Chief among the grievances cited in the Declaration of Independence was King George III’s unfettered use of the military to subjugate the citizens of the 13 colonies.
“He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures,” the declaration noted. “He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power … Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us …”
To guard against similar abuses by the chief executive of the nascent republic, the founders vested Congress with the power to declare war, believing this would ensure that wars would not be waged on the president’s whim.
Contrary to this vision, over the last 75 years the president rather than Congress has made the decisions to commit U.S. forces to combat. This has led to more than 100,000 American lives lost in undeclared “conflicts” since 1950. Congress has either relinquished its power or had it usurped.
Civilian control over the military has largely been relegated to one individual, the president. We have relied upon him to make rational choices in our nation’s interest. Sadly, we are reminded on a near-daily basis that we cannot rely on our current commander-in-chief to make rational choices.
Civilian control over the military has largely been relegated to one individual, the president. We have relied upon him to make rational choices in our nation’s interest.
Sadly, we are reminded on a near-daily basis that we cannot rely on our current commander-in-chief to make rational choices. Add his recent interaction with Russian President Vladimir Putin to “form an impenetrable cybersecurity unit” (and then quick renunciation of the idea) to President Donald Trump’s growing list of truly bizarre and disturbing utterances.
Trump, however, may have unwittingly stumbled upon an acceptable short-term solution for protecting our national defense, even though it strays from the founders’ intent: abdicating military responsibilities to the secretary of defense.
Contrary to the practice of previous presidents, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has been given “total authorization” to handle our national defense, including setting troop levels in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “Troop levels” do not only determine how many boots are on the ground. They also involve critical policy decisions. What level of casualties will we sustain? How long will the troops stay? Are we prepared to actively engage in combat? And against whom?
Under normal circumstances such policy questions should be decided by elected civilians. But circumstances today are far from normal. We have a president who, during the campaign, threatened to blow a ship “out of the water” whose sailors “make gestures” in our direction, who denigrates the sacrifice of losing a son in battle, and who insults our most loyal allies.
Mattis is a Marine who has seen up close the price paid when we go to war. He appears to grasp the folly of a plan to dramatically ramp up defense spending while cutting U.S. State Department funding by 30 percent and virtually eliminating other strategic foreign policy programs. Mattis recognizes that deploying more troops abroad means he will have to write more letters to grieving parents, spouses and children.
We have no choice but to trust our government to make prudent choices about how we spill our blood and spend our treasure. Trump appears to have ceded this awesome responsibility to someone far better suited to make these decisions.
Designating an unelected cabinet member as the de facto commander-in-chief may not be healthy for our democracy in the long term, but it is far better than taking a chance on someone who may be willing to go to war over a raised middle finger.
Robin Umberg is a retired Army Brigadier General and formerly the Undersecretary at the California Department of Veterans Affairs. Thomas Umberg is a former state Assembly member and retired Army Colonel who served in Afghanistan. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.