With U.S. soldiers deployed in indecisive, active combat around the world, it’s long past time for Congress to do its constitutional duty and vote on these wars.
Around 100,000 young Americans have died in combat in dozens of undeclared wars since 1945. Not once since World War II has Congress had the courage to stand up, vote and, as the Constitution stipulates, officially declare a state of war. Sure, there have been some paltry resolutions “authorizing” the president to deploy troops; today these are lifelessly labeled Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMF).
I fought in two marginally legal, morally dubious wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving many friends and part of my soul in that dusty region. Since then, I’ve taught hundreds of cadets at West Point and done my best to raise four sons. My biggest fear — the one that keeps me up at night — is that they, too, will find themselves fighting similarly questionable battles in the same places. If I’m not careful, my own boys may someday wrestle with these same intractable wars, drawn to the army, like so many others, in a military profession that is becoming an increasingly family affair.
This May, my first class of freshman cadets will graduate from the military academy and, realistically, my worst fears are about to be realized. So it goes for a professional soldier. This, after all, is a forever war and America is 17 years in. Meanwhile, an apathetic public yawns.
But the public should care about presidential overreach and the centralization of executive power in matters of war and peace. Even if you support the current occupant in the White House, who’s to say you won’t dislike the next president? Liberals, if you liked Obama unilaterally running the show, remember how you felt when Trump took over the reins — and, for conservatives, vice versa. This ought to be a post-partisan issue. It’s about the separation of powers and checks on the ability of one person to make the single most dangerous decision available to a politician: the choice to send the nation’s sons and daughters off to kill and be killed.
Let’s quickly review the two existing AUMFs that the last three presidents have cited to “authorize” military interventions. First, there was the post-9/11 AUMF. That one allowed the president to take action against those who perpetrated, or harbored those who committed, the terror attacks in New York and Washington. Then, about a year later, Congress passed another AUMF. This one, based on false and misleading intelligence and statements from the Bush administration, essentially allowed the president to overthrow Saddam Hussein and “protect” America from threats emanating from Iraq.
Those two authorizations couldn't possibly justify other ongoing military interventions from West Africa to South Asia, right? According to Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump, that’s exactly what those AUMFs do. Essentially, these vague authorizations have provided illogical, but effective, political cover for three presidents to intervene in the greater Middle East.
Though it’s not an exhaustive list of U.S. military actions in the region, here’s a brief tour of ongoing American interventions:
- Niger: four soldiers died there this year fighting local militias that fancy themselves an African Islamic State franchise;
- Somalia: a special forces operator died fighting local Al Shabaab militants who want to install an Islamist government in East Africa;
- Yemen: the Saudis bombed Shia Houthi militiamen with U.S.-supplied bombs and have unleashed famine and a cholera outbreak;
- Syria: here there are two ongoing wars, one against the Assad government and another against the local Islamic State affiliate;
- Afghanistan: with Al Qaeda mostly long gone, the United States is bombing Taliban fighters and, recently, Chinese separatists.
Many of these elements are dangerous and despicable in countless ways. Yet none of the above groups either a) existed in 2001, or b) had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks. How, then, could these ongoing “hot” wars fall under the two existing AUMFs?
Luckily for today’s politicians, most Americans hardly care about foreign policy and haven't read the AUMFs. They assume the president has good reason to deploy U.S. troops. But America’s brave servicemen and women, showered with phony adulation by the populace, deserve better than that, from Congress and from the citizenry. After asking the near impossible of our troopers — build nations, spread democracy, kill terrorists, counter insurgents — for 17 years, it’s time to debate and decide which of these wars, if any, are worth fighting.
My closing message for those serving in the Senate and House is this: Think these wars are worth fighting? Want to continue chasing “terrorism” indefinitely? Then say that, publicly. Take a courageous stand and cast a vote to declare war. Then, we the American people will do our duty and hold you accountable in 2018 and 2020, at the ballot box.
Maj. Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army officer and regular contributor to various news outlets. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War,“Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]