While President Obama’s hope of bombing Syria has been dashed, at least for the short term, the episode provides a valuable reminder of the role that a vast standing army plays in our governmental structure.
Even though Obama planned to go to Congress to seek approval for his bombing campaign, he made it very clear that his decision to initiate war on Syria didn’t turn on the congressional vote. He and he alone would decide whether the United States should go to war against Syria. Congress was simply being asked to come on board and approve what the president was planning on doing.
Many people have pointed out the flagrant illegality of the president’s plan. The U.S. Constitution delegated the power to declare war to Congress, not the president. That means that it’s Congress who legally decides whether to initiate war against Syria or not. Under our form of government, the president was given the power to wage war, a power that could not be exercised, however, until and unless Congress exercised its power to declare war.
Thanks to the vast size of America’s standing army, it goes without saying that Obama wields the necessary military might to start a war against Syria. That is, since he already has a standing army, he doesn’t have to go to Congress to raise an army to attack Syria.
Notice something important about Obama’s army in the weeks leading up to the planned attack on Syria: Not one single U.S. officer or enlisted man publicly expressed one iota of objection to participating in the president’s planned attack. Not one publicly attempted to resign his position with the U.S. military. Not one publicly said that he would refuse to participate.
Why is that? After all, doesn’t every member of the U.S. military take an oath to support and defend the Constitution? Doesn’t the Constitution require a congressional declaration of war before the president is authorized to wage war? Why then didn’t even one member of the U.S. military say: “Mr. President, I cannot obey your order to attack Syria because of the oath I have taken to support and defend the Constitution. When you secure a declaration of war from Congress, I’ll reconsider”?
The reason is that the oath that the members of the military take to support and defend the Constitution has always been a fraud and sham. As a practical matter, and with extremely rare exceptions, every member of the U.S. military knows deep down that his loyalty is to the president and that he will faithfully follow whatever orders the president issues.
U.S. soldiers have convinced themselves that when they loyally and faithfully obey the orders of their commander in chief, they are automatically supporting and defending the Constitution. That’s how they’re able to rationalize their willingness to blindly obey Obama’s orders with their oath to support and defend the Constitution.
What would happen if, say, an army sergeant, citing his oath to support and defend the Constitution, were to refuse to participate in Obama’s attack on Syria? He would be told by his superiors in no uncertain terms that it is not his job to bother his pretty little head with complex constitutional arguments. That’s for the Congress, the Justice Department, the Pentagon, the federal courts, and the commentators to resolve. The sergeant’s job, he would be told, is to fall in line, do his duty, and carry out his orders. If he still refused to do so, he would be removed, court-martialed, and immediately replaced.
The practical effect of this type of system is that the U.S. military effectively serves as the president’s private army, just as the CIA does. Whatever the president orders — whether it be kidnapping, torture, indefinite detention, bombing, assassinating, spying, or initiating a war of aggression — there is no question but that his military will loyally and faithfully carry out whatever orders he issues. In doing so, every soldier will remain convinced that he is supporting and defending the Constitution and patriotically serving his country.
The president’s standing army is what has made the executive branch the most powerful branch of the U.S. government. Everyone knows that the president is going to do whatever he wants to do even when it violates the Constitution and, equally important, that he’s able to do it because of the massive and powerful army that is at his disposal and that will loyally and faithfully carry out whatever orders he issues.
Everyone also knows that given the overwhelming power of the military in our governmental structure, as a practical matter there is nothing that Congress or the federal judiciary can do about it.
Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.
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