At a military reunion near Jacksonville, Florida veterans of the Florida Air National Guard’s 125th Fighter Wing Security Forces recently gathered. Food and beverages flowed as did the special camaraderie between men and women who’ve served together in uniform. There were remembrances of those who had passed on, lots of back slapping, and “war stories.” Many in the unit had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was obvious that all were genuinely proud to have served and would serve again willingly in a second. These men and women have every reason to be proud.
However, they and every veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also have every reason to feel insulted by presidential candidate and U.S. Congressman Ron Paul. With his recent rise in the Iowa polls, Paul has been heavily criticized for his foreign policy views and past incendiary racist comments made in his newsletter. Almost lost in this din are his repeated characterizations of the wars as “illegal.” These statements are a personal affront to every veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
After all, if the wars were truly illegal, it would follow that our veterans who prosecuted them must be criminals because American soldiers are duty bound under the military’s Uniform Code of Military Justice to refuse to carry out any illegal order. Moreover, not only would the aiding of the prosecution of an “illegal war” itself be illegal, it would be a clear violation of the solemn oath taken by every military service member. That oath requires them to uphold the constitution and to follow lawful orders. Engaging in illegal wars would violate both precepts. So, Rep. Paul implies that every veteran, because of their service in the wars, has violated the law – and broken their word of honor.
The attempts by Congressman Ron Paul to build his political power base by criticizing the wars may be good politics. But doing so by erroneously calling the wars illegal is an attempt to build his base at the expense of the honor of our troops. That is wrong. Our veterans are neither criminals nor dishonorable for having served.
Let’s be clear: Rep. Paul is not just making a claim that the wars are ill advised. Time after time Rep. Paul has demanded an end to the “illegal” wars. He believes the wars are illegal because the congressional authorization for them did not actually say “declaration of war.” His argument is historically and factually inaccurate. It belies a profound ignorance of military culture and history from one who would be Commander in Chief. After all, the military courts of every branch of service as well as the U.S. Supreme Court have held the wars to be perfectly legal. And so they are.
Though Paul has been venerated for his support of and knowledge of the U.S. Constitution, his assertions that the wars are illegal show him to be lacking in understanding of that hallowed document. In military culture and history, the current congressional authorizations for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan constitute a type of declaration of war known as a “contingent” or “conditional” declaration.” The founding forefathers would have been very familiar with it as it is probably as ancient as warfare itself.
By definition, a contingent declaration of war does not explicitly declare war since it is contingent upon events that have yet to transpire. Both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison took the United States to war under similar congressional authorizations during the First and Second Barbary Wars. Pointedly, they wrote the constitution. They presumably had an understanding of what the document meant and saw no reason to balk at sending U.S. forces into battle over the omission of the phrase “declaration of war.” A Congressional Research Service report on the subject calls these declarations and several hundred others from our history “authorizations” to distinguish them from the formal declaration of war. In all cases, they are deemed to be legal uses of force under the constitution. They all constitute a form of declaration of war thereby triggering implementation of the laws and customs of war between powers and on the battlefield.
Clearly, while Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution grants congress the power to declare war, the exact format for a declaration of war was not specified. That was very wise on the part of the founders because there are several other types of declaration of war. Most do not even include the phrase “declaration of war,” or “declare war.” It seems the founders meant to let Congress decide how best to exercise this power. Of the types of declaration of war, one type is the “constructive declaration of war.” In it, hostilities have already commenced. The “ultimatum” is another type. In it, the previously discussed contingent declaration is made, but with the inclusion of a time limit. For example “withdraw your forces within forty eight hours or else ……”
Congressman Paul really seems confused by the type of war declaration that history calls the “formal declaration of war.” Roosevelt’s “Date That Will Live in Infamy” speech after Pearl Harbor sought such a declaration. Paul would like every war to start with a similar declaration by Congress. The problem with that view, and likely the reason why the founders of this republic did not specify it, is simply that formal declarations of war also are often, but not always, made after hostilities have already commenced! As such, formal war declarations are often more of a great collective war cry by the nation concerned calling for blood vengeance rather than a legal notice of the commencement of the state of war. Four of our five formally declared wars were declared after hostilities had already commenced at some level.
Congressman Paul can be forgiven for being wrong, but we are right to question both his knowledge of the military and his reputation as a scholar of the constitution. As a veteran himself who served as a flight surgeon in the Air Force, he is probably not intentionally insulting the honor of our soldiers nor intentionally making them out to be criminals. To give the benefit of doubt, he possibly hasn’t even thought about it.
He should. Then he should apologize for the offense. If his insult to our troops is an offense rooted in ignorance, the voters will decide if ignorance of this type is a quality they can abide in a Commander in Chief. No matter the eventual election outcome, those soldiers at the reunion in Jacksonville and all American veterans can rightly be proud of their honorable service.