war on the rocks

Congress Owes Our Servicemembers an Authorization for the Use of Military Force

October 25, 2017

I remember hearing the assurances for the first time in the fall of 2015, early in my deployment to Kuwait. A few days before, Master Sgt. Josh Wheeler had been killed in a raid in Iraq, the first U.S. combat casualty of the anti-ISIL Operation Inherent Resolve. Our headquarters was somber and before our normal briefing to the general, we observed a moment of silence as Wheeler’s picture was displayed on the huge television in the operations center.

Political developments spun along in Washington. Fall became winter and I read of newly elected Speaker Paul Ryan’s stated desire to move on a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force. Meanwhile, in the Senate, the majority leader expressed an utter lack of interest in debating the issue, making the nonsensical statement that the president “obviously feels he has the authority now to do what he’s doing” and entirely ignoring that how the president “feels” is irrelevant when it comes to usurping the constitutional authority of a co-equal branch of government. He then cynically supported an effort by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to procedurally set up a debate on an expansive AUMF, one that, in my opinion, he knew would never actually reach the floor for a debate. Other, more principled senators continued to express unease over the continued “shirking of responsibility” on the AUMF debate.

In both Iraq and Syria, strikes were conducted daily, many projected in granular detail on the screen of the operations center where my soldiers and I worked sifting through intelligence reports. In March, as the Iraqi Army began its slow offensive on Mosul, Marine Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin was killed by an ISIL rocket.

Another moment of silence before a briefing, another picture projected on a screen. But no acknowledgment from Congress that we were, indeed, at war.

Shortly after Cardin’ s death, I remember the headquarters being told to no longer refer to the outpost where he had been killed by its former name, Fire Base Bell. It was now to be referred to only as the Kara Soar Counter Fire Complex. No reason was provided. Later, I sat at my desk and read an article, sent to me by a friend, which clarified the reasoning and confirmed the insulting semantics of the administration’s classification of casualties. According to anonymous Defense Department sources, the old name had made it sound too much as if the Marines were in active combat. I felt my knuckles turn white as I squeezed my desk. The unease that I had felt for some time over the legality of the mission deepened as I watched the administration blatantly attempt to frame the circumstances of Cardin’s death in a favorable legal and political light. I wondered if I could continue to reconcile the role I was playing with my oath to the Constitution.

Several months passed. I had returned shortly before from leave in the United States to find the headquarters frenetic as the operational tempo increased. On May 3, 2016, I was a wreck. The following day, I had a lawsuit scheduled to be filed in the D.C Circuit Courts. You may have heard about it. Events were in motion, and I had no desire to stop them, but I wondered if tomorrow would be the start of a process leading to my court-martial. Certainly, my military career was effectively finished, and with it would end my family’s three-generation tradition of career military service. I allowed myself a moment of self-pity. The intercom on the operations floor cut into these reflections. A SEAL named Charles Keating had been killed in Iraq. The self-pity disappeared.

The lawsuit Smith v. Obama was filed on May 4 against the president for violations of the 1973 War Powers Resolution and for executive overreach in the absence of congressional authorization for the war against ISIL. Since that time, principled members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have led efforts to force a debate and a vote upon the reluctant leadership. All attempts have failed, and a war that Congress has never voted on continues into another presidency.

Last month, Sen. Rand Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) sponsored an amendment to sunset the current outdated and irrelevant AUMF that the Obama and Trump administrations have dubiously claimed provides them with the authority to continue the war. In a speech on the Senate floor, Paul stated, “My vote is on whether or not we should vote on whether or not we should be at war. So for those who oppose my vote, they oppose the Constitution.”

His amendment was defeated 61 to 36. Both Republicans and Democrats voted against his attempt to create accountability.

Almost a year to the day after we came home, my old unit redeployed to Kuwait to again serve as the headquarters for anti-ISIL operations in Iraq and Syria, this time without me.

With the defeat of Paul’s amendment, it appears that after almost four years of war, those soldiers will again return from their rotation never knowing if they actually had the support of their Congress. After all, Congress continues to refuse to vote on the mission they risked their lives to conduct.

Even after observing it for so long, such cowardice is unfathomable to me. Whether it be for war or peace, Congress is morally and constitutionally obligated to conduct an open debate and vote. Too many servicemen have already died in a war that America’s leaders would rather avoid being politically tainted by. Each day that passes underlines the disgrace of those both on Capitol Hill and in the White House, and continues America’s listless drift away from its Constitution on matters of war and peace.

 

Nathan Smith is a veteran of Afghanistan and the counter-ISIL Operation Inherent Resolve.

Image: U.S. Army/Craig Coleman