Friday, December 23, 2011

Another way to think about War Powers: Why the Small Wars Matter

Mary L. Dudziak

Stephen Griffin has been laying out his ideas about war's impact on the constitutional order in a series of posts.  Important to his analysis is the distinction between different kinds of conflicts.  For example, Griffin writes:   "Wars, 'real' wars, pose unique risks for American constitutionalism. Small-scale presidentially-ordered military strikes in support of rebels do not."  While I look forward to the rest of the argument, many historians of war look not to the distinctions between different kinds of conflicts, but instead to the cumulative effect of decision-making in conflicts, large and small, on the politics and culture of contemporary decisions about the use of force.

In a discussion of whether the U.S. war in Iraq has been worth the cost, Andrew Bacevich writes:
The disastrous legacy of the Iraq War extends beyond treasure squandered and lives lost or shattered. Central to that legacy has been Washington's decisive and seemingly irrevocable abandonment of any semblance of self-restraint regarding the use of violence as an instrument of statecraft. With all remaining prudential, normative, and constitutional barriers to the use of force having now been set aside, war has become a normal condition, something that the great majority of Americans accept without complaint. War is U.S.
While Bacevich takes up a war that is "real" for Griffin, historian Marilyn Young argues that the small wars have played an important role in this normalization of the use of force, and especially the insulation of the American people from American war politics.  In the many American military interventions of the Cold War, she argues, post–World War II administrations “had to create a public
tolerance for war as normal rather than aberrational, so normal that after a while only those who were actively engaged in fighting it—and their families—noticed it was being fought at all.” 

This consciously facilitated insulation of the American people from American wars, I argue, has helped to atrophy political restraints on the war powers.  And so the "real" wars that have impacted the workings of our constitutional order include the small wars and the "forgotten wars" that lead us to Bacevich's critique, that "war has become a normal condition, something that the great majority of Americans accept without complaint."

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