someone level headed and not hot headed who can make reasonable decisions about the deployment of military force and other defense issues. And this is the 21st Century. We need someone who can think in terms of modern realities.

And finally, although I didn’t want to mention her name, Sarah Palin, due to McCain’s age primarily, has a good chance of becoming president. So far, the only knowledge of foreign affairs she has shown is that she says that from some point in Alaska you can see Russia. To realize that she would actually use that point to answer a question about her worldly knowledge, is scary, to say the least.

Setting things straight:

In the initial draft of my previous blog I said something about a woman who said she had no previous interest in politics but was intrigued with Sarah Palin and I went on to suggest that people who have no knowledge of current events should not be able to vote (I was being kind of sarcastic). Anyway, I wrote that after misinterpreting a TV soundbite. I saw the piece later and realized it was not what I thought. But then I read in the paper today that Palin is attracting some former Hillary Clinton supporters. I can’t see the logic there. The only similarity or connection that the two have is that they are both women and that putting them together makes a hilarious Saturday Nigh Live skit. Oh, and I removed my erroneous info and posted a new draft.