A regular visitor at Pen and Sword posited last week that a naval blockade of Iran wouldn’t be an act of war if the UN sanctioned it. I replied that no, acts of war aren’t defined by whether or not the UN or any other international organization sanction them. Dropping a nuke on Tehran would be an act of war even if the UN, the Catholic Church and Oprah Winfrey combined sanctioned it.
That led me to thinking that Memorial Day 2008 would be a good time for a short study of war in the age of American hegemony. War can be a dry subject, but I’ll do my best to keep the discourse lively. I would promise you that the next several hundred words will be more entertaining by far than any lecture you’d ever hear from any professor at any war college in the country, but that promise is so easy to keep it’s not worth the trouble of making.
You and Whose Army?
I read and listened to a lot of horse whinny in the course of pursuing my master’s degree in war more than a decade ago. Today, Jeff Huber’s essential laws of armed conflict are few and simple. First is that, like it or not, the history of humanity is the history of its wars, and the fundamental nature of war (and possibly humanity) hasn’t changed since smart apes first used sticks and bones to beat the monkey snot out of other apes and take their food away from them.
Second, all you really need to remember about the law of armed conflict is that Herman Goering and his pals wouldn’t have stood trial at Nuremburg if Germany had won World War II. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas cooked up the notion of “just war” which essentially stated it was okay to kill people in a war unless the pope said different. In the 21st century, a “legal war” is whatever George W. Bush’s attorney general says it is.
I stole the third and final law from whoever first said that all wars are the same and they’re all different. Anybody who tells you that we’re fighting a totally new kind of war today needs a good long stay in rehab. There’s nothing about any of America’s wars—from our revolution to our world wars to our woebegone war on terrorism—that Thucydides didn’t cover when he wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC, and nothing he wrote about was new then either.
Even so, General Thucydides would consider an exploding arrow shot from a mechanical bird controlled by a man sitting in a room on the opposite side of the world to be a miraculous feat that even his gods could never perform.
From those three laws we can reliably define the nature of the war powers inherent in the office of the president of the United States. The only extra-constitutional powers U.S. Presidents have in wartime—or in peacetime or anytime—are the ones the rest of us let them take.
To make things even more unfathomable, these days we can’t agree on what is or isn’t an actual war.
By Any Other Name
We have a war on drugs and a war on poverty and a war on an ism, yet for many years we called the little misunderstandings we had in Korea and Vietnam “conflicts” and even “police actions.” Congress doesn’t declare war any more; it grants the president the “authorization for use of armed force.” If Congress won’t give this president authorization to send troops into combat, Mr. Bush just has one of his lawyers write up a “finding” for war and signs it, or he has the CIA fight the war in secret, or he just orders U.S. forces to start bombing things right out in the open—like he’s doing presently in Pakistan and Somalia—and dares anybody to say boo about it.
Clausewitz famously said that war is “a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means." Today, however, it’s difficult to identify where other political activities end and war begins.
Under the younger Bush’s stewardship, the Department of Defense has hijacked most of the State Department’s foreign policy functions, leaving our diplomatic force in charge of little more than bureaucratic matters like issuing visas and passports. The Pentagon calls the shots in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to address long standing issues on the African continent, the Bush administration established not a new diplomatic organization, but a new regional military command. In November 2007, The Nation published an article by Danny Glover and Nicole C. Lee that called AFRICOM an “alarming step forward in the militarization of the African continent” and “a dangerous continuation of US military expansion around the globe.”
Nations have traditionally used methods of leverage other than war to impose their will on other nations. Sometimes other means can lead to war; trade wars, for example, can lead to shoves and then to blows rather handily. Nonetheless, a “trade war” is not really a war, mainly because neither nation in a bi-lateral trade war is a) using physical force to impose its will on the other nation or b) violating the other nation’s sovereignty. National sovereignty does not include the inalienable right to make someone else trade with you, just as individual sovereignty doesn’t mean the other kids have to give you their lunch money.
“Use of physical force” can be a nebulous concept. In our definition of hegemon era war, “use” of force includes the imminent and real threat of using it. A naval blockade, for example, may turn out to be effective without the imposing naval forces ever having to stop and board a vessel or fire upon it, especially if the target nation chooses not to challenge the blockade. But if you’re conducting a blockade and the time comes to shoot at another vessel, you need to shoot; otherwise you’ve just shot yourself in the sex organ.
A blockade also infringes on the other nation’s sovereignty in ways that aren’t as obvious as the way invasions or air strikes do. A comprehensive diagram of the logic behind sovereignty theory would involve more wire than it takes to light up Manhattan. Let’s just say that national sovereignty derives from individual sovereignty and it’s about granting autonomy and social compacts and everybody’s right to exist and pursue their self-interests as long as they don’t forget how to play nice and so on. Part of national sovereignty allows you to have access to international waters, and when I deny you that access, I’m committing an act of war against you.
The tricky part of this sovereignty distinction between war and peace in the American hegemon age is that the sovereignty model is crumbling. That phenomenon has been the same in previous hegemonic eras. When one nation decisively dominates all others, balance of power moderations erode and individual as well as national sovereignty (of nations other than the hegemon, of course) become quaint notions, and as liberal republics approach hegemony, they also become tyrannical. The Roman Empire and Napoleon’s France are two of the more obvious examples of this.
American hegemony has followed a similar pattern. The neoconservative Bush executive branch has displayed an increasing disregard for international laws and treaty agreements and consistently resists any check on executive power by the legislative and judicial branches. Individual rights of U.S. citizens have been summarily dismissed in the name of what should be a global police action against the crime of terrorism that the administration chooses to call a war. As America’s relationships with other nations have taken an increasingly “my way or the highway” tone, even tools of statecraft like diplomacy, information sharing and economic leverage take on the nature of warlike measures.
One fervently hopes that a change of regime come November can reverse America’s vector toward Orwellian dystopia, but one must also keep in mind Jeff Huber’s one and only law of American politics:
Lord John Acton did not say that, “Absolute power tends to corrupt Republicans.”
Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes at Pen and Sword . Jeff's novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books) is on sale now.