Do modern weapons render Congress

obsolete—or more needed than ever?


NEWS: Trump leaning toward nuclear warfare


A WALL commentary

An argument made by some who seek to justify presidential wars is set forth by a member of the War and Law League:

In challenging people's modern view that the President is “in charge of war,” I personally have come across an argument I find difficult to counter, although I try:

When the Constitution was established, war was predictable and relatively slow in coming; therefore, there was ample time for Congress to deliberate and vote on whether to engage.

Today, at the push of a button, entire cities can be destroyed without warning. There is little time between spy satellites detecting an oncoming missile and the ability of another missile being launched to destroy it. Therefore, the subject of declaring war and the subject of a sudden attack have become conflated. — Marcy Berry.

In 1787 communication was by mail, and travel by representatives from the 13 states to their meeting place was rough and slow. An invasion in those days might have been easier for a foe to accomplish than such an action today. Indeed the only invasion of the United States proper by foreign armed forces after the American Revolution took place during the War of 1812, a war declared by Congress.

When they established the supremacy of the Congress in deciding war and peace, the Framers of the Constitution understood that the president might repel a sudden attack on the United States during a congressional absence. In modern terms, it could involve shooting down an attacking war plane or missile. So far, it has never happened.

Setting aside the War of 1812, the Civil War, and for a moment World War II, the many conflicts of the United States and acts of war have not been defensive. The U.S. has gone abroad and attacked other countries.

On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes did attack the U.S. Territory of Hawaii. Yet even then, the president did not fight back until Congress duly voted to declare war on Japan. (Some say the attack was no surprise to Franklin D. Roosevelt but encouraged as part of his plan to plunge the pro-peace U.S. into World War II. Whether war on Germany and Italy was necessary has also been debated.)

Is there more justification for a quick, one-man war decision in modern times — a decision that could take millions of lives — than there was in 1787? Harry Truman's impulsive decision to send fighting forces to Korea in 1950 resulted in a three-year war, millions of fatalities, and a political stalemate. U.S. troops are still there 67 years later. Vietnam and other presidential wars, in imitation of Truman’s war, have brought more casualties in the millions.

George W. Bush — the self-styled “decider” — decided the attack on Afghanistan. It was hardly “defensive” as claimed, after weeks of planning following the 9/11 terror, which had been perpetrated by Saudis mostly and no Afghans. Sixteen years later the undeclared war on Afghans goes on.

Bush Jr. decided also to commit aggression against Iraq in 2003. He clothed it in lies of “weapons of mass destruction” and ties to terrorists. U.S. forces are still there 14½ years later.

Leave all war decisions to the erratic Trump, and the result may be worse, perhaps nuclear.

NEWS: No sooner was that last sentence written, when news emerged that the Trump administration leaned toward producing “tactical” nuclear weapons of an unspecified “low yield” and letting military commanders decide their use. How such use would keep from escalating to large-scale nuclear war was not explained.

Donald Trump once infamously asked military brass about nuclear weapons, “If we have them, why don’t we use them?” (That was Harry Truman’s attitude.)

The International Court of Justice ruled in 1996 that the use of nuclear weapons would violate international law, particularly rules of humanitarian law. Threatening to use them (i.e. planning to massacre a population as “deterrence”) was unlawful too, the court found.

What about little bombs, which incinerate fewer people — aren’t they OK? The court said, “The destructive power of nuclear weapons cannot be contained in either space or time…. They have the potential to destroy all civilization….”

The executive decisions are always to attack someone, U.S. antiaggression treaties to the contrary notwithstanding. The wars are so easy to start but so hard to end. And modern wars, which inevitably involve much of what the military calls “collateral damage,” i.e. the killing and maiming of civilians, turn out far worse than 18th century wars, in which soldiers with muskets fought each other on battlefields.

Could the U.S. possibly make any worse decisions if presidents truly left matters of war and peace to Congress, as the Constitution’s Founders intended?

Nor can the country depend on electronic devices in making its decisions. The world came close to annihilation multiple times when warning systems mistook wild geese, meteor showers, a war-games tape, and a weather satellite as missile attacks. Thousands of other false alarms have occurred, as Dr. Helen Caldicott has written. (See “Our two-faced policy on nuclear weapons,” particularly the section headed “A-forces on high alert still peril us all.”)

Letting one man decide at the spur of the moment whether to cause the destruction of all human life is the most perilous and the stupidest possible arrangement for a supposed republic, governed by law, let alone a flagrant violation of the Constitution.

That potential violation and cataclysmic result is addressed by congressional bills S. 200 and H.R. 669 introduced by Massachusetts Senator Edward J. Markey and Rep. Ted Lieu of California (33rd CD, Los Angeles) in January 2017. Either bill would prohibit a president from conducting “a first-use nuclear strike unless such strike is conducted pursuant to a declaration of war by Congress that expressly authorized such strike.” (SeeDon’t let the president start a nuclear war!”)

Committees have bogged down both bills. Too many legislators seem to care more about politics (the bills’ authors are Democrats in a GOP-controlled Congress) than about a single individual usurping their war power and possibly extinguishing life on earth.

We have far more need for the collective, rational judgment of Congress these days than they had in 1787.

(See that proposition argued in excerpts by Fisher, Javits, and Wormuth & Firmage, especially the last paragraph of each passage, in “Modern Commentators on the Constitution’s War Power.”)

By Paul W. Lovinger, Sept. 14, 2017