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War and peace: In our new normal, nothing is declared

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Snow falling on the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

We are seldom at war but never at peace.

George Orwell foresaw this in his most famous novel, “1984,” as Thomas Ricks reminds us in a recent brilliant piece in “Foreign Policy.”

The passage from Orwell’s most famous of so-called dystopian novels, written in 1948, says this of the new normal in matters of war and peace in the nation inhabited by his characters:

It is a warfare of limited aims between combatants who are unable to destroy one another, [and] have no material cause for fighting.… [It] involves very small numbers of people, mostly highly trained specialists, and causes comparatively few casualties. The fighting, when there is any, takes place on the vague frontiers whose whereabouts the average man can only guess at. .… In the centres of civilization war means no more than … the occasional crash of a rocket bomb which may cause a few scores of deaths.

I was born in 1951, the last year of what we call the Korean War. U.S. history, we were taught, was punctuated by wars but mostly blessed with peace. The Constitution, we were told, gave Congress the power to declare war, which would activate the president’s “commander in chief” powers. When the war ended, we assumed most of the commander-in-chief powers went back on the shelf, except perhaps for emergencies in which there wasn’t time for Congress to act.

But, to be clear, the Constitution, which we pretend to revere and obey (except when inconvenient) assigned to Congress the power to declare war, which would mean nothing (and perhaps now does mean nothing) if the president can take us into a prolonged military conflict (aka a “war”) without congressional action.

The history my generation learned in school had five big wars after the ratification of the Constitution: The War of 1812, The Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II. That list conveniently overlooked the longest war, or many small wars, against the Native population, which is a large oversight but understandable in, shall we say, self-serving cultural terms. Likewise the undeclared Civil War of 1861-5 belongs in a special category. And there were other smaller, imperialistic military adventures within “our” hemisphere. But, with those exceptions and through the end of World War II, the big wars were declared by Congress, pretty much as required by the Constitution.

Since then, there have been no full-scale “declared” wars. The first pretty big war after World War II — the one I was born into, the Korean War — was neither declared nor authorized by Congress, although it was authorized by a vote of the then-brand-new U.N. Security Council. President Harry Truman didn’t ask Congress for a declaration.

Other than the aforementioned wars against the Native population, Korea was first big undeclared war. And it actually never ended. With the U.S. and some allies and the troops of South Korea (a nation that did not then officially exist) the status quo ante of a divided Korea was restored and exists to this day on the basis of a 1953 ceasefire/armistice but, in some sense, the state of war still exists and the United States is still fully and deeply committed to enforcing the not-quite-legal boundary between the two Koreas by military means if necessary.

The circumstances surrounding that deviation from previous war-declaring practices were understandable, but the precedent became so powerfully established that our dear nation is now in a permanent state of war or quasi-war in many places on many continents without benefit of a congressional declaration of war. This includes a very large number of military actions, many of them small and brief but plenty of them large and long (think Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, and now the enormous, amorphous, hydra-headed “war on terror”).

Some of them have been “authorized” by Congress, using a device called an AUMF (Authorization for the Use of Military Force) adopted by Congress. In many of those instances, presidents have said they would be happy to have an AUMF but asserted that they didn’t really need one. The use of American military force is killing people in far-away places most days, sometimes through drone strikes, sometimes with one-off bombing raids to “send a message” to some bad-guy dictator, sometimes with Americans providing mostly back-up support but often more than that.

It’s possible to argue, and it’s not a bad argument, that a congressional authorization to use military force is just another name for a declaration of war, although how it improves upon the constitutional language (“declare war”) is unclear to me. But if that’s your fallback, you still have to deal with the countless military actions taken without even an AUMF.

No president has asked for an actual declaration of war since the end of World War II. World War II morphed into the Cold War, which was not exactly a real war in the traditional sense but produced many actual shooting and fighting wars, some of them “authorized,” all of them undeclared.

This is the new normal. The Constitution was not technically or literally amended to remove the requirement of a congressional declaration before embarking on a war, but it might as well have been. The new normal fits with eerie accuracy the imaginary normal of foreign/military affairs in “1984,” as foreseen in 1948, by Orwell.

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Nick Foreman on 07/26/2017 - 12:21 pm.

    The need to return to the requirement

    For a declaration of war from Congress is absolutely necessary to make sure that an attack against Iran or North Korea or Russia is not just left to the decision of the president, easily one as pathetic as this fool. No single power to a person who can’t spell nuclear weapons.

  2. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 07/26/2017 - 03:07 pm.

    No, no. Not Orwell’s 1984. Not a return to our old concepts of war.

    We’ve regressed to totally religious wars, whether Judeo-Christian-Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist or some combination of those and others, like Capitalism, and there is no hope of stopping as folks have embraced a zero-sum approach to them all that insures a perpetual war footing.

    I suppose we’d have some hope of settling down to some other state of affairs if we made world federalism actually work in non-zero-sum fashion in Korea and elsewhere, but since we can’t manage federalism ourselves here in the United States, there is not much hope.

    Human beings will probably go extinct before we solve any of these problems, hopefully before functioning ecosystems disappear from Earth.

  3. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 07/26/2017 - 05:12 pm.


    Are you a strict constructionist?

    I thought the constitution means whatever you want it to mean or it means what it never meant?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/27/2017 - 09:39 am.

      If you thought that, then you were wrong

      There is the small problem of deciding what words and statements meant 200+ years ago in contexts that are no longer clear.
      If you read the document literally but according to the current use of language, you will misread it.
      For example, the Second Amendment.
      In current usage and context, ‘A well regulated militia’ is an oxymoron, since there are no legal militias. Courts (at least for most of our history) have consistently ruled that the phrase currently refers to the National Guard, and thus that States have the right to raise, train and arm National Guard units.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/27/2017 - 11:41 am.


      “I thought the constitution means whatever you want it to mean or it means what it never meant?” The only people who have ever said that are the same ones who called Obama the Messiah: conservatives being unusually heavy-handed with their sarcasm.

      The Constitution explicitly grants the power to declare war to Congress. The only room for interpretation there is when is a declaration of war necessary? Hamilton (Federalist 69) distinguished between the “supreme command and direction” of the armed forces and the power to issue a declaration of war.At the time the Constitution was ratified, a declaration of war was a statement that hostilities existed. Originally, it was used to inform the enemy, but that custom had fallen into disuse. The declaration was primarily for domestic consumption. Chancellor Kent noted that a declaration of war was not merely a declaration of hostilities, but it started “a war between all the individuals of the one, and all the individuals of which the other nation is composed.” The “persons and property” of the enemy were subject to detention and capture, under the usages of international law as it existed when the Constitution was ratified.

      So is a declaration of war required for all commitments of military force? Under the strict language of the Constitution, maybe not. Certainly, the Constitution has never been read that way. When the commitment continues for several years (Afghanistan, e.g.), perhaps the answer is different.

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/26/2017 - 06:42 pm.


    On the other hand, the last war in which foreign troops set foot on American soil was the War of 1812 (when the House became White).

  5. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 07/26/2017 - 07:48 pm.

    To put things in perspective:

    The Korean war was engaged by Harry Truman, a Democrat at the behest of the UN.

    The very first non-declared US war was started by John Kennedy; a Democrat. It was expanded by Lyndon Baines Johnson, another Democrat. It was ended by Richard Nixon; a Republican.

    Im not saying Kennedy acted in bad faith, to the contrary I think he was fulfilling his duty. I just wish to add needed context.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/27/2017 - 09:33 am.


      While we did hide behind the UN’s skirts, we did in fact initiate the action.
      Like the current supposed ‘coalition’ where we supply most of the troops and equipment.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/27/2017 - 11:47 am.


      The very first non-declared US war was started against France by President Adams in 1798 (the “Quasi War”). It lasted for nearly two years. Adams was a Federalist, not a Democrat.

      The cause of the war was a reluctance of the US to pay debts to France. Given our current President’s predilection for stiffing creditors . . .

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 07/27/2017 - 03:40 pm.

        The “Quasi war” aka “The pirate war” was composed of French privateers (pirates with papers) and the US Navy dispatched to protect our merchant fleet from attack.

        I don’t think it rises to the level of either Korea or Vietnam as undeclared warfare.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/27/2017 - 04:11 pm.

          Rise to the Level

          There is some minimum level of militarization required before it counts as a war? Do tell. You knew that the US attacked French bases in Haiti during that war, right?

          Okay, leaving aside domestic conflicts and minor imperialist sorties, there were undeclared wars in North Africa (Barbary Wars), Samoa, China, Mexico (20th century border wars), Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Russia. All fought without declarations of war, all before Korea.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/26/2017 - 10:44 pm.

    Not sure I agree

    …with the whole comment, but I think there’s something to Bill Kahn’s suggestion regarding the prominence of religious wars. Religious zealots, evangelical Christian or Shiite Muslim, are interested in neither facts nor tolerance, nor humanity, for that matter, toward people whose beliefs are outside their own narrowly-defined group of acceptable dogma. There are perfectly good reasons why the “establishment clause” is part of the Constitution, though you won’t hear many of them from run-of-the-mill Republicans nowadays.

    Sadly, Mr. Orwell has turned out to be prescient, in regard to war and our use of language (e.g., “alternative facts”).

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/27/2017 - 07:21 am.

    Another factor

    …that Eric didn’t mention, but that may be important, is the influence of the military-industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower warned us about several generations ago. Perpetual warfare fuels a demand for new and improved, or at least more production of existing, weapons, and that means jobs for the people making those weapons. In today’s—or likely, in any—political climate, jobs provide votes. Lots of people owe their livelihoods, homes, cars, boats, etc., to defense industry contracts, and defense contractors make substantial contributions to “select” congressional and senatorial campaigns.

    Yes, Orwell seems to have been disconcertingly accurate, and all that money sloshing back and forth in the economy helps to keep perpetual warfare a viable political option, with something close to guaranteed support from at least that portion of the population that depends upon it for a paycheck.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/28/2017 - 09:19 am.

    I hate to say but declarations ARE the oddity

    If you look back though US history you’ll find that Congress has rarely issued a declaration of War despite numerous American military adventures. We had decades of Indian Wars, most of which were undeclared. Dozens of military operations from Tripoli to Managua were all conducted without any formal declaration of War. I think US presidents have sent troops into combat over 150 times and we’ve had what? 5 or 6 declared wars? This didn’t “start” after WWII, it was a long established precedent.

    The thing that HAS changed is the scale of military operations. One could point out that Viet Nam, and Iraq were much larger scale combat operations that those of undeclared wars prior to WWII. But the nature war itself has been scaling up, we didn’t have our first true World War until 1914. Still, it’s hard to argue that presidents throwing the military around in order to achieve political and economic objectives without getting formal declarations of war is a “new” normal… it’s just kind of… normal.

  9. Submitted by Wes Davey on 07/29/2017 - 02:48 pm.

    “I was born in 1951, the last year of what we call the Korean War.”

    Actually, fighting ended on 27 July 1953 when the armistice was signed.

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