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

Since World War II, there have been no full-scale “declared” wars.

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

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.

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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.

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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.