As a rookie reporter, I once received a letter — and a lasting lesson — from a great American. It may seem odd in this highly partisan political age, but I was a war-protesting radical rabble-rouser and he was a Vietnam-era Republican senator from Vermont named George Aiken.
I had just written a newspaper article reminding readers of Aiken’s famously unheeded advice to two presidents on what they should do about a stupid, divisive, brutal, unnecessary, and costly war that was grinding on, mindlessly and incessantly, day after day, year after year: “Declare victory and go home.”
There was only one problem with what I wrote — I ascribed the comment to “the late, great George Aiken.” The letter I subsequently received from the retired but still very much alive Aiken was gracious, thanking me for remembering his dictum but assuring me he was still breathing. Red-faced, I penned an embarrassing correction and vowed never to print an unchecked assumption again.
The most valuable lessons in life are those we learn young. I am reminded of that, and of Senator Aiken’s wisdom, every day now, as the latest body count rolls in, and the war grinds on, mindlessly and incessantly, day after day, year after year. When I was young we had a war just like this current one. The similarities between the two seemed immediately and stunningly obvious to me, and remain so to all but they who refuse to see. This war, like the previous one, is astonishingly stupid, divisive, unnecessary, brutal, costly — and as yet undeclared.
Call me a stickler for details but doesn’t our Constitution vest in the Congress the exclusive power to declare war? Nevertheless, only five wars have been declared in American history: the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II. Beginning with Korea, our presidents have avoided seeking formal Congressional declarations of war, instead maintaining that they have the constitutional authority, as commander in chief, to use the military for “police actions.”
In response to the disastrous “police action” in Vietnam, of course, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which requires the president to obtain either a declaration of war or a resolution authorizing the use of force from Congress within 60 days of initiating hostilities. Some legal experts maintain that any military action taken without a Congressional declaration of war (regardless of the War Powers Resolution) is unconstitutional; however, the constitutionality of the Resolution has never been tested, as Congress has always passed the required authorization when requested by the president.
We’ve now been at (undeclared) war longer than the entirety of World War II. The war against al Qaeda has progressively morphed into the War Against Iraq, to the Global War on Terror, all the way to the “early stages” of the Clash of Civilizations.
I therefore have a modest proposal aimed at rectifying this situation: Let’s declare war!
Before you rise up and denounce me as a naïve “useful idiot” (from the right) or a warmongering neo-neo-con (from the left), please take a moment at least to consider the obvious advantages of my proposal:
1. Such an action would require debate, and then an actual vote, by members of Congress, thus placing them firmly on the record either in favor of or against prosecuting the current war;
2. Passage of a war declaration by Congress would clear up all the legal and constitutional questions surrounding the current “police action” in Iraq; and
3. The prospect of actually declaring war would force both Congress and our society as a whole to think hard, avoid politically expedient vagueness, and finally figure out precisely who the actual enemy is. After all, we can’t just “declare war,” we have to declare war on someone or something!
So, who shall it be? Can we declare war on Iraq, now that Saddam is gone and its leaders are our allies? Or shall it be war on al Qaeda, that amorphous terrorist organizational “base” with tentacles seemingly everywhere?
Assuming one can declare war on a person rather than a country, perhaps we could just declare war on Osama? Or, if this really is the beginning of a defining, century-long clash of civilizations, maybe we should just declare war on Islam and be done with it?
Oh yes — there’s one other huge advantage to declaring war instead of just waging it in illegal and unconstitutional fashion. The sooner we actually declare war, the sooner we can, in the immortal words of the now-late but still great Senator Aiken, “declare victory — and go home.”