As a chaplain, I’m a theologian, not a lawyer. But as a commissioned officer, I’m also trained in military strategy, political science, and the ins-and-outs of making war. I have master’s degrees in both theology and military science but not law. Clearly, I am more interested in the philosophy of war—especially the notion of a just war—than I am the legality of any particular conflict. That said, I am in plainly in the minority among those warfighters, commanders, and leaders in today’s armed forces. In fact, though one of my principal roles is apparently to advise commanders on the ethics of war, I have yet to be consulted by a single leader on the subject. Typically, commanders run to the JAGs to tell them what they legally can do rather than be troubled with what they morally should do.
With the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks against the US coming up soon, I decided to take a fresh look at the political and legal authorization our nation’s leadership has used to keep us at war for the last 15 years. As I read over the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), I was a bit taken aback. No, I was shocked. There is no way possible that any plain-sense reading of the AUMF could be understood as legally allowing the President to continue operations against ISIS/ISIL. In other words, I believe our current military operations are illegal.
That’s a pretty big statement, I understand. Here’s the text of that part of the AUMF pertaining to the President’s use of the military to fight terror:
That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.
That’s it. Short and sweet. Sweeping and general. Open-ended and nebulous. But, in spite of being all of those things, there is no way that it is supportive of combat operations against ISIS. Why? Most simply, ISIS did not exist on 11 September 2001, so there is no way they could have “planned, authorized, committed, or aided” in the attacks or “harbored such organizations or persons” as Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, etc. If the anachronistic aspects of this aren’t enough, how about another reason? ISIS and Al-Qaeda are at war with each other. That’s right. They are enemies, not allies. Seems you would have to do some real legal gymnastics to suggest that the text of AUMF also allows us to be at war with our enemy’s enemies.
It may well be in our “national interest” to continue to fight ISIS. That evaluation is well beyond the scope of this post. I shall take it up in the near future. With that said, however, if it is the choice of our President and Congress to do so, they need to step up and take accountability for it. They need to have the tough, public discussions needed to pass another authorization or, better yet, an actual declaration of war...after all, that is one of Congress’ jobs.
Until that point, every man and woman in uniform is in the awkward (at best) and immoral (at worst) position of being ordered to carry out illegal orders, playing a role in the unauthorized use of America’s military force around the world.