For the United State to formally go to war requires a joint resolution of both Congresses and then executed by the President.
The last time this happened 5 June 1942, when the United States declared war on Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania.
In total, we’ve declared war only 11 times. The first was on 17 June 1812 when we declared was against Great Britain.
Since then we’ve declared war:
On Mexico. 12 May 1846
On Spain. 25 April 1898
On Germany. 6 April 1917
On Austria-Hungary. 7 Dec 1917
On Japan. 8 Dec 1941
On Germany. 11 Dec 1941
On Italy. 11 Dec 1941
On Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. 4 June 1942
And that, folks is it. Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Iraq, all of it: not technically wars.
Article One, Section Eight, of the Constitution declares that “Congress shall have the power to declare War”. However, it’s not designated exactly how Congress does that. In fact, it’s kind of buried in there. Clause 8 is “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their Respective Writings and Discoveries.” Which means my copyright comes before Clause 11: “To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.” What letters of Marque and Reprisal mean is we can hire pirates to attack our enemies. So. Yeah. Kind of out of date. But it’s still there.
Technically, this has been adjusted over the years to allow Congress to “authorize” us going to war, rather than declaring it.
The current situation is somewhat confusing. Technically, the war in Iraq ended on 28 Dec 2014. Except we still have troops in the region. Some dying.
The war in Afghanistan ended even earlier on 15 December 2011. Really? Someone didn’t send out the notice.
The “War on Terror” doesn’t exist. Legally.
We are currently conducting military actions in six countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and let’s add Syria to that list. The authorization from Congress for us to be doing that is hazy at best. The definitions of our actions there is largely undefined. We have SOF, Special Operations Forces, in 134 countries, give or take, which can range (from personal experience where I was the highest ranking military commander on the ground in a foreign country) from a single A-Team to a heck of a lot more. What those troops are doing is teaching other people to fight a war on the side we desire. There are also SOF missions such as Direct Action and Strategic Recon.
The biggest problem we have is there is no specific end game. As someone who has spent a large percentage of his life engaged in preparing for and executing “war”, one of the first things I was taught is that there must be a specific strategic objective in a military campaign. “Stopping terror” is not an objective.
As contained in an unclassified CIA document, the definition of victory in the War on Terror is:
Victory against terrorism will not occur as a single, defining moment. It will not be marked by the likes of the surrender ceremony on the deck of the USS Missouri that ended World War II. However, through the sustained effort to compress the scope and capability of terrorist organizations, isolate them regionally, and destroy them within state borders, the United States and its friends and allies will secure a world in which our children can live free from fear and where the threat of terrorist attacks does not define our daily lives.
Victory, therefore, will be secured only as long as the United States and the international community maintain their vigilance and work tirelessly to prevent terrorists from inflicting horrors like those of September 11, 2001.
Unfortunately that vague goal can’t be won by force of arms. A thing called history informs us of that. If, in our hubris, we believe we can do something that has never been done before, that is why it’s called hubris.
We do indeed live in interesting times.