America’s official wars

The United States of America has only officially declared war on five occasions in over two centuries of its existence. Formal declarations were made by Congress in 1812, 1846, 1898, 1917 and 1941. So does this mean the US has spent most of its history at peace? And what about the Korean, Vietnam, Gulf, Iraqi and Afghanistan wars?

Under Article One of Section Eight of the Constitution of the United States, Congress is given the power to declare War. Formal declarations of war have been made in the following conflicts:

  • The War of 1812 (18 June 1812);
  • Mexican-American War (13 May 1846);
  • Spanish-American War (25 April 1898);
  • World War I (6 April 1917 (Germany) and 7 December 1917 (Austria-Hungary); and
  • World War II (8 December 1941 (Japan), 11 December 1941 (Germany and Italy) and 5 June 1945 (Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania).

Given the limited number of times formal declarations of war have been made, how was the US been engaged in so many military conflicts over the centuries? A little bit of semantics and a lot of power politics between the legislature and executive have provided room for military clashes. 

In some cases, Congress has authorised extended military combat and the deployment of the United States’ armed forces. Such authorisations have covered conflicts such as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Gulf War and the support of South Vietnam in the Vietnam War.

Other conflicts have been authorised by a United Nations Security Council Resolutions and funded by Congress. UN-backed military engagements have included interventions in Korea, Libya and Haiti.

Finally, there are a bunch of conflicts that have not involved any Congressional oversight or sanction. Wars against native American tribes, the Philippines and the bombing of Yugoslavia have all been undertaken under presidential sanction but without the approval of Congress.

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Fighting spirits (and beer, cider and wine)

During the darkest days of the First World War, the British Government feared a domestic enemy almost as much as the hated Hun. As men were slaughtered in the churning quagmires of the trenches, the demon drink stalked in the homes and factories of the home front. The restrictions and prohibitions that were put in place had a profound effect on domestic life which continues to be felt today.

It is a stark image designed to shame the indolent and contrast their easy lot with that of the trench-bound soldier. The ‘thirty-six-hours-a-week’ worker is shown leaning on a bar with a large tankard of beer. The ‘all-the-week’ worker, a soldier, rests against a trench wall taking a sip from a medicinal flask. Underneath the cartoon was an even starker editorial message:

“The drink question is becoming very serious amongst our workers at home. A minority of them are “holding up” necessary munitions or repairs by intemperate habits. Those who do this are simply fighting our brave men in the trenches as ruthlessly as the Germans are.”

Cartoon by W. K. Haselden  in the Daily Mirror, 31 Mar 1915

This message echoed the official government line. In January 1915, Lloyd George told the Shipbuilding Employers Federation that Britain was: “fighting German’s, Austrians and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest of these foes is Drink”. He hammered home the message, stating that: “drink is doing us more damage in the war than all the German submarines put together”.

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Britain’s fiercest of foes

Who was Britain’s greatest ever foe? The contest, run by the National Army Museum, lends itself to controversy and debate. And that is exactly what the museum encouraged by hosting a day long event with presentations on behlf of five leading contendors followed by questions, discussion and a secret ballot.
The list was narrowed down from a long list of twenty to the top five by a public vote on the museum’s website. The top five foes (in order of votes cast) were:
1. George Washington (30)
2. Michael Collins (14)
3. Napoleon Bonaparte (12)
4. Erwin Rommel (7)
5. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (4)
Three, perhaps four, of these names are well known. I personally would not have identified Atatürk as one of Britain’s foes and I read the case for his inclusion with interest. The reson for his inclusion was soon obvious – Atatürk masterminded the campaign against the allied forces at Gallipoli. His defence of the Dardanelles forced the disastrous evacuation and withdrawal of the allies from Turkey. This alone merits his inclusion in the list – Britain’s failure to force the Turkish front prevented the piercing of the Central Powers’ soft southern underbelly.

Red poppies and blue cornflowers

The red poppy is the ubiquitous symbol of remembrance throughout the UK and much of the Commonwealth.Its counterpart in France is another wild flower that was found in Flanders Fields – the blue cornflower or the Bleuet de France.

Since 1933 there has also been a White Poppy sold by the Peace Pledge Union, which is seen as an alternative by anti-war activists.

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