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Counter Insurgency and the Constitution

Just as it used to be fashionable to talk about the “Revolution in Military Affairs,” defense experts and analysts are now talking about “Counter Insurgency” as the new way of waging war. At the NATO Operational Planning Course in Oberammergau, Germany, and at the Joint Combined Warfare School in Norfolk, Virginia, students learn not about operational planning for warfare, but about planning to cope with insurgencies after combat operations are complete. That each course seems to take for granted our success in major combat operations is cause enough for concern, but a less obvious issue is what this says about our nation’s changing attitude regarding war, and how far that attitude has shifted since the founding of our republic. From President Thomas Jefferson, who built the US Navy to fight the Barbary Pirates, to President William Jefferson Clinton, whose National Security Strategy deepened our commitment to Military Operations Other Than War, to President Barack Obama, whose approach to Libya is making new law, US notions about war have moved farther and farther away from constitutional precepts. For anyone who swore to defend the Constitution, this should be a matter of interest.

There is little in the Constitution that suggests our founding fathers recognized what we now refer to as the spectrum of armed conflict. But the problem is not that our founders failed to equip our leadership for that broad range of activities. The problem is that they never intended us to apply a grey scale to what they saw as a black and white issue. The Constitution recognizes the necessity of war, and sets forth the process for declaring it. What it does not recognize is the state of violent un-war that we have come to accept as normal.

President Roosevelt’s description of December 7th, 1941, as a “day that will live in infamy,” has passed into public memory, but what few recall is that he uttered those words during a joint session of Congress, at which he asked for a declaration of war against the Axis powers. Within an hour, his request had been granted, and the United States focused the totality of its energies on defeating her newly declared enemies. Although we have been involved in considerable military efforts in the intervening 70 years, no other president has repeated that request. Also, not coincidentally, we have never been as focused, or as united in our efforts as we were during the years of World War II.

We entered a state of violent un-war in 1950, with the “police action” in Korea. In the three years of active fighting there we lost 25,600 lives. As if this weren’t enough, there were two other casualties as well, the original intent of the authors of the Constitution, who could not have conceived that such an extensive effort could have been made without a declaration of war, and the notion of war as a unifying national effort, which could not help but wither in the absence of a declaration.

While there may be compelling political reasons to refrain from declaring war, it remains to be seen whether their gains outweigh the disadvantages that come from deviating from the Constitution. Aside from contributing to a growing disregard for the rule of law itself, there are immediate and practical problems that arise from the start. In failing to declare war, we limit ourselves in every way, and we give a free hand to those who oppose us.

This is because the declaration of war is more than just a formality. Not only does it send an unambiguous message to those with whom you intend to fight, providing one last chance for them to meet your demands, but the declaration of war is also a message to ourselves, calling us to unify politically, economically, and emotionally. It is not for nothing that it is Congress that is charged with the responsibility to declare war. In a body known more for deliberation than for deliberate action, a declaration serves to pin them down. But fail to call it war, and we can be certain that neither Congress, nor the US population, nor the strategic levels of our military will be able to fight it as one. War, we know, is supposed to be Hell, but the media and the public are led to expect that contingency operations, and nation building, and Military Operations Other Than War shouldn’t be. The media, which were largely cooperative in the Second World War, see no reason to be so in engagements that are less than war. They (perhaps rightly so) convey a more cynical view of non-war, a view that affects public perception and helps shape political support – or lack of it – for the effort.

 With a skeptical press, a public that is not unified, and politicians who are concerned with making popular choices, we cannot help but be unprepared when the IEDs start dismantling our resolve. We are unprepared because, in the failure to declare war, we have already ceded the initiative, and broadcast a message that tells our enemy and the world that we are unwilling to do whatever it takes to win. Instead of war, we will conduct counter insurgency, but we have failed to recognize a basic fact of life: Insurgency is war, fought at your enemy’s initiative.

And how do we respond to that initiative? With one hand we try to destroy (as we should) but since we are not at war, we try to build with the other hand simultaneously. This does not work. Counter Insurgency doctrine calls for civil efforts to separate the population from the insurgents, but this cannot be done with schools and roads and other bribes. Even if it could, none of our gains would be meaningful, because we would always face the possibility that our enemy could outbid us. Instead, we must convince populations that harboring insurgents is too costly and too dangerous, and the only way to do that is to inflict a lot of pain. My southern relations have no love for Sherman, but even they would agree that he was right about one thing. To end a war quickly, you have to burn your own path to the sea, and much of what you burn through will be civilian infrastructure. This necessity of war is not recognized in counter insurgency, or Military Operations Other Than War.

So failing to follow the Constitution leads us to half-hearted military efforts. This, in turn, leads directly to an inability to bring those efforts to a satisfactory close. If you do not wage war in a manner that is sufficiently brutal, you will undoubtedly fail to press what remains of the enemy’s leadership for a public, complete, and unconditional surrender. This is deeply unfortunate, because nothing else will work to give the population permission to cease its resistance. In the Second World War, we expected tremendous resistance in the Japanese homeland, and when resistance failed, we expected wholesale suicides. We had neither, because we had the presence of mind to make a public ceremony of the Japanese surrender, and because the emperor himself addressed the Japanese people by radio, and told them the war was over. More recently, we have made war (or none-war, if you please) on people who have suffered for years under brutal dictators. Despite the hardening effects of that suffering on their societies, we expected them to give up after only a few hours of battle. We thought that Iraqis, who for years feared crossing the street without permission from Saddam Hussein, would suddenly shift their support to us when he went into hiding. Then we expected it would happen when he died. We’re still wondering why we don’t enjoy broader support from Iraqis. It’s because, no matter how much they feared their leader, he was still THEIR leader, and absent an official surrender from him or his representative, they were left without orders to stop fighting. To put it into Oprah-speak, they have no closure. Without closure, without permission to stop being what they’ve been for 40 years, or, in the case of the Japanese, for centuries, they find it very difficult to make the psychological leap.

We’re of no help to them in making that leap if, while we’re trying to destroy insurgents, we’re building schools and digging wells. We should be doing nothing of the kind. Suffering is what is needed to make the population shift its perspective, and alleviating the suffering at the same time we’re administering it does not help. The Japanese people went from preferring suicide to laying down their arms and accepting occupation because they had suffered grievously first, which made the surrender acceptable and meaningful. If we had been passing out lead suits and airdropping food at the same time we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, our message would have been seriously muddled. It’s no different in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else.

As MacArthur demonstrated, there is plenty of time for magnanimity after the surrender. After the surrender, kindness means something. It’s appreciated. How else can we account for MacArthur’s popularity in Japan after the war? Before the surrender though, these well-intended gestures are seen as a sign of weakness, and they are skillfully exploited.

If our presidents returned to the constitutional practice of calling upon Congress to declare war, we could have a national debate before we committed our military to “kinetic actions.” If Congress declines to honor the President’s request, then the endeavor should be shelved. And if an effort is too insignificant to merit a declaration, then it is most likely not serious enough to warrant the loss of American lives. If, however, Congress consents to declare war, that declaration will have a galvanizing effect on the population, just as it should have a sobering effect on the leadership. Failure to subject ourselves to this process erodes respect for the Constitution we swore to defend, just as it deprives us of these other beneficial effects.

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