Declarations of War, Revised

As long as democracies have gone to war, there have always been those who argued that wars were prosecuted for selfish reasons, and were therefore illegitimate or evil. Anyone not living in a cave for the past few years knows exactly what I mean. In the Iraq example, many people have gone so far as to belittle the tangible good that the United States has done for Iraq and focus entirely on the perceived selfish goals of the Bush Administration, believing that our humanitarian work has been incidental and only to disguise our supposed exploitation of Iraq.

This is to be expected. The world has a long history of wars fought only for the benefit of the rulers and their hangers-on. War being such a terrible evil (though often the lesser evil), it is repugnant to the moral mind to allow wars to be fought without a clear idea of why they are necessary; yet the government has many tools at its disposal to influence the public to give its assent, in a case where they might not have done so otherwise. For this reason among others, many people have an instinctive distrust of government intentions in war. As our soldiers in Iraq know, this causes significant problems.

I think that one way to lessen the chronic mistrust of a wartime democratic government would be to rework the concept of a declaration of war. Presently, declarations of war serve only to put the opposing state on notice; they are practically redundant, and have not been used by the United States since World War II. Note that this does not mean that the legislature is no longer consulted; often bills are passed instructing the executive to use “any means necessary” to deal with the conflict at hand. (This absurd change of labels probably owes much to the U.N. Charter, which declares “war” illegal.) But there is no longer a routine, formal invocation of the world community as spectators. This should change.

I propose a new formula of declaration to be passed by the legislature, necessary in any case where one state sends an occupying force to another (not necessarily in war), consisting of three parts: first, laying out the reasons for sending troops, casus belli or otherwise; second, laying out the immediate goal of the troops; third, laying out in general terms the long-term program of the declaring state in the state to be occupied. This declaration must carry the force of law, both national and international.

This would make into a criminal act the prosecution of war for stated reasons known to the aggressor to be false. Note that incompleteness in stating reasons would not be inherently criminal, but lying in the declaration would be. The purpose would be to force a government to state an “official” reason or reasons for the war, which could then be judged on their own merits by the citizens or by the international world, independent of conjecture. Even if the true reason for war was different, the official reason must be able to stand on its own in the eyes of the public.

It would also clearly delineate the boundaries of military action at the outset, and make going beyond them illegal, unless another such declaration is passed. No more could the people say they did not know what they were getting into.

Perhaps most importantly, the long-term phase would be forced to conform to what had been openly agreed to by the legislature. This would calm those who fear naked exploitation or any other underhandedness, since such activities would now be devoid of any legitimacy.

Such a formula, if adopted, could help keep states honest. Any opposition party would salivate at the chance of arresting government officials for unauthorized war activity. If such an arrest were prevented, the invocation of international law would at least make the government into official pariahs, if nothing else. (I am skeptical, but there must be a fallback in case of abuse of power.) The declaration would also clear up much of the anxiety surrounding government motives in wartime, which can only be to the good. In any event, it would ensure that all major aspects of the war are consented to by the legislature, which would be a marked improvement over what we have now.

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