For two administrations now, one Democratic and one Republican, America has witnessed a slow-motion ceding of constitutionally allocated war powers from Congress to the president during a time of conflict. Despite much hemming and hawing, countless hearings, and even a few floor votes on repealing the outdated post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force, the legislative branch has demonstrated a collective, bipartisan determination that a de facto loss of constitutionally prescribed powers to another branch is preferable to taking a tough political vote. Previously, I have discussed the morally repulsive nature of this determination by America’s elected representatives. What has been largely overlooked is the lesser degree of shared culpability that veterans bear for a tacit acceptance of this status quo.
Many Americans seem to misunderstand the necessity of Congress’s role in providing oversight and direction to the military independent of the executive branch. It almost seems as if both the public and Congress assume military leadership would view congressional action in this regard as an unwelcome interference in military operations. Secretary of Defense James Mattis directly contradicted this notion when discussing an AUMF earlier this year before a Senate committee, stating, “I would take no issue with the Congress stepping forward… I think it’d be a statement of the American people’s resolve if you did so. I thought the same thing for the last several years, I might add, and have not understood why the Congress hasn’t come forward with this, at least the debate.”
Mattis and as well as people like past Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey’s comments are far from the only examples of military political leaders voicing a yearning for competent legislative oversight on military affairs. Indeed, this tradition goes all the way back to the Founders. At the time of the framing of the Constitution in 1787, close to half of the signatories were veterans of the Revolutionary War. It was that particular group of veterans who were among those who included Article I in the Constitution, which reserves for Congress the right to declare war. It is not a stretch, therefore, to assume that our country’s founding veteran generation had as one of its prerogatives establishing Congress’s central role in national security priorities while consciously keeping unilateral war-making authority out of the hands of the executive branch. This tradition continued even into the Vietnam era. Nearly three-fourths of lawmakers who served in the 92nd Congress from 1971-1972 had military experience. Less than a year later in November of 1973, the War Powers Resolution was passed overwhelmingly over President Richard Nixon’s veto, representing the most profound legislative limitation of executive war powers since constitutional ratification.
What then accounts for the morass in which we find ourselves in 2017, with a war in Iraq and Syria passing the three-year mark absent congressional authorization in the form of a specific AUMF? Why has a military response seemingly become the preferred solution to every foreign-policy problem the nation encounters in both Democratic and Republican administrations? One answer may lie in the dearth of veteran representation in Congress. As of the beginning of the 115th Congress earlier this year, only 18.8% of the composition was veterans.
Another problem may lie in the yawning civilian-military divide in which the public appears comfortable almost totally detaching itself from decisions on war and peace that will have little personal effect. With no draft, less than 0.5% of the population in uniform, and taxes largely cut over the post-9/11 period with the cost of ongoing wars being put largely on the nation’s credit card, almost no tangible pain as a result of military action exists for the average voter. In both problems, readily apparent solutions do not present themselves. Raising the percentage of veterans in Congress will take time, and with the military at historically low numerical levels, there is much less of a veteran pool to draw from. Implementing a draft would be impractical in today’s highly trained volunteer military, and while tax raises to pay for increased military spending may make fiscal sense, they would likely be too indirect for the public to strongly equate with military interventions and therefore draw little response.
The solution lies in veteran action. Traditionally, large veteran organizations such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars among others have advocated on Capitol Hill both on issues specific to veterans and those representing the interests of their brethren still serving in uniform. Historically these organizations have provided a voice for the voiceless on active duty due to the nation’s strict rejection of military personnel intervention on matters of policy. Veteran organizations are well-placed to do so as veterans enjoy much of the cross-over social esteem that the military as an institution enjoys. In a recent 2017 Gallup poll, 72% of respondents registered having either “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in the military, a number that stands in stark contrast to Congress’s anemic 12%. It was with great disappointment, therefore, that upon exiting active duty six months ago and examining the legislative priorities of the largest veteran organizations, I found not one mention efforts to encourage Congress to discharge its constitutional obligations toward the public and military through debate and vote on a new AUMF.
Among individual veterans, too, there has been a dereliction of duty. At a recent town hall event, upon asking my district’s congressman how many veterans had called him demanding he take a stand and call for an AUMF vote, he responded that I was the first. This must change. In a country enamored with military conflict that is simultaneously largely detached from its troops, veterans must bridge the gap. They must return to their traditional role of encouraging restraint in military interventions through educating legislators and holding them accountable to providing a check to the executive on matters of war, regardless of what party occupies the White House.
Nathan Smith is a former Army artillery and intelligence officer and veteran of Afghanistan and the counter-ISIS war. He is on Twitter @nate_smith101.