The Libyan War

2011/03/29

In recent years, it has become fashionable in our Republic to refer to military actions using terms other than “war” – some of these include “military intervention,” “police action,” and others. I recently had a discussion with a friend on this very topic regarding the current situation in Libya; he was of the opinion that since “all” we are doing is enforcing a no-fly zone (and occasionally targeting Libyan ground forces), we are not engaged in a war, just engaging in patrols. I think these terms create a false distinction between “minor” military actions and warfare itself. Granted, I do not believe that a formal “declaration” of war is necessary for approving the use of military action, I do believe that we should be fully cognizant of how serious it is anytime we authorize the use of military force.

Perhaps the clearest expression of this idea can be found in Carl von Clausewitz’s famous treatise, Vom Krieg (On War) – so clear, in fact, that Clausewitz states in the first page of his treatise,

War is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale. If we would conceive as a unit the countless numbers of duels which make up a War, we shall do so best by supposing to ourselves two wrestlers. Each strives by physical force to compel the other to submit to his will: each endeavors to throw his adversary, and thus render him incapable of further resistance. War therefore is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will. (Chapter 1, §2, Definition of War)

Furthermore, Clausewitz goes on to state,

We see, therefore, that War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means. All beyond this which is strictly peculiar to War relates merely to the peculiar nature of the means which it uses…but however powerfully this may react on political views in particular cases, still it must always be regarded as only a modification of them; for the political view is the object, War is the means, and the means must always include the object in our conception. (Chapter 1, §24, War is a mere continuation of policy by other means)

True, we do not have a formal declaration of war in the case of our actions in Libya, but the President himself has made very clear that we do have specific goals in mind with regard to the current Libyan leadership, and that we are more than willing to apply force to compel the latter to agree with these goals. Another argument my friend brought up is that what we are currently doing in Libya is not a total war in the same vein as our actions in the two “great” wars of the 20C (World Wars I & II); obviously, this is the case, but it does not change the fact that we do have a relatively specific political goal in mind, and that we are willing to apply force to achieve said political goal. At the very least, by Clausewitz’s abstract definition, we are at war – just a “low-intensity” one.

That being the case, it is important that we clearly articulate our goals, and how far we are willing to go to achieve them; the President has just recently gone a long way towards defining those, though one could be excused for criticizing him for taking an inexplicably lengthy amount of time to state these explanations. A common problem that continues to plague both our continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is that we have never been particularly clear about our goals in either conflict, and as a result, have found it difficult to extricate ourselves from either. We should also carefully consider how we proceed from here; we have already chosen sides in what is essentially a civil war – obviously, there will be a winner and a loser, and it would be well that our “horse” end up as the winner in this case, but we must be clear about how far we are willing to go in order to affect that outcome. We must also take care that the faction we support turn out to be, at the very least, no worse than the current regime (ideally, of course, it should be better) – else we will have spent a great deal of treasure (and, potentially, blood as well) for little to no gain at all.

As to the criticisms that the President should’ve sought a formal declaration of war from Congress, generally I think this is an overstated issue. True, the Federal Constitution does explicitly mention declaring war as one of the enumerated powers of Congress (and hence, one of it’s identified – as opposed to inferred – powers), it is important to note that the Constitution does not specify the form of said declaration – i.e. that it must take the form of an act, or that there must be a formal “ceremony” as that which preceded the U.S. entry into WWII. One can also argue that even sans an official Congressional declaration, the very act of authorizing the use of force – and / or paying for it via continuing appropriations – constitutes an implied declaration of war by the Congress, even if a formal document does not exist. It should also be noted that in the case of the two most recent (and unpopular) wars, both received the support of the vast majority of Congress – and, at the time, were reasonably popular with the American People. Obviously, both have become much less popular over time, but this seems more a matter of buyer’s remorse than anything else. Given the support that both of these wars had at their inceptions, it seems likely that in both cases, a formal declaration of war could’ve been sought and approved – which would likely not change the disapproval of each now expressed by the People and by the Congresscritters who have now conveniently “forgotten” their previous agreement with the need for military action in both cases.

Finally, it is important that we never forget that military action, no matter how we refer to it, places our fighting women and men at risk, and that we should carefully consider our decisions accordingly. As Robert Heinlein stated in his novel Starship Troopers, “…you are just as dead if you buy a farm in an ‘incident’ [‘patrol’ or ‘police action’] as you are if you buy it in a declared war.”

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