(Un)limiting War: ‘Perpetual War’ in Historical Perspective
Small wars, overseas expeditions, and punitive raiding are endemic throughout U.S. history. From the outset of the republic, America began grappling with conflicts of tenuous definition and purpose. The constitution, despite vesting Congress with the power to declare war, was never particularly clear on what constituted adequate legislative justification, nor did it seek to deny the executive leeway over military initiative.
The power to make war, in the event of hostile aggression, remained with the executive. Additionally, far from being a vaunted tradition, the power to declare war has never required an official declaration of war to authorize military action. Indeed, this is the exception rather than the norm. Beyond the many naval actions conducted without any substantial Congressional writ, there is, beginning with the Quasi-War and the Barbary Wars, a long tradition of Congressional authorizations for war that are not formal declarations. From the Quasi-War to the Iraq War, the courts have upheld these distinction.
Yet there is clearly a large distinction between landing bluejackets against ports hosting pirates and privateers and today’s prolonged, massive targeted killing campaigns, at least in scale and scope. In logic, they are not so dissimilar. In the case of naval landings and punitive expeditions to defend American citizens and commerce abroad, the executive invoked unilateral prerogatives of national self-defense, or else the implicit (through Congressional maintenance of the standing navy) or explicit (Congressional authorizations of force) concurrence of the legislature. Acting against irregular actors, with varying levels of hostile state complicity, the executive used a large standing military force to engage in intermittent warfare.
There was a somewhat similar pattern of irregular and relatively small-scale hostilities during the many Indian Wars, but many of the Congressional authorizations lack meaningful modern analogues. More relevant, they were land wars, utilizing militias or federal troops mustered with direct Congressional approval. Despite occasional flirtations with a Napoleonic style land army from Federalists and nationalist politicians, the legislative constraints dovetailed with difficulties in central government resource extraction to limit a standing federal force that would grant the President leeway to engage in long land wars. Not only that, but given the relative weakness of the U.S. and the ubiquity of stronger European rivals, prolonged forays outside the American frontier were incredibly risky. So concerned was the early U.S. with interventions opening up broader conflicts that the Neutrality Act specifically circumscribed private citizens’ ability to follow their conscience or coin purse into combat.