Pretending we're not at war

Presidents no longer ask Congress to declare war when ordering the military into action. That suits most Americans just fine.

ISIS militants
(Image credit: (AP Photo/Raqqa Media Center of the Islamic State group, File))

When is a war not a war? U.S. fighter planes are attacking ISIS forces in Iraq and will soon do so in Syria, which meets the common-sense criteria for war. But the U.S. Constitution and the War Powers Resolution of 1973 both require specific congressional authorization for war, and President Obama isn't asking Congress for permission. For legal authority, he's citing Congress's 2001 resolution authorizing President Bush to use military force against anyone who "planned, authorized, committed, or aided" the 9/11 attacks. One problem: ISIS didn't exist in 2001. Most members of Congress seem fine with Obama's legal dodge, for reasons of their own. U.S. drones have killed thousands of suspected terrorists in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, but the administration says that's not a war, either. It's counterterrorism. Afghanistan? Also a "sort of" war, even though it's lasted 13 years. Confused? You should be. "By this logic," said Amy Davidson at The New Yorker this week, "war is both nowhere and everywhere."

Congress hasn't declared war since World War II, despite dozens of U.S. military actions since then. Declaring war is unmistakably a grave act, implying a full commitment, national consensus, and the need for collective sacrifice. But Americans have lost their taste for collective sacrifice — and for prolonged conflicts that produce no satisfying conclusion. So when a frightening enemy like al Qaeda or ISIS threatens our sense of security, it suits nearly everyone for the president to promise to blow up the bad guys without asking 99 percent of us to interrupt our pursuit of happiness. Bombs away, turn on the TV, and pass the guacamole.

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William Falk

William Falk is editor-in-chief of The Week, and has held that role since the magazine's first issue in 2001. He has previously been a reporter, columnist, and editor at the Gannett Westchester Newspapers and at Newsday, where he was part of two reporting teams that won Pulitzer Prizes.