What’s in a Body Count? A Deafening Silence


A senior military official told Pentagon reporters last December that U.S. military efforts helped remove more than 50,000 Islamic State (ISIL) fighters from the battlefield in two years. Two weeks ago, a revised estimate placed the total at over 60,000. With the potential for expanded operations against ISIL, it is worth reflecting on the lack of public response to such a large number. Specifically, why has there been such little reaction?

The answer might be simple – preventing future acts of international terrorism is a major concern of the American people. Polling suggests many Americans believe that military solutions are among the best policy prescriptions. While some might be surprised (or pleased) that the government has been taking the fight to the enemy, others might question whether such operations have become accepted too casually and are symptomatic of an American way of war. Ambivalence toward large-scale military operations have become ingrained in the fabric of American society.

Almost no one will dispute that the United States maintains the strongest military in the world by virtually any metric and that its global reach is astounding. In many respects, it is an apparatus beyond the wildest dreams or nightmares of the framers of the Constitution, whose fears of tyrannical rule by or through the military have all but disappeared from mainstream discourse. Those concerns have gradually been replaced by a host of others including force structure, priorities, and even defaulting to the military as an instrument of national power.

Today’s perpetual state of war, one without clean entry and exit points, has conceivably desensitized the public. As scholar and retired military officer Andrew Bacevich says, “today as never before in their history Americans are enthralled with military power.” Certainly, the Vietnam War was a turning point because that war served as a catalyst for massive policy changes. The seismic shifts, however, may stem from three reforms that occurred in 1973 with Congressional assistance:  the Army’s transition to a Total Force Policy, the all-volunteer force, and the War Powers Resolution. While individually well-intentioned, the sum of the parts has arguably facilitated societal ambivalence regarding the use of armed force.

First, the initial Total Force Policy addressed a Congressionally-imposed 785,000 cap on the number of active duty soldiers by placing significant assets into the Army’s Reserve component. It was an exercise in creative accounting designed to meet the perceived Soviet threat. While binding the executive was not the intent of its architect, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Creighton Abrams, the nation could not go to war, at least in theory, without mobilizing reserves. Yet this has not impeded policy choices. Rather, it has prevented the public from feeling the strain.

Secondly, the military’s transition to an all-volunteer force has debatably been the most laudable reform. Conscripts were replaced by professionals less inclined to resemble the rampant delinquencies within the Vietnam-era military. More than 40 years later, there is still controversy as to the merits of this construct, but little doubt that – ceteris paribus – it is much better than its predecessor. A downside, however, has been the extensively discussed physical and emotional detachment between the military and society. Conflict has essentially become outsourced to a tiny segment of the American populace, which means most parts of American society feel no impact when the U.S. military is mobilized.

Thirdly, the War Powers Resolution has provided perhaps the most tenuous leg of the triad that is driving ambivalence. The law requires a president to notify Congress within 48 hours and provides a 60-day deployment threshold unless subsequent authorization is obtained. It was intended to prevent executive overreach and encourage collaboration between the political branches before placing troops in harm’s way. The legacy and implementation of this act of Congress, however, has a mixed historical record. For example, presidents have the authority to deploy troops for extended periods of time by fulfilling what has mostly become an administrative notification process, frequently post facto, and absent formal consultation with Congress. There are questions as to when exactly the War Powers Resolution applies. This brings us back to U.S. actions against ISIL.

In May 2016, Army Capt. Nathan Smith filed suit against President Obama regarding the government’s efforts against ISIL, arguing that the use of force violates the War Powers Resolution. The case was dismissed in November and was the latest among several unsuccessful challenges to executive discretion. To their credit, the Obama administration repeatedly asked Congress for an Authorization for the Use of Military Force. But the administration simultaneously argued that the 2001 authorization provided all the authority required to continue its operations in the Middle East. It is certainly a slippery slope to contend that an authorization passed in response to the September 11th attacks provides the legal justification for the use of military force against an actor who did not exist at the time of that authorization – ISIL – for a civil war that had not yet started.

Congress never met the administration’s request for a new authorization. Most leaders in Congress from both parties preferred to leave the issue be and this afforded the Obama administration the latitude to continue military operations. Congress seems content with the status quo, which allows members to be either critical or supportive of a president without deigning to exercise any meaningful oversight on matters of war and peace. While some argue that the legislature is deferent to a powerful executive in foreign affairs, the scholarly consensus remains divided. It is clear, however, that a president has the latitude to initiate a conflict, and that Congress will largely support the president so long as operations are perceived to be successful.

In November, the military also was given an expanded responsibility to coordinate U.S. efforts to track foreign fighters globally. While this may be necessary for the current fight, we might wonder if future moves may abrogate the responsibility of its civilian masters. Rosa Brooks, an author and former defense official, recently professed this sacred relationship is often distilled to an acknowledgment that those in uniform obey their non-uniformed superiors, but doing so runs the risk of making “a fetish of increasingly meaningless symbols.” Instead, she argues, we must collectively ensure that the use of force is in the public interest and that we are not confusing legality with prudence.

War is certainly still war, and we might be better served to apply a high public standard for any major undertaking. We might also consider that presidential discretion is likely to expand in the absence of a public reaction, and that periods of unified government and increased partisan control can offer more freedom of maneuver for a president rather than less. If you doubt this point, consider that there has been no movement on a Syria-related authorization for force since Donald Trump assumed the presidency with a Republican majority in both houses of Congress. Perhaps cognizant of this impending dynamic, the Obama administration took the unprecedented step to release a legal and policy framework for the use of military force a few weeks after the election. The new administration will not have to contend with the divided government characteristic of the last years of its predecessor–which still contributed to significant fatalities under more restrictive conditions, with little-to-no public reaction.

This is not meant to debate either the threat ISIL presents or the intentions of either administration; rather, it is meant to question how we might better respond in like instances. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the only antibody, if one is so needed, is an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry.”


Jaron S. Wharton is a Ph.D. student at Duke University. The views expressed in this article are his own.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman John Nieves Camacho

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