The case for declaring war

No, not the current one: that is not our war; but in general an honest declaration solves all sorts of problems and ambiguities.

I cannot think of any occasion since VE Day that the United Kingdom, or the United States come to that, has issued a declaration of war. If this were an indication that peace has reigned, that would be a fine thing, but it has not, and British forces have been engaged in many wars, not just against insurgencies but against states – against China (in Korea), Egypt, Indonesia, Argentina, Iraq twice over, Serbia, Syria and more I am sure, without a single admission that this was war indeed in spite of its being obvious.

This is not peace but mendacity, and it leaves uncertainty about the consequences.

We have forgotten why the Crown declares war (and how to: in August 1914 it was said that the Foreign Office were in a panic because they had not issued a formal declaration of war for so long they had forgotten how). Two points:

  • A declaration of war is not an act of aggression but a recognition of an existing reality;
  • It is a declaration to one own nation more than to the enemy.

When a state of war exists, British subjects are on notice that they may not trade with the enemy; citizens of the enemy state are subject to legal disabilities and their property is frozen; having business with the enemy is a form of treachery, perhaps even treason. How would one know when these apply without an actual statement from the government that a state of war exists?

On the other side of the coin where there is no state of war, Britons are free to do business as we please, and defy all the tutting disapproval of politicians as we do so. There must be a sharp distinction.

It is not obvious when there is a war, when all trafficking with the other side must stop. As Hobbes observes:

For WARRE, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre; as it is in the nature of Weather. For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together: So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE.

In the old days there was no need for parchments and seals and florid language: a Royal Navy frigate would haul over to Normandy and seize a couple of French fishing boats, and that was a declaration that a state of war existed.

Even a paper war is war if unambiguous.  If we read the account by Hobbes of how the Civil War began, it was when “the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known“:

After the sending of these propositions to the King, and his Majesty’s refusal to grant them, they began, on both sides, to prepare for war. The King raised a guard for his person in Yorkshire, and the Parliament, thereupon having voted that the King intended to make war upon his Parliament, gave order for the mustering and exercising the people in arms, and published propositions to invite and encourage them to bring in either ready money or plate, or to promise under their hands to furnish and maintain certain numbers of horse, horsemen, and arms, for the defence of the King and Parliament, (meaning by King, as they had formerly declared, not his person, but his laws); promising to repay their money with interest of 8l. in the 100l. and the value of their plate with twelve-pence the ounce for the fashion. On the other side, the King came to Nottingham, and there did set up his standard royal, and sent out commissions of array to call those to him, which by the ancient laws of England were bound to serve him in the wars. Upon this occasion there passed divers declarations between the King and Parliament concerning the legality of this array, which are too long to tell you at this time.

In the meantime the Parliament raised an army, and made the Earl of Essex general thereof; by which act they declared what they meant formerly, when they petitioned the King for a guard to be commanded by the said Earl of Essex. And now the King sends out his proclamations, forbidding obedience to the orders of the Parliament concerning the militia; and the Parliament send out orders against the execution of the commissions of array. Hitherto, though it were a war before, yet there was no blood shed; they shot at one another nothing but paper.

It soon became more than paper, and what a bloody war it was to torture the guts of the realm. The reality was shown before the first musket ball flew.

If all wars could cease by the stroke of a pen, let that pen be brought forth at once. A generation which has only seen peace at home may not know how there are no words to describe the horror of it but those cowering under the rubble of Kiev, weeping for their sons and husbands or living in uncertain terror from moment to moment may show you. If the obsolescence of formal Declarations meant this could not happen then would be well rid of those poisonous documents. However perhaps doing away with them has made it worse: if no government could begin its war without taking the awesome step of an open, formal declaration, they would not set to war as lightsomely as has been done over these last eighty decades, and there would be far fewer widows in dark rooms cursing to the end of their days. War is no light step, and pretending you have not taken it just because you did not signed a formal document, is dishonesty.

See also


Author: AlexanderTheHog

A humble scribbler who out of my lean and low ability will lend something to Master Hobbes