Memorial Day came and went with barbecues, mattress sales, and little thought for the hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who died in service of their country. A day of remembrance became the official start of summer because of the growing divide between military and civilian life.
Now, as Independence Day, a holiday to celebrate patriotism and freedom, passes through that divide only continues to grow.
Decades of policy intended to eliminate the political costs of war — and enacted by Republicans and Democrats alike — have insulated the general public from sacrifices made by military personnel and their families; by avoiding public debate and financing wars with reckless deficit spending, the government has ensured that America’s wars are as detached from public life as possible.
Article I of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, with the idea being that legislators make a public case for war, and are held accountable by their constituents. But the last formal congressional declaration of war launched American involvement in World War Two — since then, conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere have been undeclared. Courts have accepted quiet congressional funding for war as implicit declaration, an arrangement that pleases legislators and presidents who don’t want politically costly debate.
But public debate is crucial if war is to be in the national consciousness. Where World War Two brought a unified national effort and the Vietnam War brought waves of dissent, today’s wars are conspicuously absent from public life. After fifteen years lingering in the background, the war on terror has been largely forgotten — except by families experiencing the strain of a parent, sibling or child deployed.
In the one recent instance of Congress debating and authorizing military force, a resolution passed in the days following the September 11 attacks which approved fighting Al-Qaeda, the authorization was relied upon years into the future for purposes far beyond the scope of the original resolution. Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump have relied on this authorization for all sorts of Middle East adventurism, most notably in the fight against ISIS.
To interpret the 2001 authorization of military force against Al-Qaeda as authorization of military force against ISIS, a group which did not exist in 2001 and is in conflict with Al-Qaeda, requires the sort of tortured reasoning and legal acrobatics that have replaced congressional debate and public approval as prerequisites for war.
Aside from avoiding public debate, politicians have dodged the political costs of war by ignoring their financial costs and spending irresponsibly. The Iraq War has already cost two trillion dollars, and that amount could triple in the coming decades due to benefits owed to veterans according to Reuters.
What if before each war, some amount of the cost was slated to be offset by cuts to entitlement programs? It would encourage politicians to end wars quickly, and to be less casual about projecting costs, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was when he suggested the Iraq War would cost “something under $50 billion” according to Time, underestimating the cost by two orders of magnitude.
Most importantly, cutting government services to finance expensive wars would make the general public feel some of the sacrifice that currently weighs on the shoulders of military families. One would not need to return to the frugal rationing of the World War Two era to create a distinction between a peace-time government and a war-time government, but without some amount of austerity delineating the difference, the war becomes a distant plaything for Washington bureaucrats instead of the lived experience of all Americans.
The gap between military and civilian life must be closed if America is to have a prudent and successful foreign policy. The public must feel the cost and weight of war if patriotic holidays are to be more meaningful than a day off of work.
Danny Bugingo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org