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The Fracturing Of The National Will

The lesson of Vietnam, a war of policy and limited political objectives, is that on the battlefield the United States military accomplished every tactical objective it set, but in the end North Vietnam, and not the United States, emerged strategically victorious. The success of the United States military in destroying the Viet Cong insurgency did not prevent North Vietnam from attaining its strategic objective of defeating American public support for the war and forcing the United States to withdraw from South Vietnam. In defeating American public support for the Vietnam War North Vietnam was able to fracture the national will of the United States.

Can the same thing happen in the War on Terror?

In labeling its post-9/11 efforts the “War” on Terror the United States invoked a war metaphor. In so doing it has tied its success or failure to the rules of war, including the national will, which consists of two elements: The political will of the government, and the public will as reflected in popular support. It is a principle of United States history that where there is no national will there can be no war. The same holds true in the War on Terror.

Is the national will fractured? To answer that question first requires a second question: Is the United States truly at war in the War on Terror? An examination of the branches of American government – the executive, the legislative, and the judicial – reveals a lack of unity on the issue. In the opening words of the 2006 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, released by the White House, the executive branch states unambiguously that, “America is at war with a transnational terrorist movement fueled by a radical ideology of hatred, oppression, and murder.” (1) Although this would presume to resolve the issue the legislative and judicial branches of the government are not in accordance with the executive branch.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 Congress passed Public Laws 107-40 and 107-243. These laws give the President broad powers to prosecute the effort that has come to be known popularly as the War on Terror. Under the provisions of Public Law 107-40, the President is authorized to use force against those nations, organizations, or persons who planned and carried out the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, and those that harbored them, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.(2) Public Law 107-243 authorizes the President to use the armed forces of the United States to defend the United States against the threat posed by Iraq, and to enforce United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.(3) However, from a legal perspective these laws are not a formal declaration of war by the legislative branch.

In 2004 the United States Supreme Court ruled that War on Terror detainees at Guantanamo Bay can take their cases that they are unlawfully imprisoned to the American court system.(4) The Court further reinforced its position in 2006 when it later ruled against Bush Administration efforts to conduct war crimes trials for some detainees at Guantanamo Bay.(5) The impact of the Court’s rulings are that they call into question whether the United States is legally at war in the War on Terror, or whether it is actually pursuing a law enforcement action. By offering protections of the United States legal system to the detainees, it appears that the judicial branch does not recognize the War on Terror as a war according to legal and historical definitions.

Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, gives to Congress – the elected representatives of the American people – the power to declare war. A declaration of war – to establish the national will – therefore becomes a shared responsibility between the political will of the government and the popular will of its constituents. This is more than just a formality. Failure by Congress to declare war in Vietnam led to a failure to mobilize the second element of the national will, the popular will of the United States public, and ultimately contributed to the nation’s defeat. A declaration of war gives the President clear-cut military authority, as well as non-military options, including internment of armed combatants and seizure of foreign funds and assets. A formal declaration of war in the War on Terror may have precluded the Supreme Court’s decision to grant detainees at Guantanamo Bay access to the protections of the United States judicial system.

In the War on Terror, the United States is currently expending the bulk of its strategic military efforts against insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, which can be viewed as fronts in the larger War on Terror, and a global insurgency being waged by the al Qaeda terrorist network.(6) In a manner reminiscent of Vietnam, public opinion polls reflect that, while the American public continues to support the overall War on Terror, it has grown increasingly disenchanted with the War in Iraq.

American leaders would do well to heed the risk of pursuing a war metaphor in the War on Terror without achieving unity among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, and without maintaining public support. To fracture the national will – its political or its public elements – would invite strategic failure similar to that which occurred in Vietnam.


(1) National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, 2006. 1.
http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nsct/2006/nsct2006.pdf (accessed 09/07/06)

(2) Congressional Record 147 (2001), September 14. Public Law 107-40, 115 STAT. 224, Authorization For Use of Military Force.

(3) Congressional Record 148 (2002), October 10. Public Law 107-243, 116 STAT. 1498, Authorization For Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.

(4) Rasul et al v. Bush, President of the United States, et al., 542 U.S. 03-334 and 03-343 (2004). The majority ruling of the Supreme Court was that United States courts have jurisdiction to consider challenges to the legality of the detention of foreign nationals captured abroad in connection with hostilities and incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay. As the Supreme Court pointed out, the Guantanamo Bay detainees: are not nationals of countries at war with the United States; deny they have engaged in or plotted acts of aggression against the United States; have never been afforded access to any tribunal and therefore have never been tried and convicted of wrongdoing; for more than two years have been imprisoned in territory over which the United States exercises exclusive jurisdiction and control.

(5) Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, et al., 548 U.S. 05-184 (2006). The majority ruling of the Supreme Court was that it has jurisdiction to hear the case of an accused combatant before his military commission takes place; that the federal government did not have authority to set up these particular special military commissions; and that the special military commissions were illegal under both the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Convention of 1949.

(6) National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, 2005, 1. http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/iraq/iraq_national_strategy_20051130.pdf (accessed 02/09/06)

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