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?
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.