One of the more ominous but pointed Latin quotations that fits this time and numerous other times of great struggle is “laws are silent in matters of arms.” Those who desire a sound legal order by nature are people who seek peace, because war offers a chance to get around legal issues that would be insoluble in other occasions. This is both a danger and an opportunity, and most governments worthy of the name tend to be greatly strengthened in the face of conflict. Moreover, even when it comes to cherished rights, there are some rights that even in the United States are made explicitly contingent on there not being rebellion, such as the right of habeas corpus that requires prosecutors to state what charges someone is being held for rather than being imprisoned indefinitely as is the tradition in less free regimes. Ultimately, the only law in warfare is to win, for while a great deal can be forgiven of people who commit atrocities and use strategic bombing to kill tens of thousands of people from the sky if they win, those who lose wars will quickly find themselves in the dock for crimes against humanity.
How does one know that one is at war? This is not as obvious a question as may appear to be the case. For example, I regularly read books that talk about the way that America has been at war for long periods of time while people do not know or recognize the fact, and that this has created a sense of alienation between ordinary civilians who go about their daily business while their fellow men and women are fighting and dying in far-off lands. At the present day, it may be said that there is war in some parts of the United States, but not necessarily in others. For most of this year there has been a great deal of low-level urban warfare going on in cities all around the United States, including Portland, but for those of us in the suburbs of the city, we have only slightly had our experience worsened by the presence of irritating and annoying leftist protesters. What for some people is war is for many others simply political disagreement.
What, then, is the threshold that allows people to recognize that war has been declared? Traditionally speaking, the United States has been a nation that has often been surprised by hostilities and has often been unprepared at the start of a war, only to take time to build up logistical strength and fight wars to sometimes extremely brutal ends. For example, the threat of not having enough oil for military and civilian use combined with the brutality of fighting in China meant that in World War II, Japan was at war long before the United States was, as was the case for Germany and the United Kingdom in Europe. Similarly, the Confederacy was at war before the Union, and it was only the attack on Fort Sumpter that brought the mood of Northerners to the point where war was joined by both parties with equal seriousness. It will likely take such an act to make the United States feel as if it is at war equally on all sides of our existing civil disorder.
This is not to say that such a realization is a good thing, only that it tends to be a pattern that most Americans are not quick to realize that they are in fact at war, and when this realization is brought home to them, there is often a profound sense of anger and betrayal at what others have done even when other nations have had reasonable cases to be upset at the behavior of the American government. There has always been a large gap between the behavior of the government and its bureaucrats and military officers and diplomats on the one hand and the behavior and interests of the American people as a whole. And this gap has made it quite frequent where other governments and militaries have acted in response to the behavior of what America’s government has done and escalated their conflict to involve the American people at large, which has seldom ended up being a desirable escalation. Yet people still try anyway, and are likely to try in the future.