In May of 2003, the United States invaded Iraq without a formal declaration of war. While there has been spirited debate about the justification for the war, there has been relatively little discussion about the lack of a formal declaration of war by Congress. When it has been brought up by libertarians and strict constitutionalists, the general argument against concern over this “formality” has been to point out H.J. Res. 114 (October 16, 2002), wherein Congress authorized the use of military force. The substance of the argument boils down to, “Congress authorized the president to use military force, so what is the difference between that and a declaration of war?
As we will see, there is a fundamental difference between a declaration of war and an authorization to use force. In fact, it is a distinction of enormous importance, for the former is the rightful defense of liberty by a free people, and the latter the unjustified initiation of aggression by an autocratic state. The implications reach to the very heart of our republic, calling into question our morality, our freedom, and our national sovereignty.
To understand this requires an understanding of what the founding fathers meant when they granted war powers to Congress. The founders based their ideas on government firmly upon the Enlightenment philosophers, who gave us our traditions of liberty. While war is popularly thought of as the active use of military force – the battles, skirmishes, airstrikes, invasions, etc. – these, properly understood, are not war. Rather, there is a state of war, separate from the actual fighting, that was clearly defined by the Enlightenment philosophers. This “state of war” must exist before military force is justified.
John Locke devotes an entire chapter to The State of War in his Second Treatise on Civil Government. In it, he writes,
“Men living together according to reason, without a common superior on earth, with authority to judge between them, is properly the state of nature. But force, or a declared design of force, upon the person of another, where there is no common superior on earth to appeal to for relief, is the state of war: and it is the want of such an appeal gives a man the right of war even against an aggressor, tho’ he be in society and a fellow subject.”
So, according to Locke, the state of war can arise by either an aggressor using force, or declaring the intention to use force. In either case, the relationship between the two parties has changed from a state of nature, or a state of civil society (depending upon whether or not they live under a civil government), to a state of war. Thus, the state of war begins not with the first pitched battle or airstrike, but can begin merely by the aggressor declaring his intent to initiate force. War is a state, or a relationship, that exists totally apart from the physical act of fighting. Fighting or military action is actually a result of, or a response to, the state of war. The use of force is only justified in defense, when a state of war exists. He also writes,
“This makes it lawful for a man to kill a thief, who has not in the least hurt him, nor declared any design upon his life, any farther than, by the use of force, so to get him in his power, as to take away his money, or what he pleases, from him; because using force, where he has no right, to get me into his power, let his pretence be what it will, I have no reason to suppose, that he, who would take away my liberty, would not, when he had me in his power, take away everything else. And therefore it is lawful for me to treat him as one who has put himself into a state of war with me, i.e. kill him if I can; for to that hazard does he justly expose himself, whoever introduces a state of war, and is aggressor in it.”
While Locke is arguably the most direct philosophical influence on the founding fathers, other Enlightenment writers also view the state of war as a condition, or a relationship separate from any tangible use of force. Thomas Hobbes writes,
“For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather lieth not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is peace.”
While making an argument concerning conquests, Rousseau also recognizes that the state of war is a condition or relationship between two parties that exists outside of the actual fighting,
“First: because, in the first case, the right of conquest, being no right in itself, could not serve as a foundation on which to build any other; the victor and the vanquished people still remained with respect to each other in the state of war, unless the vanquished, restored to the full possession of their liberty, voluntarily made choice of the victor for their chief.”
Interestingly, Rousseau argues here that the state of war can continue after the fighting has ceased, as in his example of a conquered people still under the power of their conqueror.
Clearly, the Enlightenment philosophers recognized that the state of war was a condition or a relationship between two parties, separate and distinct from the martial actions that the parties take as a result. The state of war begins with the use of force or the declared intention to use force by an aggressor, and gives the other party the right to use lethal force to defend itself. Thus, in the tradition of liberty, the use of force is justified in defense when a man or a nation recognizes that an aggressor has put itself in a state of war with that man or nation. The state of war can also persist after the fighting ceases if the conditions which created it still exist.
This was the context in which the founding fathers gave power to Congress to declare war. It was not the power to initiate a war, which is never justified, but the power to officially recognize that a state of war already exists, and that force is therefore justified. This interpretation is supported by every request by a United States President for Congress to declare war, and every resolution of Congress to do so. James Madison was the first U.S. President to request that Congress declare war – against Great Britain in 1812. In his request, he said,
“We behold, in fine, on the side of Great Britain a state of war against the United States, and on the side of the United States a state of peace toward Great Britain.”
When Congress declared war upon Great Britain in 1812, the resolution reads,
“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That war be and the same is hereby declared to exist between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the dependencies thereof, and the United States of America and their territories; and that the President of the United States is hereby authorized to use the whole land and naval force of the United States to carry the same into effect, and to issue private armed vessels of the United States commissions or letters of marque and general reprisal, in such form as he shall think proper, and under the seal of the United States, against the vessels, goods, and effects of the government of the said United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and the subjects thereof.”
Here we find a clear distinction between the state of war, which Madison argues already exists, and the commencement of the use of military force. Similarly, when James Polk asked Congress to declare war on Mexico in 1846, he said,
“But now, after reiterated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil. She has proclaimed that hostilities have commenced, and that the two nations are now at war.
As war exists, and, notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico herself, we are called upon by every consideration of duty and patriotism to vindicate with decision the honor, the rights, and the interests of our country. . . .
In further vindication of our rights and defense of our territory, I invoke the prompt action of Congress to recognize the existence of the war, and to place at the disposition of the Executive the means of prosecuting the war with vigor, and thus hastening the restoration of peace.”
The official declaration reads,
“Whereas, by the act of the Republic of Mexico, a state of war exists between that Government and the United States: Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of American in Congress assembled, That for the purpose of enabling the government of the United States to prosecute said war to a speedy and successful termination…”
Both presidential requests and subsequent official declarations of war by Congress support that a state of war existed before the United States commenced planned military operations. In each case, the president makes his case for why the enemy nation has been the aggressor, and why he believes a state of war already exists, and requests that Congress formally declare it. In requesting a declaration of war with Spain, President McKinley states,
“I now recommend the adoption of a joint resolution declaring that a state of war exists between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Spain, that the definition of the international status of the United States as a belligerent power may be made known and the assertion of all its rights in the conduct of a public war may be assured.”
Congress’ official declaration not only recognizes that the war already exists, but actually specifies the date on which the state of war commenced,
“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, First. That war be, and the same is hereby declared to exist, and that war has existed since the twenty-first day of April, anno Domini eighteen hundred and ninety-eight, including said day, between the United States of American and the Kingdom of Spain.”
Here, not only does Congress recognize that a state of war already exists, before the onset of planned military operations, but actually indicates the exact day on which the state of war began, taking the time to specify “including said day,” so that no mistake can be made about when the two nations entered a state of war.
President Wilson, in requesting a declaration of war with Germany in 1917, stated,
“…I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the Imperial German government to be in fact nothing less than war against the government and people of the United States; that it formally accept the status of belligerent which has thus been thrust upon it; and that it take immediate steps, not only to put the country in a more thorough state of defense but also to exert all its power and employ all its resources to bring the government of the German Empire to terms and end the war.”
The official declaration reads,
“Whereas the Imperial German Government has committed repeated acts of war against the Government and the people of the United States of America: Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the state of war between the United States and the Imperial German Government which has been thrust upon the United States is hereby formally declared; and that the President be, and he is hereby, authorized and directed to employ the entire naval and military forces…”
Here, Congress emphasizes that not only does the state of war exist, but that it has been “thrust upon” the United States by the acts of war committed by Germany. Thus, the official declaration not only recognizes the existence of the war but takes pains to officially identify Germany as the aggressor.
Finally, in President Roosevelt’s request for a declaration of war on Japan, he says,
“I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.”
In response, Congress resolves,
“Whereas the Imperial Government of Japan has committed unprovoked acts of war against the Government and the people of the United States of America: Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the state of war between the United States and the Imperial Government of Japan which has thus been thrust upon the United States is hereby formally declared; and the President is hereby authorized and directed to employ the entire naval and military forces of the United States and the resources of the Government to carry on war against the Imperial Government of Japan; and, to bring the conflict to a successful termination, all of the resources of the country are hereby pledged by the Congress of the United States.”
After the United States declared war on Japan, Germany declared war on the United States, and the United States subsequently declared war on Germany, consistent with Locke’s premise that a state of war exists once an aggressor declares his intent to initiate force.
I have devoted the space to include each of these passages to demonstrate the consistency with which past requests and declarations of war have demonstrated the principle that a state of war must exist before planned military action is justified.
In the interest of brevity I have included in the passages from the presidential requests only the language where they specifically ask for Congress to declare war. It is equally important to note that in each case where a president requested a declaration of war, he preceded his request with a statement of the overt acts or the formal declarations of the aggressor nation that supported his belief that a state of war existed. This can be verified by simply going back and reviewing the entire text of each request for a declaration.
So, what conclusions can be drawn from this evidence, and what relevance does this have to the invasion of Iraq and other military operations that the United States has undertaken without a declaration of war?
First, there is the moral question. Was the invasion of Iraq justified? In the five wars that the United States fought under a formal declaration of war, the justification rested upon a president “making a case” that a state of war already existed between the United States and the nation in question. The president presented evidence, in the form of a list of overt acts or a declaration by the aggressor nation, supporting his claim that a state of war existed. Congress then deliberated on the evidence, and cast a vote that supported a formal declaration that, in fact, the United States was already at war. Certainly, there have been arguments made in the cases of each of the five declared wars that either the state of war did not truly exist or that it was instigated by the United States. However, the fact remains that both the executive and legislative branches followed a constitutional process that was far more than a formality or vestige left over from earlier, courtlier ages.
However, in the case of the war with Iraq, as in the Korean and Viet Nam wars, that process did not occur. Specifically in the case of Iraq, the dialogue was shifted away from whether or not a state of war existed to a debate about whether or not Iraq posed a threat to the security of the United States. That debate still rages today. However, in the context of the previous declared wars and the meaning behind the declarative powers granted to Congress, this debate is irrelevant. No interpretation of the Enlightenment philosophy or of the U.S. Constitution justifies military action merely on the basis of another nation representing a threat. As they did in the Korean and Viet Nam wars, the United States used military force when no state of war existed, thereby becoming, by definition, the aggressor.
Why is a declaration of war a fundamentally crucial issue? Obviously, President Bush would not have been able to request a declaration of war with Iraq. There were no overt acts of aggression by Iraq against the United States for him to cite as his evidence of a state of war. Neither was there a declaration by Iraq of their intention to use force against the United States. Quite the contrary, Saddam Hussein repeatedly denied his country’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and even invited President Bush to a conference in an attempt to avoid military conflict (President Bush declined). Hussein all but declared a state of “non-war” with the United States, so there was no case to be made for a state of war based upon a declaration of intent by an aggressor. Had the United States government held itself to the standard set by the Constitution and close to two hundred years of precedent, no war with Iraq could have occurred. Equally valid arguments can be made for the Korean War, the Viet Nam war, Grenada, Bosnia, Somalia, etc.
The moral case is even more damning when considering the “insurgency” which is still raging in Iraq, especially in the context of the Rousseau passage above. According to Rousseau, a state of war exists even after the cessation of fighting until “the vanquished, restored to the full possession of their liberty, voluntarily made choice of the victor for their chief.” Philosophically, the Iraqi insurgents have every right to go on killing Americans, their conqueror, until they are both restored to full possession of their liberty and have voluntarily chosen the United States, or the government that the United States installs, as their rightful government. Thus, the United States finds itself entangled in a war in which it is the aggressor and which can only end at the discretion of the people of Iraq, including the “insurgents.” We have seen similar results in two previous, undeclared wars. In Viet Nam, we left in disgrace. In Korea, we are still there, almost sixty years later. Perhaps there is a correlation between moral justification and success.
Second, there is a lingering question regarding sovereignty related to undeclared wars. Since the establishment of the United Nations, the United States has not declared war, yet has been almost continuously involved in military operations, almost exclusively under the auspices of U.N. resolutions. Another passage in Locke may speak directly to this.
“To avoid this state of war (wherein there is no appeal but to heaven, and wherein every the least difference is apt to end, where there is no authority to decide between the contenders) is one great reason of men’s putting themselves into society, and quitting the state of nature: for where there is an authority, a power on earth, from which relief can be had by appeal, there the continuance of the state of war is excluded, and the controversy is decided by that power.”
The moral argument notwithstanding, there is the further question of whether the United States still has the right to declare war. By recognizing the United Nations as a world governing power, is it not true that, as Locke puts it, there is now always “an authority, a power on earth, from which relief can be had by appeal?” If the United Nations has any authority whatsoever, then by its own traditions of liberty, the United States has surrendered its right to declare war, even when it determines that a state of war does indeed exist. Certainly, this is a consideration that is beyond the imagination of most of its citizenry, but the evidence seems to indicate that it is nevertheless true. The implications of this are indeed foreboding when considering a United States of the future, in a world where it is no longer the undisputed military power that it is now, perhaps as a result of an economic decline that may be in its first stages already.
Finally, there is the question of an undeclared war’s implications for the liberty of the people. Certainly, the founders granted the federal government war powers out of recognized necessity. They lived, as we do, in a world where an aggressor nation could threaten the security of even a free, non-aggressive state. However, they granted those powers for the specific purpose of defense against aggression, including the power to declare war as a means to determine if a state of war existed. The declaration of war process provided a litmus test of whether or not military action was justified. Even in a volunteer army, an undeclared war exploits the solemn trust placed in civilian leaders by the brave soldiers that defend that nation. However, the United States has twice, in Korea and Viet Nam, compelled civilians to join the army and fight. Moreover, it is not just the soldiers that war places at risk. Indeed, civilian casualties in Iraq far outweigh those of soldiers on either side. In decades past, the United States has been insulated from civilian casualties because of its remoteness from the countries in which it has waged war. However, the 21st century has already shown us that remoteness no longer provides that insulation. Given the direct risk to U.S. citizens that war involves, does the United States government have the right to wage an undeclared war? Are a people really free when they can be put at risk and into debt by their government in the absence of a true state of war?
 John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690), Chapter III.19 http://www.constitution.org/jl/2ndtr03.htm
 John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690), Chapter III.18 http://www.constitution.org/jl/2ndtr03.htm
 Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan, Chapter XIII http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/hobbes/leviathan-c.html#CHAPTERXV
 WHAT IS THE ORIGIN OF INEQUALITY AMONG MEN, AND IS IT AUTHORISED BY NATURAL LAW? Part II http://www.constitution.org/jjr/ineq_04.htm
 That the definition of the state of war applies not only to individuals, but to states as well is made clear by Locke in later chapters.
 Twelfth Congress Sess. 1, Ch. 102 http://www.lawandfreedom.com/site/historical/GBritain1812.pdf
 Twenty-Ninth Congress Sess. I Ch. 16 http://www.lawandfreedom.com/site/historical/Mexico1846.pdf
 Fifty-fifth Congress Sess. II. Ch. 189 http://www.lawandfreedom.com/site/historical/Spain1898.pdf
 Sixty-Fifth Congress Ch. 1 http://www.lawandfreedom.com/site/historical/Germany1917.pdf
 Seventy-seventh Congress Sess. 1 Ch. 561 http://www.lawandfreedom.com/site/historical/Japan1941.pdf
 John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690), Chapter III.18 http://www.constitution.org/jl/2ndtr03.htm
Tom Mullen is the author of Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Part One and A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.