Friday, October 12, 2012

Letter of Marque and Reprisal

On occasion, I'll offer a recommendation for a book if it concerns the Navy and offers some insight into naval matters.  Such a book is Balance of Power by James Huston (Avon Books, 1998, ISBN: 0-380-73159-2).  The plot involves a terrorist confrontation in Indonesian waters.  What makes the book noteworthy is that it postulates the use of a Letter of Marque and Reprisal, issued by Congress to an American carrier battle group in order to authorize and force retaliatory action when the President refuses to take action after American citizens are killed and an American merchant ship is sunk.

For those who might not be familiar with it, a Letter of Marque was, historically, a document issued by a government to an armed merchant ship authorizing the ship to seize enemy ships on behalf of the government.  The ability to issue a Letter of Marque is one of the enumerated powers of Congress specifically granted by the U.S. Constitution in Article 1, Section 8.  While no longer used, the power still resides in the Constitution, never having been repealed.  Indeed, use of a Letter of Marque was brought up in Congress as recently as the 9/11 attacks and again in 2007 though in neither case was it acted upon.

The book examines the concept of a Letter of Marque as applied to a modern setting.  It notes that in the absence of armed merchantmen the Letter is issued to a Navy carrier battle group.  While this was not the traditional application, nothing specifically prohibits it.  The book explores the legal aspects, though not in depth, as well as the dilema confronting the Admiral of the carrier group who is presented with the Letter as well as an order from the President to stand down and must choose which to obey.  Even without the plot twist of the Letter, the book is a good naval action story and well worth reading.

In addition to the specific issue of the Letter of Marque, the book prompts a consideration of the role of Congress relative to that of the President in declaring war and operating the military.  I think it's safe to say that few would argue that the Presidency has co-opted Congress' power to regulate war ever since the Korean War.  This is a power and responsibility that Congress has shamefully abdicated with the result that the Presidency now has virtually unlimited ability to wage war.  Congress needs to reassert its authority and re-establish the balance of power between the branches of government.

Do yourself an enjoyable favor and read this book!

Disclaimer:  I have absolutely no connection whatsoever with any person or company associated with this book.


  1. Will keep eyes out for the book.
    However, its not a new idea.

    I remember, at least ten years ago, people arguing that the US could unilaterally declare the dollar a world currency, and begin seizing ships (mostly oil tankers) shipping oil that was bought and sold using gold.

  2. Not having read the book, a couple of questions spring up.
    1. Why not just impeach the president? If you have enough votes to issue a letter of marque and feel that strongly about it, why not just impeach?
    2. A Letter of Marque is issued to a private citizen. Couldn't BUPERS issue orders to the Admiral or the next senior just relieve him?
    3. What about ROE and military regulations? A letter of Marque doesn't alleviate the Admiral from following lawful orders. Congress can remove the person in the chain of command but has no power to assume the role itself.

    1. All of your questions are addressed in the book. Without giving away too much of the plot, here's some quick answers.

      1.Impeachment is part of the plot but would only remove the President. It would not force military action against the terrorists which is the focus of the plot.
      2.The Admiral of the carrier battle group does, in fact, receive orders from the President/Joint Chiefs instructing him to stand down. His dilema is which orders to obey, the President or the duly authorized Letter direct from the Constitution and Congress. Both are legitimate and they are totally contradictory. There is an additional, major factor at play which permeates the entire plot but I don't want to give it away.
      3.A Letter would not invalidate the chain of command unless the Letter and chain were in opposition (see 2.). Congress does have the power to issue the Letter which, if accepted, does give the recipient independent power. For example, early armed merchant ships were not subject to a chain of command other than Congress' authorization.

      By the way, please recognize that I'm just describing the book and the plot. I'm not suggesting that Congress start taking over battle groups with Letters!

      As I said in the post, the book raises some very interesting points in addition to just the Letter. Other aspects are raised which directly relate to the way Congress has abdicated its responsibility and some other points that I don't want to give away. It's a very good read and I think anyone with an interest in military and naval matters would enjoy it. Have a read!


Comments will be moderated for posts older than 30 days in order to reduce spam.