Hamas fired missiles into Israel killing a few people. Israel dropped bombs in Gaza killing many more people. Was this a war?
That question came to mind because of a brief discussion I had had months earlier. I don’t remember the book under consideration in the history book group, but it, as many things do, prompted condemnations of Trump. In my personal efforts to be fair and balanced, I said, “Say what you will about him, Trump did not start any wars unlike his immediate predecessors.” After a few moments, one of the participants indicated I was wrong and said, “Obama did not start a war.” I wanted to say in Clintonesque fashion, “That depends on what your definition of ‘war’ is,” but I let the comment slide because our main topic was something else, and I did not have my relevant research in front of me.
When it became widely reported that our military efforts in Afghanistan had become our longest war, I started wondering how much of my lifetime the United States has been in a war. As I do for most of my research these days, I turned to the internet and found sites, not all entirely consistent with each other, listing our wars. One of them I found on iPad’s version of Wikipedia entitled “List of wars involving the United States,” which starts with our Revolution and continues to the present. What’s your estimate of the total number? I thought of our Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Iraq twice, and Afghanistan. Then I thought further and remembered the Mexican War, but then I began to wonder what was the definition of war. We fought Indians frequently. When, if ever, were these actions war? I knew that we had troops in the Philippines for a long time. War? I knew that several, maybe many times, we had troops in Caribbean islands. War? And then there were our actions to overthrow or destabilize various governments—Guatemala, Iran, Nicaragua, and probably many others. Were these wars?
I did not number my personal list of American wars, but I doubt it would have reached the total the Wikipedia article gave: “Currently, there are 93 wars on this list, 4 of which are ongoing.” About half of them were wars with Native Americans that I know little about other than the general knowledge that there were “American Indian Wars.” In the 1870s, for example, American soldiers were killing different groups of Native Americans—Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, Kiowa, Modoc, Lakota, Dakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, Nez Perce, Palouse, Bannock, Shoshone, Paiute, Apache, Ute—in many parts of America in a dozen different military campaigns.
I knew that we had sent troops into neighboring lands, but I had not known how often or how long they stayed. The United States troops went into Cuba in 1912 and into Veracruz, Mexico, in 1914. We occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933, Haiti from 1915 to 1934, and the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924. And we sent troops again to such places after World II as well as to Grenada and Panama. The list went on and on.
As to our most recent past, the compilation said the U.S. was involved in a war starting under the Obama administration: “American Intervention in Libya (2015-2020).” If you are like me, even though you have lived through it, you may not remember us being at war in Libya. Perhaps our actions did not strike you as a war because we did not send ground troops into the country, and we did not occupy it. But we did have over two hundred airstrikes and drone strikes on Libyan targets in the course of several years. Perhaps many of us don’t see it as a war because of the military tactics employed. Infantry make it a war not airplanes alone. Imagine, however, our northern neighbor strafing and bombing Rochester, New York, a hundred times and firing rockets from drones into Chicago dozens of times. Wouldn’t we think that Canada had gone to war against us, or might we say these were only warlike actions?
Or do people in my circles, such as the history book group participant, not register the military actions as war because Obama was president? Would they have been perceived differently if W or Trump had then been the commander-in-chief? My guess is that the killing of American citizens by drone strikes in foreign lands would have drawn much more debate in non-conservative realms if a Republican had authorized them instead of Obama.
When I look at the list of American involvements in war, whether I agree with all the classifications or not, I am reminded that while we cherish an image of being a peaceful nation, military bloodshed is firmly embedded throughout our history, including under Obama.