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Is there a difference today between war and peace?

An Afghan boy stands next to a United States Marine during an operation in the volatile Helmand province of southern Afghanistan. For most Americans, a war like the one in Afghanistan tests the traditional boundaries of wartime and peacetime. An Afghan boy stands next to a United States Marine during an operation in the volatile Helmand province of southern Afghanistan. For most Americans, a war like the one in Afghanistan tests the traditional boundaries of wartime and peacetime.

An Afghan boy stands next to a United States Marine during an operation in the volatile Helmand province of southern Afghanistan. For most Americans, a war like the one in Afghanistan tests the traditional boundaries of wartime and peacetime.

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson May 3, 2011

When U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden in a raid on May 1, 2011, it brought home the fight against terrorism for many Americans. But it also brings up a pertinent question: Are we at war, or are we at peace?

The issue actually popped up a week earlier, when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a likely Republican presidential candidate, was derided for something he wrote in an op-ed in the April 25, 2011, edition of the Manchester Union-Leader: Romney wrote that President Barack Obama has engaged "in one of the biggest peacetime spending binges in American history."

Stephen Colbert, the host of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, was one of many who chided Romney, wisecracking, "It is true. Just look at all the money Obama is spending on our three peacetime wars!"

Clearly, Romney had not taken into account the fact that American troops were fighting an insurgency in Afghanistan, winding down a long engagement in Iraq and providing support to rebels in Libya -- not to mention a secret, needle-in-a-haystack war against international terrorism.

When pressed on the "peacetime" claim, the Romney camp quickly backtracked, telling NBC, "He meant to say ‘since World War II.’"

Despite Romney’s quick correction, we were intrigued by the question of whether it even makes sense any more to draw distinctions between wartime and peacetime?

We asked a variety of military historians and foreign-affairs experts, and their consensus was that it’s finally time for politicians to bury all rhetorical distinctions between "wartime" and "peacetime."

We started by doing our own math, comparing periods of traditional war and peace in recent decades. We started with World War II, as Romney did.

U.S. involvement in World War II lasted from 1941 to 1945. The Korean War lasted from 1950 to 1953. The Vietnam War generally is considered to have lasted from 1964 to 1973. The Persian Gulf War and its run-up lasted from 1990 to 1991. The Afghanistan war began in 2001 and continues today, as does the Iraq War, which started in 2003.

Put together these major conflicts and you come up with 32 out of 71 years at war, and 39 years not at war.

If you define "war" more broadly, however, you can reduce the number of "peacetime" years. Add in the Cold War (1946-1989) and you get it down to nine years of non-war. Add in the campaigns in Bosnia (1995 to 1996) and Kosovo (1999), you get it down to just six non-war years  (1992, 1993, 1994, 1997. 1998 and 2000). And that’s not even including the low-profile, special-operations wars against terrorism.

It's clear that there’s no longer a one-size-fits-all definition of war. It used to be clearer prior to World War II. Back then, Congress often passed a formal declaration of war. But since World War II, the United States has engaged in a wide variety of wars without a single official declaration of war by Congress. Instead, presidents have used their position as commander in chief to prosecute military actions, often with the subsequent consent of Congress.

Meanwhile, "peacetime" has also taken on a different meaning. Prior to World War II, the United States typically demobilized its military forces once a war was concluded, leaving only a small number of personnel on active duty. If a new war emerged, the military ramped up again, often through use of the draft.

Such downsizing and upsizing became impossible with the advent of the Cold War -- a constant, multi-front war of global scale. Even in the absence of "hot" conflicts such as those in Korea or Vietnam, the U.S. maintained a consistently large standing military for the duration of the Cold War. And the nature of today’s threats -- rapid-response situations, humanitarian contingencies and more traditional wars -- makes it unlikely that the U.S. could go back again to a ramp-up, ramp-down system of organizing the military any time soon.

"We’ve had wartime spending levels and a wartime-sized Department of Defense ever since 1948, regardless of who, or whether, we were actually fighting," said Lance Janda, a military historian at Cameron University in Lawton, Okla. "Weapons of mass destruction changed everything, because the argument was that we couldn’t afford to lose the first battle and then expect to have time to build up our forces later, as had often been the pattern in the past."

Steven R. Ratner, a University of Michigan law professor who specializes in international law, said he agrees that there’s not much point in the distinction between "wartime" and "peacetime" these days. "When the U.S. had the draft, and Congress made proper declarations of war, it was easy, but really not at all since the end of Vietnam," Ratner said.

For Janda, the distinction today is more psychological than anything else.

"I think it’s best to think of ‘peacetime’ and ‘wartime’ as collective states of mind that are shaped by how much a given war or conflict affects the rest of society," he said. "If the government raises taxes, institutes a draft, calls up the reserves on a massive scale, sells war bonds, or in some other way tries to rally the majority of the American people behind a war effort or encourages collective sacrifice, or if the casualties are high over short period of time, then we’re more likely to think we’re at war."

On the other hand, Janda said, "if our intervention or war is small, fought with active duty forces or limited numbers of reserves, does not include tax increases or the sale or war bonds or any kind of large scale social mobilization, and if our casualties are relatively low and spread over a long period of time, then most Americans are going to be entirely untouched by the conflict and more likely to think of themselves at peace."

Indeed, in recent decades, the United States has participated in a steady stream of more limited actions, from the invasions of Grenada and Panama in the 1980s  to interventions in Haiti and Somalia in the 1990s to enforcement of the no-fly zone in Iraq for years prior to 2003 invasion. These were made possible by the United States’ large standing military, which was able to absorb these assignments without wider impacts on the rest of society. We didn’t consider any of them to be "war" years in our accounting above.

Richard H. Kohn, a historian at the University of North Carolina, finds it ironic that Romney was pilloried for calling the current period "peacetime." The direct impact on American society from the three current wars is far more limited than it would have been decades ago, Kohn noted.

"He’s right," Kohn said. For most Americans, "this is peacetime."

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Our Sources

Mitt Romney, "Obama isn't serious about America's financial health" (op-ed in the Manchester Union-Leader), Apr. 25, 2011

NBC News, "Peacetime?" (First Read blog post), April 25, 2011

E-mail interview with Richard H. Kohn, historian at the University of North Carolina, April 26, 2011

E-mail interview with Steven R. Ratner, University of Michigan law professor, April 26, 2011

E-mail interview with Lance Janda, military historian at Cameron University, April 26, 2011

E-mail interview with Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, April 26, 2011

E-mail interview with Ted Wilson, history professor at the University of Kansas, April 28, 2011

E-mail interview with Baker Spring, research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, April 26, 2011

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