Hasty Ruminations

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

War: The Continuation of Politics By Other Means


I have been concerned for a while about the way we Americans have gone to war, since WWII. I was trained as a professional warrior at Annapolis, where I also spent some time reading the U.S. Constitution. (Not the USS CONSTITUTION, which is a ship.)

I subscribe to a strict interpretation of the Constitution. That is because I think that the framers put as much emphasis as possible on making checks and balances, and the separation of powers, very strict. In the matter of war, the Constitution simply says that the Congress shall have the power to declare war. It does not specify that the Executive must approve, as it does in the case of laws. They wanted the people's representatives to declare war, because next to sedition, losing a war (or abusing one) would be the most sure fire way to destroy the great Republic and their experiment in democracy. So, Americans have to REALLY want a war (as determined by their repsentatives assembled in Congress) or there cannot be one.

We have formally declared war in only a few instances: against England (War of 1812), Mexico (Mexican-American War), Spain (Spanish- American War), Germany and Austro-Hungary (World War I), and Japan, Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania (World War II).

All of the other actions - Vietnam, Iraq, Barbary States, Lebanon, Panama, Persian Gulf 1, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, etc. - have received Congressional support but not a formal war declaration. Except for Korea. Harry Truman engaged in the "police action" under the authority of the U.N. Charter and without Congressional approval. It was never ended with a treaty.

Some say that declarations of war are antiques. They aren't necessary anymore since the rules of war are well understood.

I'm not so sure. The current one has raised a lot of questions concerning treatment of prisoners, the rights of detainees to attorneys, and the role of the Army as policemen.

And while Congress has authorized and tried to control (in the War Powers Act) the President to engage American troops in various conflicts, I am not convinced that the full checks and balances contemplated by the Constitution are preserved. Instead, they concocted an abdication of responsibility. Debating war is a painful process, and the Government will never impose something painful on itself. Unless We the People insist.

As with most things governmental, if We the People are to prevail, we need to capture the purse strings. Here's a way to acknowledge the government's apparent fondness for undeclared wars (as determined by our Congress and Presidents) while asserting the People's needs:

  1. In the case of a Pearl Harbor, go through the formal steps and declare war. Then, the Congress produces a written Declaration of War, and we have a war. Now, funding comes from the Treasury as provided by Congress and things are normal.
  2. For lesser affairs, where the administration wants to bomb a dictator, to intervene in a foreign civil war, to stop drugs - in any of dozens of actions we have already taken or might take, including that vague War on Terror and it's brothers, the War on Poverty and the War on Cancer - well, they find it uncomfortable to ask for a formal declaration, because they might not get it. So, if they cannot or will not get a formal declaration of war, no appropriated funds (tax dollars) can go to the action.
  3. So, how can they fund it? Remember the war bonds of WWII? Patriotic Americans bought war bonds to raise money quickly for the war. At first they were called Defense Bonds, U.S. Government issued bonds to finance the war effort, but the name was changed to War Bonds after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The bonds were set to yield 2.9% after a ten year maturity.
  4. This time, the Administration must make its case for each different war action, and sell bonds for each one. If it were in effect now, Rumsfeld would have to convince Americans to buy Iraq War Bonds to pay for the troops he has in Iraq. To the extent we believe it's in the U.S.'s best interest, we believe that he's the right guy to run it, and we believe he has a plan to win and a plan to get out, we might buy his bonds. The government in return doesn't pay us interest, but it does give a tax credit for the amount we pay. Once the money is gone, they have to sell more bonds, or get out of Iraq. It is our way of expressing our will on each action.
  5. Unscrupulous politicians (what? NO SUCH THING!!) might enlist their millionaire gangsters to buy lots of bonds for unsavory wars. We still have our reps in Congress who can cancel the sale of bonds in cases where the national interest is not served by the proposed undeclared war.

Why go through all of this? There are several advantages, I think:

  • Those in favor of the action pay for it with their taxes, effectively. They don't pay more than they would have under today's system.
  • Those against the action do not pay for it, and their taxes cannot be used for it.
  • Either group can change its mind as the events proceed, and vote with their wallets.
  • The checks and balances to prevent frivolous war are back in effect - not presently the case.
  • The administration will need to prioritize which actions to pursue; how to contain costs; how to get out quickly while there are still funds. No more "blank check" for DOD!
  • The basic costs of the military - personnel, training, hardware, bases and infrastructure, etc. - remain funded by the Treasury under appropriations. Only the operational expense needs to be paid for by the bonds. Flying B-2 bombers from Missouri to Baghdad and back for each sortie - as was done in this war - is a very costly operational expense which DOD may rethink. So is stationing an aircraft carrier off Somalia "just in case".
  • And, foreign governments who want to pay us as mercenaries could do so. They just don't get the tax credit, because they don't pay taxes.

There's probably a lot of loopholes and aspects I haven't addressed or thought about. But, I think that Congress and the President have let us down in this area and we need to get control over these "police actions" once and for all.

My two cents, anyway.


  • At 10:28 PM, Blogger Stew Magoo said…

    Greg, that's outstanding. I started to work on a post on ending the war in Iraq and I'm not done butchering it yet, this is really a great idea. Seriously.

    Not seriously, I'm also composing a really neat spam for you on flyswatters and a new foot fungus ointment. I think you'll like it.

  • At 9:25 AM, Blogger Greg Finnegan said…

    Thanks, Stew.

  • At 10:37 PM, Blogger Mellie Helen said…

    Instead of an insightful response to your well thought-out post, I will supply you with an anecdote...

    In our home, we have been watching "Walt Disney Treasures: On The Front Lines". It's a wonderful two-disk collection of works made by the Disney studios during the war years, and features many inspirational shorts designed to encourage people to buy war bonds.

    My son, who is about to turn six, has decided that his entire piggy bank savings *must* be used towards buying war bonds, to help our country. I tried to explain to him that they don't really have war bonds for sale right now; that was for a war many years ago. He is adamant and unshakable: "Mommy! We MUST help our country beat the axis!!"

    Guess the power of those Disney shorts holds up over half a century later!

  • At 10:54 PM, Blogger Greg Finnegan said…


    Astro can still buuy antique Disney war bonds. Buy some now, and sell them to collectors to pay for his college education later!


  • At 11:17 PM, Blogger Greg Finnegan said…

    "Buuy", of course, should be "buy". I don't know why I suddenly shifted into Dutch.

  • At 12:36 AM, Blogger Leftie said…

    Problem w/bonds is that they're the same ol' borrow'n'spend scam the Republicans have been running (every chance they've had) since 1982. Bonds are gov't debt, payable from future tax revenues. Every $ that has to go toward the interest is a $ that won't be available to pay for education, infrastructure, health care - you name it. So not only are your kids & mine being asked to put their lives on the line in Iraq - their future is being mortgaged away as well.

    The people who say they support the "war on terror" should be willing to pay for it NOW. If the world is truly "a different place since 9/11," then surely the folks who are so concerned about "homeland security" should be willing to make the kinds of financial sacrifices that our parents & grandparents made during WWII. (It's not like they're being asked to go back to food rationing.) If they're not willing to pay for it out of their own pockets, then it's time to bring the troops home.

  • At 8:10 PM, Blogger brendalove@gmail.com said…

    I hate war. I wish the whole thing was over with.

  • At 8:10 PM, Blogger Greg Finnegan said…

    Leftie, the bonds I propose are not interest bearing. They become current liabilities against tax revenues as soon as a person buys them. The produce a one-for-one tax credit, without interest, so there is no impact on future tax revenues, except that there is a lag between buying them and calculating the buyer's tax liability to apply the credit.

  • At 10:06 PM, Blogger Stew Magoo said…

    Ohhh Leftie, you said a mouthful.

    Hey, I hear that there was a conspiracy on 9/11 and that Bush is actually BEHIND the attacks. Have you heard about this?

  • At 10:55 PM, Blogger Greg Finnegan said…

    Yes, Leftie makes some good points.

    I don't know if I believe that W was behind the attacks. If he did it himself, maybe; but if he got Rumsfeld involved, the planes would probably have missed the buildings, it would have cost four times the budget, and Donald would still be making his grimacing faces. If he had Cheney do it, who knows what other cities would have also been hit by mistake?


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