Wars like Vietnam and Afghanistan doomed without congressional approval



Editor’s Note: This is part of a series examining the Constitution and federalist documents in America today.

The framers of the Constitution would not have been surprised by the recent failure of Afghanistan. Nor would they have been surprised by Vietnam’s failure two generations ago.

Victorious in their own war against the most impressive army on the planet at the time, they understood that a nation and its citizens can only win wars in which they formally engage. This is why they intentionally and explicitly separated the powers necessary to wage and win wars between Congress and the President. In doing so, they have created a system that requires broad national agreement before committing the nation to war.

The Framers believed that engaging in war and engaging the nation in war is a step that requires consideration and deliberation of the merits and possible compromises by the representatives of the people. If the national interest were served by resorting to war, the national resolve would be made manifest and reinforced by the ratification of the representatives of the citizens.

In Article I, the editors gave Congress the explicit and enumerated authority: “To declare war, grant letters of marque and retaliation, and establish rules respecting captures on land and water; Raise and support armies… Provide and maintain a navy; Establish rules for government and regulation of land and naval forces… ”

At the same time, they knew that war councils are breeding grounds for shyness. Giving the nation the best possible chance of winning wars required placing the execution of the war in the hands of the president.

In Article II, the editors made it clear that: “The President shall be Commander-in-Chief of the United States Army and Navy …”

Alexander Hamilton was equally clear about the limits the Framers meant on the President: “The President must be the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Army and Navy. In this regard, his authority would nominally be the same as that of the King of Great Britain, but in substance much less than it. This would represent nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces, as the first general and admiral of the Confederacy; while that of the British king extends to the declaration of war and the raising and regulation of fleets and armies, all that, by the constitution under consideration, would belong to the legislature. (Federalist # 69).

They also understood that war is, for the most part, the enemy of freedom and small government. Madison got right to the point: of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be feared because it includes and develops the germ of all the others.

Having just concluded a desperate and terrible war in which one was used against them, they had a justified fear of the dangers of a standing army. Standing armies promote military adventurism and allow and encourage one man to engage nations in conflict.

Unfortunately, too many members of Congress have forgotten their story. Too often when it comes to war, they have agreed to be the partisan accomplices of a president of their party rather than the guardians of the Congressional authorities and the tribunes of the people. Members of both parties are guilty. Through the three generations that now separate us from the victory of World War II, Republican and Democratic presidents and congresses have launched us into wars without the clarity and purposefulness required for a declaration of war.

The Gulf of Tonkin (Vietnam) resolution and the authorization to use military force (Afghanistan, Iraq, and pretty much anywhere a president wants to drive out bad guys) are poor substitutes for declarations of war and poor explanations of why Americans should send their children to war.

When one man can send an entire nation to war for reasons and with objectives that are at best unclear, it is a recipe for disaster. Because the declarations of war in Vietnam and Afghanistan were never debated or approved by Congress, the nation was never fully committed to victory in either case.

No one in the active military, in Congress or in the presidency has ever been willing or able to express a vision of what victory in Vietnam or Afghanistan might have looked like. Because Congress never did what it was supposed to do, we never had a clear goal in Vietnam or Afghanistan.

Things as nebulous as a war on terror or a war of containment are doomed to failure. By necessity, wars must be aimed at achieving a specific goal, and that something must be agreed upon by the citizens. This is why declarations of war are essential to the business.

It should also be clear about how many people we are willing to kill to achieve our goals. During WWII, this answer was obvious: everyone on the other side. In each subsequent conflict, the answer has not been clear. As a result, we find ourselves in “managed” conflicts that serve no material policy or moral purpose.

It is no coincidence that World War II was both the last war won by the United States and the last war declared by the United States. Undeclared wars, like Vietnam or Afghanistan, cannot be won. The Framers got it. We should too.

• Michael McKenna served in the Reagan, Bush and Trump administrations.


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