It is not a coincidence that the founders gave the power to "declare war" and "raise and support armies" to the branch closest and most accountable to the people: the legislative branch. They understood that a grave responsibility comes with the power to send a nation's citizens into harm's way in service of policies decided without their direct input, and they wanted that power to remain with the branch the people could hold most easily to account.
Hence, the Constitution gives Congress the power to "declare war" but designates the president as commander in chief. The dual responsibilities suggest that both branches share a responsibility to the people who are ordered to defend the nation.
Yet for too long in modern times, Congress has abdicated its shared responsibility to the men and woman of the armed forces and has instead deferred its obligation to take responsibility for sending them into harm's way to the executive branch — with disastrous, and largely unchecked, effects.
For instance, without consulting Congress, President Donald Trump ordered the killing of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani in January, using as justification the still-in-effect Authorization of Use of Military Force resolutions from 2001 and 2002, which were intended to allow President George W. Bush to pursue those behind the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the regime of Saddam Hussein, respectively.
On Thursday, the Senate responded, approving a measure to block the president from engaging in additional hostilities against Iran — but only Iran — without explicit congressional approval. The measure will now go to the House — which passed its own, differently worded version in January — where it, too, is expected to pass.
The White House warned that the Senate's measure would undermine national security and has threatened to veto it; although eight Republicans voted for it, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes the resolution, possibly giving the president the final say. Congress is nonetheless right to reassert its authority in this realm.
Presidents across administrations have pushed the limits of the post-Vietnam War Powers Act, which required that the executive branch consult with Congress when sending troops into hostilities and to withdraw them unless Congress approves further action. Congress, however, has done little to respond to those expansions of authority, instead passing the authorizations of use of military force in 2001 and 2002, which have now given three presidents cover to engage in operations all around the world with little oversight or scrutiny.
As a country, we've been in this situation before. As a result of the Truman Doctrine, successive presidents asserted their right to put troops into battle without congressional approval as long as they called an operation a "police action" — including during the nine years of the Vietnam War. One small town offers a particularly painful glimpse into the high human cost of a war by any other name: my hometown of Beallsville, Ohio.
Beallsville is a town of roughly 400 people in the center of Appalachian Ohio, about 11 miles from the West Virginia border. Like many other places in the region, farms make do on jagged hillsides, and small mountains of coal sit around in piles, ready to be picked up and shipped away. We hold but one, infamous, distinction: We had the highest casualty rate of any community in America during the Vietnam War.
From 1966 to 1971, Beallsville lost six young men to a war that Congress never fully authorized or provided much oversight of. And while six may sound like a small number, in a town of about 400, each resident was a friend or a neighbor of the families forever changed by Vietnam. (To compare, as The New York Times reported at the time: "If New York State had made a proportionate sacrifice for its population, 70 times as many of its young men would have died.")
Jack Pittman died in July 1966 from a shrapnel wound; Duane Greenlee was killed the next month. Charles Schnegg and Richard Rucker died in 1967 and 1968, respectively. After an enemy sniper killed Robert Lucas in 1969, the town pleaded with the Defense Department to stop sending Beallsville boys to Vietnam. The request was denied, and 35 more young men from Beallsville and the surrounding area were drafted in the final years of the war. Phillip Brandon died in 1971.
In this small community, their memories continue to be honored — along with the many neighbors and former service members buried beside them. In 2004, a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall made its way to Beallsville. About 20,000 area people attended — more than the entire population of Monroe County.
The permanent Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall sits only two miles from the Capitol. Yet, over time, Congress seems to have mostly forgotten its lessons. By abdicating its war powers to the executive branch, Congress tries to avoid taking responsibility for the difficult decision to send young Americans into harm's way — but it is as responsible as ever for what happens in its name when it doesn't bother to say "yea" or nay."
Communities forever scarred by war deserve better.
Thursday's vote to require the president to consult with Congress before further engaging in military actions against Iran was a welcome first step in the legislative branch's acceptance of its constitutional responsibilities. Policymakers should continue to look for new ways to reassert Congress' constitutional prerogatives to determine whether, where and when the nation goes to war, because, in communities like Beallsville, these institutional disputes are anything but abstract.
- Anthony Marcum is a fellow for the Governance Project at the R Street Institute.
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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