Leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump set off a firestorm within the conservative community by suggesting that former Republican presidential candidate U.S. Senator John McCain shouldn’t be considered a war hero just for being captured during the Vietnam War. Apparently Trump has survived the firestorm because he’s still topping the Republican polls.
In creating the controversy, however, Trump missed the important question — whether a soldier can be considered heroic when he blindly obeys orders to engage in illegal and immoral acts of war.
McCain was a Navy pilot who was part of the U.S. military’s Operation Thunder during the Vietnam War, which involved the dropping of hundreds of thousands of bombs on military and industrial targets over North Vietnam. The operation lasted from March 1965 to November 1968. According to Wikipedia, U.S. forces dropped 864,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam during that time, compared to 653,000 tons dropped during the Korean War and 503,000 tons dropped in the Pacific during World War II.
The CIA estimated on 1 January 1968 that damage inflicted in the north totaled $370 million in physical destruction, including $164 million worth of damage to capital assets (such as factories, bridges, and power plants). The agency also estimated that approximately 1,000 casualties had been inflicted on the North Vietnamese population per week, or approximately 90,000 for the 44-month period, 72,000 of whom were civilians.
The question naturally arises: Under what legal and moral authority did McCain drop those bombs on North Vietnam, helping to wreak all that death and destruction?
There was certainly no legal authority to do so. Oh sure, McCain was ordered by his superior officers, who in turn were ordered by President Lyndon Johnson, to drop those bombs on the North Vietnamese. But that’s not the end of the matter because every U.S. soldier knows that he is required to disobey illegal and immoral orders rather than blindly obey them.
So, the question is: Were Johnson’s orders to drop bombs on North Vietnam legal and moral?
Under the American legal system, the president’s powers are enumerated in the Constitution. That’s the way our American ancestors set things up when they called the federal government into existence. The Constitution is the document that sets forth the powers of the president.
The Constitution is very clear when it comes to the matter of war. The president is given the power to wage war but only on one condition — that he first secure a declaration of war from Congress. No congressional declaration of war, no presidential power to wage war. That’s the law.
Of course, ever since World War II, Americans have been inculcated with the notion that that that particular provision of the Constitution doesn’t matter. Since the Korean War, presidents have routinely violated it. Moreover, the federal courts don’t enforce the provision, and Congress never impeaches a president for violating it.
Nonetheless, the law is the law, whether it’s complied with and enforced or not. The Constitution is the law — the highest law of the land, the law that governs the actions of the president, the Congress, and the federal judiciary.
Was there ever a congressional declaration of war against North Vietnam? We all know there wasn’t. That means that President Johnson, and President Nixon after him, never had the legal authority to wage war against North Vietnam. That means that Johnson’s orders to drop bombs on North Vietnam as part of Operation Thunder were illegal under our form of government.
Defenders of Johnson’s actions point to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, by which Congress authorized Johnson to take military action in response to a so-called attack by North Vietnamese forces against U.S. Navy vessels operating off the coast of North Vietnam.
However, a congressional resolution is not a congressional declaration of war. The Constitution is what controls, and it requires a congressional declaration of war.
Moreover, let’s not forget that Johnson and the Pentagon had positioned those U.S. vessels near the North Vietnamese coast in order to secure a Pearl Harbor-like attack that would enable them to say, as FDR did, “We’ve been attacked! We’ve been attacked! We’re innocent! We’re innocent!” Finally, as people later discovered, the so-called attacks at the Gulf of Tonkin were entirely bogus anyway, i.e., nothing but an false and fraudulent excuse to wage war against North Vietnam.
From a moral standpoint, there is something important to bear in mind: Neither the North Vietnamese people nor their government ever attacked or invaded the United States. Instead, it was the U.S. government whose forces invaded Vietnam and attacked North Vietnam.
The battle between North Vietnam and South Vietnam was always just a civil war, one that U.S. officials helped to precipitate by their refusal to comply with an agreement reached when the French were being forced to abandon their imperialist enterprise in Vietnam after the defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu. All the parties agreed that there would be democratic elections.
But when the time for elections came, the U.S. government violated the agreement. The reason? U.S. officials were confident that the winner of the election would be North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. What did they find objectionable about him? He was a communist. The position of the Pentagon and the CIA was that people should never be permitted to elect a communist to office. (Think ahead to 1970-1973, when the U.S. national-security state orchestrated the military coup that ousted Chile’s democratically elected president for the same reason.)
So, the U.S. government instead installed into power a brutal, corrupt, pro-U.S. authoritarian regime in South Vietnam, after which South Vietnam’s Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese launched their war to unify the country, a war that they ultimately won.
What business did the U.S. officials have in Vietnam? No business at all. They had no legal authority to invade Vietnam and attack North Vietnam. And they had no moral right to be killing people who had never attacked or invaded the United States.
Moreover, the fact that the Pentagon and the CIA are today embracing the communist regime in Vietnam only goes to show how unnecessary the U.S. intervention in Vietnam was. (See my recent article “Obama’s Coziness with Vietnam’s Communists.”)
What should John McCain have done when ordered to drop bombs on the North Vietnamese people? He should have refused to obey them, just as U.S. Army Captain Ian Fishback objected to orders to torture people as part of the “war on terrorism.” That’s the legal and moral duty of a soldier, especially an officer — to disobey illegal and immoral orders.
McCain knew that President Johnson was waging war against Vietnam without the constitutionally required congressional declaration of war. He also knew that he (McCain) had taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution. He should have said to his superior officers and to his commander in chief: “Congress has never declared war on North Vietnam, and the North Vietnamese have never attacked the American people. Therefore, the president lacks the legal authority to wage war on North Vietnam. I must fulfill the oath I took to support and defend the Constitution. Your orders to bomb the North Vietnamese people are illegal and immoral and I will not obey them.”
Now, that would have been heroic!
Instead, McCain decided to blindly obey orders and wreak massive death and destruction on a people who had never committed any act of aggression against the United States. What’s heroic about that?
Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.
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