Inside the Meter

A little more on the Iraq war

Last week, we fact-checked a statement about how long the Iraq war has lasted. Newsman Bob Schieffer said it has been our longest war, but we found that is not the case. We rated his statement False. We found that the Revolutionary War, the Vietnam war and the Afghanistan war all lasted longer.

An astute reader on Facebook noted that we could have considered some other conflicts:

"I'd throw in another, the post-Civil War Indian campaigns (think Geronimo, Wounded Knee, Custer's Last Stand, etc.) which went on for decades or, depending on your politics and perspective, centuries, and are now considered in military history and planning circles a model for certain types of counterinsurgency operations. ... The real history of US military operations is actually far more mundane, low intensity conflicts punctuated by the occasional major war or campaign as featured in TV or the movies although those are the types of wars we have recently become good at fighting. For example, if you were a newly minted Marine Private on December 6, 1941, many of the the war stories you'd be hearing from your senior NCOs and officers would have been about their time fighting in the 'Banana Wars' in Nicaragua, Honduras, and the DR."

This comment caught our attention because our reporter, Louis Jacobson, had included just some of these details in his report, but we edited them out for brevity's sake. Read his report as published here.

Now, here's the rest of Lou's story:

Officially, the Indian Wars lasted from 1817 to 1898, or 81 years. These were sporadic battles between the U.S. Army and a series of tribal nations. Paul Christopher Anderson, a historian at Clemson University who has studied the period, says the duration might be even longer, beginning in earnest at the Battle of the Wabash River in 1791, a decisive U.S. military defeat.

In their entirety, Anderson compares the Indian Wars to the Hundred Years War in Europe -- an "intermittent conflict ... held together by a more or less constant design and interest" rather than a single war in the conventional sense. However, some of the battles with tribes were distinct enough and sufficiently long-lasting to argue for inclusion on any longest-wars list. He noted that the Second Seminole War lasted between 1835 and 1842 (7 years). Max Boot, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power, added wars against the Sioux and the Apaches, each of which could be said to have lasted for more than three decades.

Another linked set of conflicts -- the "Banana Wars" in Latin America during the early 20th century -- provides other candidates. Boot suggests that these wars were "relatively quick-in-and-out interventions which kept happening over and over." A few led to long-term occupations, such as Haiti between 1915 and 1934, and counter-insurgencies, such as August Cesar Sandino's roughly seven-year rebellion against the U.S. But in most of those conflicts, ongoing combat was less common than occupation.

Then again, that's not so different from what the U.S. is doing in Iraq now.

"If we call what the troops are doing in Iraq a war, then we would have to do the same for the occupation of the Dominican Republic between 1916 and 1924, when American troops invaded a foreign nation and attempted to impose its agenda," said Michael Hall, a historian at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Ga.

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).