Congress Owes an Authorization for the Use of Military Force to Our Servicemembers

By Nathan Smith

I remember hearing the assurances for the first time in fall of 2015, early in my deployment to Kuwait. A few days before, Master Sgt. Josh Wheeler had been killed in a raid in Iraq, the first U.S. combat casualty of the anti-ISIL Operation Inherent Resolve. Our headquarters was somber and before our normal briefing to the general, we observed a moment of silence as Wheeler’s picture was displayed on the huge television in the operations center.

Political developments spun along in Washington. Paul Ryan succeeded John Boehner as Speaker of the House, and an optimism seemed to rein that soon things would return to normal. I wondered if that would include with an Authorization for the Use of Military Force vote.

Fall became winter and I read of newly-elected Speaker Ryan’s stated desire to move on a new AUMF. In the Senate, despite a draft AUMF being submitted by Sen. Lindsey Graham, the majority leader continued to express his nonsensical desire “not to tie the hands of the next president” despite the seemingly obvious reality that the Congress had every right to issue either a blank check or hand-tying to the president as was their constitutional prerogative. Meanwhile, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) continued to make impassioned speeches on the Senate floor calling on his colleagues to end their abiding failure to discharge their constitutional obligations. He was ignored.

In both Iraq and Syria, strikes were conducted daily, many projected in granular detail on the screen of the operation center where my soldiers and I worked sifting through intelligence reports. As the Iraqi Army began its slow offensive on Mosul, Marine Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin was killed by an ISIL rocket.

Another moment of silence before a briefing, another picture projected on a screen.

Shortly after SSgt Cardin' s death, I remember the HQ being told to no longer refer to the outpost where he had been killed by its former name of Fire Base Bell. It was now to be referred to only as the Kara Soar Counter Fire Complex. No reason was provided. Later, I sat at my desk and read an article sent to me by a friend which clarified the reason and confirmed the insulting semantics of the Administration's classification of casualties. According to anonymous Defense Department sources speaking to the New York Times, the old name had made it sound too much as if the Marines were in active combat. I felt my knuckles turn white as I squeezed my desk.

Several months passed. I had returned shortly before from leave in the U.S. to find the headquarters frenetic as the operational tempo increased. I was a wreck. The following day, I had a lawsuit scheduled to be filed in the D.C Circuit Courts. You may have heard about it. Events were already in motion, and I had no desire to stop them, but I wondered if tomorrow would be the start of a process leading to my court-martial. Certainly, my military career was effectively finished, and with it would end my family’s three-generation tradition of career military service. I allowed myself a moment of self-pity. The intercom on the operations floor cut into these reflections. A SEAL named Charles Keating had been killed in Iraq. The self-pity disappeared.

The lawsuit Smith v. Obama was filed on May 4, 2016 against the president for violations of the 1973 War Powers Resolution and executive overreach in the absence of Congressional authorization for the war against ISIL. Since that time, principled members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have led efforts to force a debate and vote upon the reluctant leadership. All attempts have failed, and a war which Congress has never voted on continues into another presidency.

Last month, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) sponsored an amendment in the Senate to sunset the current outdated and irrelevant AUMF that the Obama and Trump administrations have dubiously claimed provides them authority to continue the war.

In a speech on the Senate floor, Paul stated:

“My vote is on whether or not we should vote on whether or not we should be at war. So for those who oppose my vote, they oppose the Constitution.”

His amendment was defeated 61 to 36. Both Republicans and Democrats voted against his attempt at accountability.

Almost a year to the day after we came home, my old unit recently redeployed to Kuwait to again serve as the headquarters for anti-ISIL operations in Iraq and Syria, this time without me.

With the defeat of Sen. Paul’s amendment, it appears that after almost four years of war, those soldiers will again return from their rotation never knowing if they actually had the support of their Congress. After all, it continues to refuse to vote on the mission they had risked their lives to conduct.

Even after observing it for so long, such cowardice is unfathomable to me. Whether it be for war or peace, Congress is morally obligated to act with an open debate and vote. Too many servicemen have already died in a war that America’s leaders would rather avoid being tainted by. Each day that passes underlines the disgrace of those both on Capitol Hill and in the White House, and continues America’s listless drift further from its constitution on matters of war and peace.

Nathan Smith is a veteran of Afghanistan and the counter-ISIS Operation Inherent Resolve.

This piece was originally published by War on the Rock on October 25, 2017. Read more HERE.