If you haven't read Chris Hedges's book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning you should do so. It chronicles Hedges's experiences as a journalist in the former Yugoslavia during the NATO action to protect the Kosovar and Bosnian populations against Slobodan Milosevic's genocide against them after the fall of the Soviet Block. That conflict was clearly a war. Although I'm not sure it is at all clear that every state actor in that conflict was at War with the Serbian State. Today, as a coalition of state actors including the United States moves to impose a no-fly zone over Libya and cripple Moammar Ghaddafi's ability to carry on his civil war with the rebels seeking to overthrow his regime, it is only natural for USAmericans to be asking whether we are now at war with Libya. It is a question that seems simple. Simple it is not. A brief resume of the last 70 years of warfare shows that the task of determining when the United States is at war is fraught with arbitrary distinctions and political posturing.
The Constitution of the United States of America gives Congress the power to raise and sustain an Army and a Navy. The power to declare war on another nation belongs to Congress and Congress alone. At the same time, the President of the United States is named Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces. This bifurcation of the war powers of the Federal Government, separating military policy from command and control, serves an important role in the system of limited powers given to the Federal Government in that document. It prevents the President from using the military in whatever way he sees fit, and prevents Congress from micromanaging the most urgent affairs of national defense. However, it also makes it difficult to determine whether or not the United States is at war at any given time.
To be sure, there are moments when it is very clear that we are at war. When Congress has passed a Declaration of War and the President has commanded the military to begin aggressive action against a foreign state, we are, without a doubt, at war. However, we have not been in such a state since the Treaty of Paris ended World War II in 1947. In the intervening sixty plus years, the United States of America has engaged in aggressive military action nearly constantly. Beginning almost immediately after World War II, the US intervened in Military efforts in French Indo-China and in the Korean Peninsula. The conflict in Indo-China after the institution of the puppet ruler Ngo Diem in 1955 transitioned into the Vietnam War which would continue until the fall of Saigon in 1975.
The Korean conflict began with a UN declaration against the Communist North which drew in forces from the United States and various other nations, the only other significant presence being the British, Canadian, and Australian contingents. Smaller numbers of troops from more than a dozen nations also participated, but the vast bulk of the fighting was done by the United States. On the other side, the forces were almost exclusively soldiers from North Korea and the Peoples Republic of China. In terms of casualties, it could very well have been said to be a war between the United States, who suffered nearly 40,000 casualties and People's Republic of China, who lost somewhere on the order of half a million soldiers. But it was not a war with China. It was a war with North Korea. More importantly, it is a war with North Korea which is currently ongoing. Main combat came to an end in 1954 with a cease fire Armistice that has led to only ongoing skirmishes, stalled negotiations, and repeated incursions across the DMZ. There has never been a peace treaty officially ending that war, but the history books still say that the war ended with the India brokered armistice of 1954.
Conflicts of the time were not confined to Asia, however. In 1951, the Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh led a unanimous parliament to nationalize the Oil production in Iran. This rubbed the British and American Governments the wrong way as up to that point the oil fields in Iran had been owned by British and American interests. As a result, the CIA and MI-6 orchestrated a coup against Mossadegh that culminated in his assassination in 1953. The Shah of Iran ruled for the next 26 years with an iron fist reinforced with American guns and British steel. When he was overthrown in 1979, the incoming Theocratic regime paid the United States back by invading the US Embassy in Tehran and taking hostage 56 diplomats who were held for over a year. In retaliation against the Iranian revolution, the United States supported Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran, an act that began the Iran-Iraq war which did not end until 1988. During that time, Iran sponsored terrorist cells who staged attacks against US interests all over the world. And yet, no one ever speaks of the US being at war with Iran.
At the same time, things were not quiet elsewhere in central asia. The United States was also supporting the Mujahadeen resistance against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, but was apparently neither at war with the Soviets nor the Afghans during that decade long conflict. At the same time as the US was supporting Iraq in the war with Iran, we were also selling arms to Iranian groups in exchange for the release of American hostages. We then used this money to fund the Contra movement in Nicaraqua, who were at the time fighting a guerrilla war against the communist Sandinista government. As a result of all this activity, Oliver North got a job as a right wing radio host, but there is no Nicaraguan War chapter in our history books.
Nor is there a Cuban War, despite the fact that the US attempted to overthrow the Cuban Revolutionary Government in 1961 with the Bay of Pigs fiasco, an event that presaged the coming cold war stalemate of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Crisis, but not a war. Nor do we count among our wars the Civil war in El Salvador where we supported the Right Wing Military Junta in it's brutal oppression of the fledgling democracy of that state. There was no war in Grenada when the United States invaded in 1983 to oppose a leftist coup. There was no war in Panama when the United States invaded to ouster Manuel Noriega. The was a "Gulf War" but there was no declaration of war when the United States invaded Iraq the first time after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991. The action in Somalia was not a war. As mentioned, it's not at all clear whether the United States was at war with Serbia in defending Bosnia and Kosovo. We maintained sanctions and a no-fly zone over Iraq for over a decade, and yet the Gulf War and the Iraq War are two different wars in our history, meaning the period of UN sanctions, no fly zones, and occasional military strikes was not a war in itself. We have never declared war in Afghanistan. And we have not now declared war against Libya.
Viewed in one way, except for a brief period between the fall of Saigon and the Iranian revolution, the United States has been engaged in constant warfare somewhere in the world since the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. That's seventy years of perpetual war that does not appear to be ending any time soon. At present the United States Military is engaged in ongoing armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. Two of those we undoubtedly call wars. One, in Korea, is a perpetual stale mate that seems to turn entirely on the mental stability of one man, Kim Jong Il. It's not at all clear what exactly is going on in Yemen or Somalia, but they seem at this point to be low level policing actions in place of the inept local governments. By contrast, in the past two days, the US has been engaged in serious military strikes against Libya's defense capabilities. Libya has the makings of a third war. But is it?
Looking at the history of military engagement over the last 70 years, there is very little to distinguish those moments that we call wars from those that we do not. Some of the actions are clearly wars. Others seem more ambiguous. It seems wise at a time like this to consider what exactly it means to be at war. Unfortunately, looking at that history, there is little meaning that can be drawn for that term. Instead, what appears to emerge is a cluster of meanings, a variety of military engagements that for one reason or another it has suited politicians to describe as war. Others it has not suited them to do so. In asking the question "Are we at war?" we must look not to the conflict, but to the people using the term. We must ask "who is this and why does this person want to call this particular conflict a war?" And we must ask "who is this and why does this person not want to call this particular conflict a war?" The answers to those questions will be much more useful than the mere assignment of a label to our warplanes and missiles in the skies over Tripoli and Benghazi. I personally don't have answers to those questions. But I do know that whatever war means, there is power in that meaning. It is used or not used for important reasons that have everything to do with who has what at stake in a given conflict. War is that which shapes the flow of power in the globe. The control of the word is the control of its meaning, and that control is the important force in global affairs that must be attended. We will not achieve that attention by quibbling over whether we are at war with Libya. That is asking the wrong question, and it will never brook a satisfactory answer. We are either perpetually at war, or we never are at war and we have invented a new form of global conflict which has not yet been named. I'm inclined to believe the latter, if only because the notion of perpetual war seems like it should imply a different sort of situation than what obtains in the empire at present. I could be wrong though. We could be living in 1984, there's really no way to know.