A Modest Proposal

The Founding Fathers were in no way ambiguous about armies and warfare.  One of their objections to the policies of King George III expressed in the Declaration of Independence was that "He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the consent of our legislators."  Another grievance was that he had employed mercenary soldiers against the citizens of the thirteen colonies.  The Founders distrusted standing armies because those forces could be used to overawe the citizenry and to support autocratic rule.  They were particularly aggrieved by the ability of a king to use those armies without any restraint to engage in what today might be called "wars of choice."  The Declaration of Independence cites King George’s using his forces in a de facto declaration of war against his own subjects in America to include incitement of Indian tribes to attack and massacre those living in frontier areas.

The United States went on to win its freedom by the sword but the lessons learned from the War of Independence did not include any consensus that the fledgling nation should have a standing army.  Maintenance of armed and trained militias was the responsibility of the thirteen sovereign states.  While there was a commitment to a common defense if attacked, the Founders of the new United States deliberately made it difficult to go to war.  The Constitution of the United States Article 1, Section 8, is both very terse and very specific about what is required to send American soldiers into combat against a foreign enemy.  It states "The Congress shall have power to declare war" and the notes of the constitutional convention debate make clear that the Founders regarded the legislature as the voice of the people, meaning that only the people of the United States could make such a declaration.  The President explicitly was denied that power due to fear of concentrating so much potential for mischief in one elected official.   At the constitutional convention, only one delegate argued that the chief executive should have war-making authority.  He was greatly outnumbered by the opponents of that view, including Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, George Mason, and James Madison.  Their views were summed up by Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts who said "he never expected to hear in a republic a motion to empower the Executive alone to declare war."  The Founders knew that endless warfare on the European model would be the death of the American republic and its liberties and they made every effort to avoid it, demanding an open debate and majority vote by the United States Congress as a precondition. 

As has often been the case, the Founding Fathers knew their history.  The Federalist Papers discuss many of the famous leagues and confederacies of the ancient world, examining carefully how they came to grief.  The greatest republic of all time, that of Rome, had been destroyed by a series of leading generals who had been able to subvert legal restraints by parlaying military success and fear of foreign threats into control of the deliberative assemblies.  Indeed, one might reasonably argue that the United States has followed the Roman model.  During a period of more than 150 years, Congress generally observed the law of the land, declaring war against the British in 1812, against Mexico in 1846, in the Spanish-American War in 1898, and for both the First and Second World Wars.  But during the past sixty years, beginning with Korea, Congress has not bothered to exercise its constitutional responsibility.  Even though there has been almost continuous conflict worldwide in which tens of thousands of Americans have died there has never been a congressional debate or vote declaring war.  During the past ten years the so-called "unitary executive" concept and a series of overmighty generals and proconsuls have come together to create a situation in which the Chief Executive can unilaterally decide to commit American soldiers to combat anywhere in the world.  The American President has turned himself into the "decider" when it comes to the issue of war and peace, with Congress serving as little more than a claque approving the decision, resulting in policies that in no way serve the United States national interest and that have meant death and impoverishment for hundreds of thousands of people.

Clearly the United States Constitution was not tough enough to stop a corrupt and pliable Congress from enabling executive creep so I would like to submit a modest proposal for a new Constitutional Amendment.  As there are already 27 amendments it would be number 28.  Amendment 28 will require that the decision for going to war be restored to the people of the United States and will also provide a breathing period before enacting such a declaration, making more difficult possible government manipulation of a Gulf of Tonkin "they attacked us" type situation.  It will state "Any use of American soldiers, sailors, marines, or airmen outside of the United States to engage in armed conflict will require a national referendum to approve said action.  All American citizens will be required to vote or be subject to appropriate penalties to force compliance in recognition of the fact that every voice must be heard because war is destructive both of republican liberties and the lives and well being of each citizen.  The balloting will be open and public as the decision regarding the lives and deaths of American citizens should not be concealed behind a secret ballot.  If a majority approves of war, those voting yes will be required to report to the nearest Selective Service branch to register all those between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five in their families as ready and available for military service.  They will also be required to register with the Department of the Treasury for the payment of the special subventions that will be needed to fully fund the conflict for as long as it lasts.  Those who vote against war will be regarded as conscientious objectors and will not be subject to conscription or to extraordinary taxation to support the conflict."

Okay readers, I know many will object to being required to vote and the rejection of a secret ballot.  I know Amendment 28 is not going to happen but there has to be a restoration of some form of transparency and accountability in America’s obstinately interventionist foreign policy.  Why the United States persists in foreign and security policies that do not serve the nation is very clear.  It is because currently the legislators in Washington and the hardliners back home in their constituencies who are eager to bash the Muslims and kick butt generally have absolutely no serious stake in the wars that they promulgate. They are not being taxed to pay for them and, by and large, their children are not being used as cannon fodder.  It is other people’s kids who are paying that price while the wars themselves are being funded on an international credit card with the tab being picked up temporarily by Asians who have been foolish enough to buy US Treasury bonds.  Some measure to actually make the people who want war take the risks and pay the bills is long overdue.  My bet is that if we were to make war more personally painful the percentage of the public calling for attacks on Iran, Yemen, and Somalia to expand the ongoing splendid adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan would drop to single digits.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.