A Graduation Speech Worth Considering

I know many who read this site would never give a Democrat the time of day; I ask that you take the time to read and think about the words Senator Kaine said at the VMI graduation.  Thanks.

“Welcome graduates, VMI faculty and administrators, families and friends.   And thanks so much for the invitation to be with you on this special day.  I was honored to address you as Governor nine years ago and it’s good to be back.

To the more than 300 cadets graduating today, I join your loved ones in expressing how proud we are of you, and how excited we are to see where you go from here.  More than half of you will continue your military careers by commissioning into a branch of the Armed Forces – a few mobilizing to deploy overseas with the Virginia National Guard as early as this week – while others will enter the civilian and private sectors or pursue graduate degrees.  No matter what path you have chosen, VMI has given you the tools to succeed as the next generation of American leaders.

Since my last appearance at a VMI commencement, my life has changed a bit.  I was elected to represent Virginia in the Senate and have the honor to serve as a member of the Armed Services, Budget and Foreign Relations Committees.  (I was also recently added as a member of the Aging Committee—I can’t imagine why!).  My committee assignments have given me a new and different perspective on the world.  I’ve traveled to more than 20 countries since taking office and the highlight of every trip is the opportunity to meet with great Virginians serving abroad in the military and as Foreign Service officers, Peace Corps volunteers, USAID professionals and intelligence analysts.  And on a personal note, one of my children has entered the military and currently serves as a Marine infantry commander, where he often works with squared away officers who hold degrees from VMI.

I am mindful of, and motivated by, the VMI example.  Just last week, I introduced a resolution in the Senate honoring one of VMI’s finest graduates, General George C. Marshall.  We talk about the three legged stool of national security–defense, diplomacy and development.  General Marshall was a model of all three:  Chief of Staff of the Army during WWII, post war Secretary of State, and author of the Marshall Plan which rebuilt Western Europe as a bulwark against the Soviet bloc.  His leadership and clear-eyed vision of the world was a testament to the foundation he developed here as a young man.

In all America’s wars and conflicts since its founding in 1839, VMI graduates have continually risen to the nation’s call.  I’d like to talk a bit about that call today.  For those of you who received a commission yesterday, you swore an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”   What an interesting oath—think about it.  A military officer does not pledge to support and defend the United States, but instead pledges to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.  So do military enlisted personnel.  So does the President of the United States.  And a United States Senator makes the same pledge.

Let’s look at the pledge we make together and apply it to our current situation.  On August 8, 2014, the President initiated a bombing campaign against ISIL—the Islamic State in the Levant.  ISIL was rapidly taking over territory in Syria and Iraq and, left unchecked, posed a threat to a US consulate in Irbil, Iraq.  Within a few weeks, the imminent threat to the United States was over.  But the President determined that ISIL posed a long-term threat to the US and its allies and that we needed to “go on offense” against ISIL.  He described the threat to the American public in a televised address on September 10, 2014 and asked Congress to support him in that mission.

21 months of offensive war later, thousands of Americans have been deployed to fight ISIL, including some VMI graduates.  Virginians connected with the USS Harry Truman carrier strike group are there now.  We’ve launched over 9,000 airstrikes and spent more than seven billion dollars.  And the original theatre of battle—Iraq and Syria—has expanded to include military action against ISIL elements in Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan and ground fighting as well as airstrikes.  As ISIL has conducted widening terrorist attacks in the Middle East, Africa and Europe—far from the original field of battle–there are ongoing discussions about whether US military force should be used in additional countries to battle the ISIL threat.

So far, Congress, despite repeated requests from the President, has refused to debate or vote to authorize the military action against ISIL.  Congress has strongly criticized the President for virtually every aspect of our anti-ISIL strategy.  But Congress has been unwilling to vote either to authorize the war or to stop it.

The May 5th edition of the New York Times carried two important stories about the war on ISIL.  On page A1, an article described the combat death of Navy Seal Charles Keating IV during a firefight against ISIL in Northern Iraq.  Charlie was a third generation service-member serving his third tour in Iraq.  He is one of 17 American military members who have been killed since August 2014 while deployed in the war against ISIL.  The other 16 are:

Petty Officer Second Class Ryan Daniel U.S. Navy

Staff Sergeant Louis Cardin, U.S. Marine Corps

Private Christopher Castaneda, U.S. Army

Private First Class Monterrious Daniel, U.S. Army

Petty Officer Third Class Devon Doyle, U.S. Navy

Captain William Dubois Jr., U.S. Air Force

Major John Gerrie, U.S. Air Force

Seaman Philip Manes, U.S. Navy

Airman 1st Class Nathaniel McDavitt, U.S. Air Force

Lance Corporal Sean Neal, U.S. Marine Corps

Tech Sergeant Anthony Salazar, U.S. Air Force

Corporal Jordan Spears, U.S. Marine Corps

Sergeant Joseph Stifter, U.S. Army

Major Jonathan Walker, U.S. Army

Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, U.S. Army

First Lieutenant David Bauders, U.S. Army

The article about Charlie Keating’s death included a surreal account of the back and forth in the Administration over whether his death in a firefight was a “combat death.”

On page A14 on the same day, a second article described a lawsuit filed by Army Captain Nathan Smith, an active duty officer deployed in Kuwait as part of the war against ISIL.  Captain Smith is also a third generation service-member with multiple deployments since 2010.  He believes that America should be at war with ISIL but that the Constitution specifies that such a decision must be made by Congress rather than the President.  And, in his own words, “Congress is AWOL.”  And so, while affirming under oath that he intends to continue to follow all orders, he has asked a Court to declare whether or not this 21 month war, initiated by the President and not ratified by a vote of Congress, is, in fact, constitutional.

In both articles, we see sacrifice by our service-members.  Charlie Keating sacrificed to serve and then paid for that sacrifice with his very life.  Nathan Smith sacrifices to serve and may jeopardize his own military career by filing a lawsuit challenging whether the war against ISIL is constitutional.  And in both articles, we see serious questions about our political leadership.  Why would the Administration quibble over whether Charlie Keating’s death was, in fact, “a combat death?”  Is Congress AWOL when it comes to authorizing military action against ISIL?  What must we do to honor our oaths to support and defend the Constitution of the United States?

Let’s look at the Constitution.  The powers of the Legislative Branch, the first of the three co-equal branches, are laid out in Article I.  And that article clearly gives to Congress the power to declare war and to provide budgetary support for the nation’s defense and our other priorities.  The President, pursuant to Article II, is designated as the commander in chief of the military.  And the framers of these clauses, with Virginian James Madison as the chief drafter, had a very clear sense of how these powers are interrelated.  War should only be initiated by Congress.  But once war is initiated, the President, rather than Congress or any of its members, is the civilian commander responsible for the direction of military action.  The only understood exception to this balance was the recognition that a President, as commander in chief, can act immediately to defend against an imminent attack on the United States.  But, to go on offense against an enemy requires a vote of Congress.

We take this balance of powers for granted now, but it is important to remember just how radical it was at the time.  Throughout human history, the initiation of war has been for the monarch, the king, the emperor, the sultan.  It has been an executive function.  It is still that way in much of the world.  And when our Constitution was being drafted, there were those like Alexander Hamilton who wanted war to be primarily an executive responsibility.  But Madison prevailed, essentially making an effort to change the course of history with the decision that war should not be initiated without a vote by the people’s elected legislature.  And in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in the 1790’s, he explained why:  “Our Constitution supposes, what the history of all governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war and most prone to it.  It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war to the legislature.”  On a separate occasion, Madison described this particular clause as the most important single element in the entire American constitution: “In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found, than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature and not to the executive department.”

Why does it matter that war begin with a vote of Congress?  I submit that it matters because of the sacrifice we ask you to make.  All who volunteer to serve in the military do so knowing of the many risks involved.  The most serious risk is war—where lives are lost or dramatically changed.  We’ve lost 17 American troops in the war on ISIL and many more have been injured.  Madison believed that there must be a compact between political leadership and those risking their lives.  The compact is simple—unless a war has the support of the people’s elected legislative branch, as demonstrated by their voting in support of it, we shouldn’t order troops to risk their lives in that war.  What could be more immoral than ordering troops to risk their lives in a war that Congress was unwilling to publicly support?

I asked General Joe Dunford, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about this at an Armed Services hearing about a year ago.  I noted that we were at war without a vote of Congress and I inquired whether it would make a difference to our troops if Congress would finally vote on this war.  He said that it would make a difference and offered this explanation:  “I think what our young men and women need—and it is virtually all that they need—is the sense that what they are doing has meaning, has value and has the support of the American people.”  More recently, retired General James Mattis, who followed General Peay as the commander of US Central Command, also talked about the need for a Congressional vote, saying that “worth more than 10 battleships or 5 armored divisions is a sense of American political resolve.”

I maintain that the absence of a Congressional vote on the war against ISIL suggests we lack resolve.  Our allies and our adversaries read it that way.  And our troops wonder if we have their backs in this important fight.  So why has Congress been silent?

When President Obama spoke to the American public about the need to take action against ISIL in September 2010, I drafted and introduced a Congressional authorization to use military force against the terrorist group so that the military action would be lawful.  My proposal eventually was heard, modified and voted out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee onto the floor of the Senate in December 2014.  There it died with no Senate action.

In June 2015–as the war continued, as the expense grew, as the number of American casualties multiplied–I introduced a bipartisan war authorization in the Senate with my Foreign Relations Colleague, Arizona Republican Jeff Flake.  A bipartisan group of colleagues in the House introduced the Kaine/Flake proposal on the House side.  To date, our proposals have not received meaningful debate or votes in either chamber.

When asked why they are unwilling to vote on the ongoing war, many in Congress assert that the President already has the power to do it.  They cite the September 2001 vote of Congress to allow the President to take action against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack.  But ISIL did not form until two years after the 9/11 attacks so that claim is highly controversial, both within Congress and among legal analysts.  I believe the real reason for Congressional inaction is a desire to avoid accountability.  It is easy to criticize the President for many aspects of the war and I have done so, starting with my sharp criticism of the initiation of an offensive war without a Congressional vote.  But this is a responsibility that is ultimately assigned to Congress in Article I.  And members of Congress have chosen to avoid a vote on the theory that either a yes or no vote carries political risk.  In my view, this is a shameful abdication of responsibility.

Congressional inaction not only shows a lack of resolve.  It also sets a dangerous precedent.  We have allowed President Obama to wage an executive war of his own choosing without any Congressional permission for nearly 2 years.  It’s not hard to imagine that a future President will use this example to also justify initiating war without the permission of Congress.

I should point out that this problem—an overreaching executive starts a war and Congress tries to avoid a vote—is not a new phenomenon. While Madison foresaw the danger of a too-powerful executive and tried to curb it in his allocation of war powers, he did not foresee that Congress might strive mightily to avoid voting on war authorization matters.  And so the overwhelming number of wars in our nation’s history have started just this way—initiated by the executive prior to Congressional declaration.   Sometimes Congress has subsequently acted to ratify the President’s actions and sometimes it has remained on the sidelines.   So the current situation is not unique.  But the duration of this war, and its likely future duration, is without any parallel in our nation’s history.

Congress can fix this.  We need to shoulder our responsibility and take up an authorization of the war against ISIL.  It is immoral to continue sending Americans into war if we are unwilling to vote to support that war.  If we do vote to support it—and I believe we would—the war can go forward as appropriately authorized.   If we vote against an authorization, even though I would be disappointed in that vote, we should stop waging an illegal war.

This unusual and lengthy executive war has also demonstrated the need for additional reforms.  The post-9/11 war authorization, which has been utilized now for 15 years to take military action against multiple groups in more than a dozen countries, is due for a major revision.   The rising role of non-state terrorist and criminal groups who will use violence to achieve their ends requires us to think differently about the nature of war in the 21st Century.   New technologies like drones and cyber-attacks have raced ahead of our doctrines about war.  Finally, the breakdown in productive dialogue between the executive and legislative branches over how wars begin and end should call us to a broader reform of the War Powers Resolution of 1973.

Having an agreed-upon consultative process for dialogue between the President and Congress about the initiation of war will never make that decision easy.  Deciding to initiate war should always be hard given the human consequences.  But the lack of any clear process for consultation and decision takes difficult national security challenges and makes them even harder to resolve.  Senator John McCain and I have proposed a War Powers Consultation Act, based on work done at the Miller Center at UVA in 2006-07, to develop an agreed upon framework for making the most fundamental decision we should ever make as a nation, whether to go to war.

As I conclude, I do note that the oath taken by American troops, Presidents and Senators should not be exclusive to those of us with military or political titles.  All of us should care about the Constitution, about not only doing the right things, but doing them the right way.  To the extent that members of Congress think they can avoid a hard vote required by the Constitution, they believe that they can do so because of their belief that the citizenry will not hold them accountable for that.  You need to hold us accountable.  No one should understand that responsibility more than a VMI graduate schooled in the mission to create citizen-soldiers.

This VMI mission is ultimately about creating values-based leaders. And in that sense, your personal challenge is the same challenge that we confront at an institutional level as we grapple with this difficult war powers question.  We have a clear rule.  And yet, when confronted with a tough challenge, many are tempted to avoid our responsibility.

You will also face tough choices. Will you rely upon your own constitution—the values and principles that have been shaped by the institution, your families and other mentors?  This institution, and there are very few like it, has ingrained in you a strict moral compass and a passion for integrity.  Do not fall victim to the belief that these values, that compass, your integrity can be compromised in times of crisis.  Because if you fail to adhere to your principles, you will find yourself drifting off course, less sure of your identity and what to do, and in a position where those you are leading question your authority to do so.

Good luck and Godspeed.”

 

About keydet1976

Retired as a Colonel in the United States Army after 33 years of service. Graduate of the VMI, MA in History at JMU, completed course work for Ph.D in History University of Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Constitution, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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