The issue has special relevance as President Bush reiterates his determination for "a regime change" in Iraq.
In his 1982 book "On Strategy," U.S. Army Col. Harry G. Summers Jr., an infantry combat veteran of Korea and Vietnam, applied the strategic principles of the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) to America's long involvement in Vietnam. Summers' title consciously paralleled that of Clausewitz's magnum opus, the classic "Vom Kriege" ("On War"), published posthumously in 1832.
Summers (1932-1999) was then on the staff of the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. After he retired from active service in 1985, he became a nationally syndicated columnist and one of America's foremost defense intellectuals. During our long and friendly, but casual, acquaintance, I would phone him periodically to discuss civil-military relations.
Summers always stressed that the U.S. military is an instrument of the American people rather than the government. He believed that national political leaders, on the whole, do not understand that this constitutes an enormous limitation on the use of military power. He would say that Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution -- which gives Congress the power to declare war, to raise and support armies and to regulate the land and naval forces -- makes it clear that the U.S. military is a creature of the people's representatives in the national legislature, not the executive branch.
In this, the founders explicitly rejected the 18th century paradigm in which a chief executive -- a monarch such as Britain's George III or Prussia's Frederick the Great -- personified the state, owned the army and could go to war at will.
What does Vietnam have to teach us about a possible war with Iraq? Perhaps Vietnam's relevance will not be obvious if a successful outcome is relatively quick and painless, as it was in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But its relevance will become clear if things go wrong. Then, just as Vietnam became first "Johnson's war" and then "Nixon's war," Iraq will become "Bush's war."
Public support for any military enterprise must be an essential part of strategic planning, Summers wrote in "On Strategy," and Congress has the constitutional responsibility to legitimize that support. Legalistic arguments that formal declarations of war are out of date obscure the fact that they were intended to be an outward manifestation of the support and commitment of the American people that focus the nation's attention on the enemy.
A declaration of war commits the country to see the struggle through. It also provides public sanctions against treason, giving aid and comfort to the enemy, and subverting the armed forces.
"The (constitutional) requirement for a declaration of war was rooted in the principle of civilian control of the military," Summers wrote, "and the failure to declare war in Vietnam drove a wedge between the Army and large segments of the American public. ... The Army became the focus of anti-war sentiment."
But military leaders in a democracy do not choose the wars they fight, and American generals and admirals have never been particularly bellicose. In fact, neo-conservative pundits are now pillorying high-ranking officers for their putative timidity and reluctance to launch a preemptive war against Iraq.
Summers wrote that by attacking the executors of U.S. Vietnam policy rather than the makers of that policy, anti-war protestors "were striking at the very heart of our democratic system -- the civilian control of the military."
Of course, the executive branch did not wrest the prerogative to declare war from the legislature. Then, as now, members of Congress shirked their responsibilities.
Speculation has it Bush will order an attack on Iraq after the November elections. The president would do well to hold Congress's feet to the fire. He should announce before the election that he plans to ask Congress for a declaration of war, advancing every reason that does not compromise national security. Each congressional candidate would be forced to tell constituents how he or she would vote. The decision would be in the hands of the American people, where it belongs.
We have been spoiled by the quick success of the Gulf War and the campaign in Afghanistan. Sooner or later, we will be embroiled in long, bloody conflict.
If a war is necessary, the country ought to be united behind it. The framers of the Constitution knew what they were doing. George W. Bush is not Frederick the Great. Let Congress vote on a declaration of war.