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Though it escaped notice amid a blizzard of activity on health care reform, March 19 marked the seventh anniversary of the invasion that began the Iraq war.
Host Bob Schieffer noted that milestone during the March 22, 2010, edition of CBS's Face the Nation. "March 19th was the seventh anniversary of the Iraq invasion, which began our longest war," he said.
We wondered if it really has been America's longest war.
We decided not to count the 46-year-long Cold War on the grounds that it belongs in a separate category. We also did not count situations in which U.S. military forces have remained in a long-term role long after the shooting has stopped, such as the U.S. military personnel stationed in South Korea for the last 55 years. Finally, we ignored battles that are popularly called "wars" but are usually not fought on military terms, such as the "war on drugs."
To Schieffer's credit, it's worth noting that the Iraq war has indeed been longer than many of the United States' most significant military conflicts: the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War. That's not an inconsequential milestone.
But we found at least three wars that were longer than the Iraq War.
One is the Revolutionary War, which by the official Defense Department reckoning lasted from 1775 to 1783, or about eight years.
The second is of much more recent vintage. U.S. military operations in Afghanistan began on Oct. 7, 2001, and are still going on, more than eight years later.
The third is Vietnam. This one is harder to date, because it ramped up slowly. But the official dating is from Aug. 5, 1964 (around the time of the Tonkin Gulf resolution) to May 7, 1975 (shortly after the fall of Saigon). That's more than 10 1/2 years. If you date it only until the Paris peace accords on Jan. 27, 1973, then it would be about 8 1/2 years.
So, all three of these wars have strong claims for being longer than the Iraq war.
It's worth noting that answering this question is more art than science. James Bradford, a Texas A&M historian, points out that the American Revolution may have begun with the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776) -- or earlier, with the breakout of hostilities at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. Meanwhile, the end of the war could have been the the British surrender at Yorktown (Oct. 17, 1781), the signing of the Treaty of Paris (September 1783), the ratification of the treaty by the Continental Congress (Jan. 14, 1784), the ratification by King George III of England (April 9, 1784) or the exchange of the ratification documents (May 12, 1784).
Another problem: "It depends on how one conceptualizes a war," said Richard H. Kohn, a historian at the University of North Carolina. "Afghanistan could be considered simply a campaign of the 'war on terror' if one accepts that as a war, just as Korea and Vietnam could be considered campaigns of the Cold War rather than separate wars."
Finally, no one knows when the Iraq War (or Afghanistan) will end. "Maybe [Schieffer] figures Iraq will be the longest by the time we eventually leave, which of course is still possible," said Lance Janda, a historian at Cameron University in Lawton, Okla.
So it's clear that this is not a black-and-white question. Still, we think there's enough evidence to say that the Iraq war was not America's "longest war." According to official Defense Department dating, the Revolutionary War, Vietnam and Afghanistan were (or are) all longer. So we rate Schieffer's statement False.
Defense Department, "Principal Wars in Which the United States Participated," accessed March 22, 2010
Congressional Research Service, "U.S. Periods of War," Jan. 7, 2010
E-mail interview with Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, March 22, 2010
E-mail interview with Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, March 22, 2010
E-mail interview with James Bradford, Texas A&M University historian, March 22, 2010
E-mail interview with Richard H. Kohn, a historian at the University of North Carolina, March 22, 2010
E-mail interview with Lance Janda, a historian at Cameron University, March 22, 2010
E-mail interview with Michael Hall, a historian at Armstrong Atlantic State University, March 22, 2010
E-mail interview with Paul Christopher Anderson, a historian at Clemson University, March 22, 2010
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