U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Life During Wartime

This Memorial Day, I find myself thinking about the strange non-peace in which we find ourselves. I thought of titling this post “Are We At War This Memorial Day?,” but on further reflection, the answer to that question seemed too obviously to be “yes.”  Though the U.S. is scheduled to complete the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year, for the moment, America’s longest war continues in that country, however little attention most Americans have been paying to it.  The U.S. War in Afghanistan seems destined to end not with a bang but a whimper.  I guess we can take some comfort that our decade-plus in Afghanistan will at least work out marginally less badly for our country than the Soviet Union’s decade in that country had worked out for it.

But even when that conflict finally comes to an end (at least for the United States, at least officially), we will still be at war.  And it’s that larger, more difficult-to-define war that most concerns me today.

The Bush Administration called it the War on Terror or the Global War on Terrorism.  Much justified criticism was aimed at these two terms. How does one fight a war against terrorism itself, let alone terror?  Perhaps in reaction to that criticism, the Obama Administration has stopped calling it the War on Terror or the Global War on Terrorism, instead rechristening the conflict the Overseas Contingency Operations, a term that trades the incoherence of War on Terror for a kind of Orwellian bureaucratic coldness.

And while the term War on Terror tells us that the war is against an opponent that literally cannot be defeated, the term Overseas Contingency Operations tells us even less about the conflict, except that it is going on overseas (which, given the Snowden revelations, is strictly speaking not entirely true) and that it is contingent (on what it doesn’t say). 

In fact, the extent of this conflict is actually classified.  As a matter of policy, the Pentagon refuses to specify the organizations, beyond Al Qaeda itself, against which we are waging war.  So perhaps the bureaucratic obscurity of the term Overseas Contingency Operations is appropriate to the conflict itself, the first American war in which the enemy itself is not a matter of public record.

How we got here goes back to the beginning of this conflict, which, like so much else about it, is a matter of some disagreement. The public, by and large, traces the conflict back to September 11, 2001.  But there are all sorts of problems with this start-date. After all, 9/11 was neither the first Al Qaeda attack on the U.S nor the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.  Wikipedia, on its page devoted to the War on Terror, lists its start as October 7, 2001, that is the day in which the War in Afghanistan began for the United States.

I would make the argument for a third date: September 14, 2001, the day on which Congress passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that still forms the basis for this conflict. Though our conflict with Al Qaeda went back to the 1990s, this war began not with 9/11, but with the U.S. response to 9/11.

The AUMF passed on September 14, 2001 is short enough that it’s worth reproducing in full.  But for those who’d rather spend thirty seconds reading it instead of a minute or two, I’ll highlight the key language:

Joint Resolution

To authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States.

Whereas, on September 11, 2001, acts of treacherous violence were committed against the United States and its citizens; and

Whereas, such acts render it both necessary and appropriate that the United States exercise its rights to self-defense and to protect United States citizens both at home and abroad; and

Whereas, in light of the threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States posed by these grave acts of violence; and

Whereas, such acts continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States; and

Whereas, the President has authority under the Constitution to take action to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism against the United States: Now, therefore, be it

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

Section 1 – Short Title

This joint resolution may be cited as the ‘Authorization for Use of Military Force’.

Section 2 – Authorization For Use of United States Armed Forces

(a) IN GENERAL- That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

(b) War Powers Resolution Requirements-

(1) SPECIFIC STATUTORY AUTHORIZATION- Consistent with section 8(a)(1) of the War Powers Resolution, the Congress declares that this section is intended to constitute specific statutory authorization within the meaning of section 5(b) of the War Powers Resolution.

(2) APPLICABILITY OF OTHER REQUIREMENTS- Nothing in this resolution supersedes any requirement of the War Powers Resolution.

Whoever or whatever ever we are at war with is based on that passage in bold.  If you’re interested in how that language got to be there and how it has been interpreted, a nice primer is a recent episode of WNYC’s Radiolab entitled “60 Words,” which is devoted to that passage.

What’s most disturbing about this conflict as defined by the AUMF is that it is quite literally endless. Until and unless Congress rescinds the AUMF, the Overseas Contingency Operations will continue.  And though the public is fitfully alarmed by certain aspects of the conflict, from the horrendous Iraq misadventure to the use of drones, there’s been surprisingly little public questioning of the overall war. So Congressional action to end the AUMF seems highly unlikely for the foreseeable future.

Whether or not this conflict ever ends, historians will sooner or later begin writing its history.  My guess is that intellectual historians will play a particular large role in this effort. Intellectual history is always an important part of the history of war, both because warfare itself involves ideas and because war changes thought in innumerable ways.  But in the case of the Overseas Contingency Operations, intellectual history may play a more primary role, because of the very conceptual obscurity of the conflict itself.  This is, in many ways, a lawyers’ war, with legal memos on torture and drone strikes, for example, playing key roles in defining the conflict.  More than in our country’s previous conflicts, understanding the very shape of this war will involve intellectual history.

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