Memorial Day always brings an edge of sadness but this year, as an era of war winds down after the death more than 6,700 Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, the sense of loss feels especially acute.
For many Americans, the warfare since 2001 seems dubious and divisive for two reasons:
1- We never formally declared war, as the Constitution demands and
2- The Bush administration pushed forward in its battle plans despite a deeply divided public, proceeding into two protracted, polarizing conflicts without unified popular support.
According to conventional wisdom, these two factors make our recent conflicts glaring exceptions to the rule of noble, honorable sacrifice that we celebrate on Memorial Day, leading many observers to make a clear distinction between our losses in the worthy struggles of the past and the waste of life in the misguided battles of the present.
As usual, the conventional wisdom is wrong – not just because it misjudges the essential nature of our most recent wars but because it refuses to acknowledge their unmistakable resemblance to all the controversial conflicts in the nation’s past.
On the question of declaring war, no one would question the status of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as Founding Fathers who understood the Constitution of the new nation they personally shaped, and the fact is that all three of them fought significant undeclared wars during their presidencies.
Adams received a Congressional authorization, but no formal declaration, for the two year (1798-1800) naval war against Revolutionary France that cost the lives of more than 60 American seamen and involved 22 ships – nearly all the strength of the infant U.S. Navy. Jefferson ordered American marines to “the shores of Tripoli,” sending three different fleets half way around the world to battle the Barbary pirates (1801-05); ten years later President Madison commanded ten more warships to repeat the mission. The casualties of those two Middle Eastern conflicts involved more than 100 Americans, killed and wounded.
A century later, another great president who is memorialized on Mount Rushmore conducted an even more costly undeclared conflict: Theodore Roosevelt presided over much of the war against insurrectionists in the Philippines (1899-1902) which claimed 4,165 American lives, a figure nearly identical to our losses in Iraq (but occurring at a time when the American population was less than one third what it is today).
Of course, the most bloody and devastating of all undeclared American conflicts, costing nearly seven times the combined losses of the two undeclared Asian wars in Korea and Vietnam, involved the epochal struggle between the North and the South from 1861-65. Because Lincoln and his associates refused to recognize the Confederacy as a foreign nation, the Union fought the rebels as if they offered only a “civil insurrection” and never sought a declaration of war.
Most scholars and jurists from the earliest days of the Republic have recognized a crucial distinction between the power to “make war” (granted exclusively to the president as commander-in-chief in Article I, Section 2) and the power to “declare war” (granted exclusively to Congress in Article I, Section 8). In nearly all cases of protracted conflict, the president sought support for his war-making powers through Congressional resolutions, authorizations and appropriations, as did President Bush with both Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite indignation from determined anti-war forces, neither of the Presidents Bush broke with long-standing tradition or Constitutional understanding in their handling of two wars in Iraq; nor did Presidents Johnson or Truman with their leadership regarding undeclared conflicts in Vietnam and Korea, respectively.
Moreover, the outrage and resentment inspired by our two most recent wars count as far more typical of the nation’s historic conflicts than most Americans realize. John Adams himself famously estimated that a full third of the Colonial population opposed the patriot cause and at least 50,000 American “loyalists” (or “Tories”) fought alongside of the redcoats and against the idea of independence.
The War of 1812 represented a bitterly contested “war of choice” that ultimately claimed 15,000 American dead, or the equivalent of 700,000 deaths as a percentage of today’s population. The decision to declare war against the former mother country bitterly split the House of Representatives, with a final vote of 79-49. By war’s end in 1815, after the occupation of Washington and the burning of the White House, leaders of New England states felt such bitter disillusionment over the economic hardships for their region that they seriously discussed secession at the Hartford Convention.
Thirty-five years later, “Conscience Whigs” like the one-term Congressman Abraham Lincoln stubbornly criticized the Mexican War and Henry David Thoreau adopted his doctrine of “civil disobedience” to express his opposition.
The Spanish American War of 1898, later remembered as a “Splendid Little War” in the words of Secretary of State John Hay, proved even more controversial in Congress, with only a thin Senate margin (42-35) backing President McKinley’s decision to take on the teetering Spanish Empire. Even the brief, decisive, brilliantly choreographed First Gulf War (1990-91), which led the first President Bush to short-lived approval ratings above 90%, proved a tough sell in a Congress dominated by Democrats. The House division on a resolution authorizing war came to 250-183, with 50 more votes in opposition than for the far more costly, less successful second Iraq War in 2003.
Not even our greatest war leader in our most celebrated national conflict managed to unify public opinion during his lifetime. Despite the retrospective romanticization of the 16th President, Lincoln faced formidable anti-war sentiment throughout the struggle to preserve the union —including brutal, deadly anti-war riots in New York City in the summer of 1863 at the same time federal troops faced Lee at Gettysburg. During the election of 1864, a full 45% of war-weary Northern voters cast their ballots to toss Lincoln out of the White House and to support Democratic promises of an “immediate armistice”; had the eleven states of the Confederacy participated in the election, the Democrats and their peace platform would almost surely have won a popular vote majority.
On Memorial Day, recalling this history helps us place the political pitched battles concerning our two most recent conflicts into more reasonable and balanced perspective. There’s nothing un-American or un-Constitutional, nothing in conflict with decisions of the Founding Fathers themselves, about our troops fighting undeclared campaigns in the 21st Century. Max Boot, in his useful 2002 book The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power, documents more than three-dozen foreign skirmishes in which the nation applied its military power abroad without a formal Congressional Declaration of War. Between 1800 and 1934, the Marine Corps alone staged 180 landings on foreign shores. Some of these deployments worked out brilliantly for the United States, and others undermined the nation’s standing; some began with overwhelming popular support but ended with deep disillusionment, while others inspired initial controversy but ended by uniting the nation in victorious exultation. Historians will argue about how, precisely, to categorize the struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq but it’s inaccurate and dishonest to place them outside the American tradition.