It is not a coincidence that the power to declare war and raise and support armies was given by the Founders to the branch closest and most accountable to the people: the legislative branch. They understood that there is a grave responsibility that comes with the power to send a nations citizens into harms way in service of policies decided without their direct input, and they wanted that power to remain with the branch that the people could hold most easily to account.
Hence, the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, yet designates the president as commander in chief. These dual responsibilities suggest that both branches share a responsibility to the people ordered to defend the nation.
Yet for too long in modern times, Congress has abdicated its shared responsibility to the men and woman of the United States Armed Forces and has instead deferred its obligation to take responsibility for sending them into harms way to the executive branch with disastrous, and largely unchecked, effects.
For instance, without consulting Congress, Trump ordered the killing of Iranian military leader Gen. Qassem Soleimani in January, using as justification the still-in-effect Authorization of Use of Military Force resolutions from 2001 and 2002 intended to allow then-President George W. Bush to pursue those behind the 9/11 attacks and the regime of Saddam Hussein, respectively.
On Thursday, the Senate responded, approving a measure to block the president from engaging in additional hostilities against Iran but only Iran without explicit congressional approval. The measure will now go to the House which passed its own, differently-worded version in January where it, too, is expected to pass.
The White House warned that the Senate’s measure will undermine national security and has threatened to veto it; though eight Republicans voted for it, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes the resolution, possibly giving the president the final say. Congress is nonetheless right to reassert its authority in this realm.
Presidents across administrations have pushed the limits of the post-Vietnam War Powers Act, which required that the executive branch consult with Congress when sending troops into hostilities and to withdraw them unless Congress approves further action. Congress, however, has done little to respond to those expansions of authority, instead passing the authorizations for use of military force in 2001 and 2002, which have now given three presidents cover to engage in operations all around the world with little oversight or scrutiny.
As a country, weve been in this situation before. As a result of the Truman Doctrine, successive presidents asserted their right to put troops into battle without Congressional approval as long as they called it a police action including during the nine years of the Vietnam war. One small town offers a particularly painful glimpse into the high human cost of a war-by-any-other-name: my hometown of Beallsville, Ohio.
Beallsville is a town of roughly 400 people in the center of Appalachian Ohio, roughly 11 miles from the West Virginia border. Like many other places in the region, farms make do on jagged hillsides, and small mountains of coal sit around in piles, ready to be picked up and shipped away. We hold but one, infamous, distinction: We had the highest casualty rate of any community in America during the Vietnam War.
Between 1966 and 1971, Beallsville lost six young men to a war that Congress never fully authorized nor provided much oversight of. And while six may sound like a small number, in a town of roughly 400, each resident was either a friend or neighbor of the families forever changed by Vietnam. (To compare, as The New York Times reported at the time, If New York State had made a proportionate sacrifice for its population, 70 times as many of its young men would have died.)
Jack Pittman died in July 1966 from a shrapnel wound; Duane Greenlee was killed the next month. Charles Schnegg and Richard Rucker died in 1967 and 1968, respectively. After an enemy sniper killed Robert Lucas in 1969, the town pleaded for the Department of Defense to stop sending Beallsville boys to Vietnam. The request was denied, and an additional 35 young men from Beallsville and the surrounding area were drafted in the final years of the war. Phillip Brandon died in 1971.
In this small community, their memories continue to be honored along with the many neighbors and former service members buried beside them. In 2004, a traveling Vietnam Memorial wall replica made its way to Beallsville. Roughly 20,000 area people attended more than the entire population of Monroe County.
The permanent Vietnam Memorial Wall sits only two miles from Capitol Hill. Yet, over time, Congress seems to have mostly forgotten its lessons. By abdicating their war powers to the executive branch, Congress tries to avoid taking responsibility for the difficult decision of when to send young Americans in harms way but they are as responsible as ever for what happens in their name when they dont bother to say yay or nay.
Communities forever scarred by war deserve better.
Thursdays vote to require the president to consult with Congress before further engaging in military actions against Iran was a welcome first step in the legislative branchs acceptance of their constitutional responsibilities. Policymakers should continue to look for new ways to reassert Congress constitutional prerogatives to determine whether, where and when the nation goes to war because, in communities like Beallsville, these institutional disputes are anything but abstract.