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A Century of Warfare: Analysing America's War Record Since WWI

31/07/2014 13:32 BST | Updated 29/09/2014 10:59 BST

This past Monday, 28 July 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, a war which was supposed to have ended all wars, yet in hindsight, really began a century of warfare that raised the technology of killing to a high art and shuffled the decks of world power.

Although US involvement in World War I wasn't official until 1917, this conflict would herald the arrival of the US as an imperial power and set up a trail of political dominoes that are still falling to this day.

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To better understand why I say this has been a century of warfare, particularly for the US, let's look at some raw numbers. While most war statistics focus on human casualties, and while most discussions of warfare hinge upon qualifications of justness or morality, for the sake of this exercise let's focus only on the duration of each war. What follows is a list of every major, official US military conflict of the past 100 years along with the number of days spent by the US in each engagement.

  • Word War I:

    6 April 1917 - 11 November 1918 (585 days)

  • World War II:

    8 December 1941 - 2 September 1945 (1365 days)

  • Korean War:

    25 June 1950 - 27 July 1953 (1128 days)

  • Vietnam War (aka Second Indochina War):

    1 November 1955 - 30 April 1975 (7121 days)

    NOTE: Although this war is often officially cited as beginning for the US after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, the US had been sending troops, arms, and tactical aid to South Vietnam as early as 1950. The start of the Second Indochina War is often cited as 1 November 1955, after the French withdrawal. While it may skew our traditional view slightly, I believe this start date affords a more accurate overall picture.

  • Panama Invasion (Operation Just Cause):

    20 December 1989 - approx, 1 April 1990 (103 days)

  • The Gulf War (Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm):

    2 August 1990 - 28 February 1991 (211 days)

  • Somali Civil War (Operation Restore Hope):

    4 December 1992 - 31 March 1995 (848 days)

  • Bosnian War (Operation Deliberate Force):

    30 August 1995 - 20 September 1995 (22 days)

    NOTE: this conflict was much longer and involved US-led intervention as early as 1992, but official US direct military involvement lasted through the dates above. This is a conservative estimate of US involvement.

  • Haiti (Operation Uphold Democracy):

    19 September 1994 - 31 March 1995 (194 days)

  • Kosovo War:

    23 March 1999 - 11 June 1999 (81 days)

    NOTE: dates reflect actual start and end of NATO bombing.

  • Afghanistan War (Operation Enduring Freedom):

    7 October 2001 - Present (4680 days)

  • Iraq War:

    20 March 2003 - 18 December 2011 (3196 days)

  • Libya Intervention:

    19 March 2011 - 31 October 2011 (227 days)

Total duration of US involvement in wars from 6 April 1917 to present is 19,550 days. That's over 53.5 years of war out of 100.

Here are the most "warlike" Presidents over this time period. Figures are calculated by the total number of days of all wars over which each presided. Multiple wars running concurrently are counted separately.

  1. George W. Bush, Republican (4797 days Afghanistan, and Iraq)
  2. Barack Obama, Democrat (3308 days, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya)
  3. Dwight Eisenhower, Republican (2097 days Korea and Vietnam)
  4. Richard Nixon, Republican (2028 days, Vietnam)
  5. Lyndon Johnson, Democrat (1887 days, Vietnam)
  6. Franklin Roosevelt, Democrat (1222 days, WWII)
  7. Bill Clinton, Democrat (1098 days Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, and Kosovo)
  8. Harry Truman, Democrat (1063 days, WWII and Korea)
  9. John F. Kennedy, Democrat (1037 days, Vietnam)
  10. Woodrow Wilson, Democrat (585 days, WWI)
  11. Gerald Ford, Republican (387 days, Vietnam)
  12. George H.W. Bush, Republican (362 days, Panama, Persian Gulf, and Somalia)

Democrats: 10,200 total days presiding over wars

Republicans: 9671 total days presiding over wars

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These numbers can paint an historical picture that looks somewhat askew from what we're used to. For instance, who would have guessed that Bill Clinton was more "warlike" than Harry Truman? Or that George H.W. Bush, who presided over three conflicts during his single term in office including the first Gulf War, would be at the bottom of this list? Or that the Democrats would be more "warlike" than Republicans?

In the case of Eisenhower, his numbers are inflated by the assertion that the Vietnam War started in 1955, not 1964 after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Eisenhower, who warned the world of the influence of what he called the "military industrial complex", did not start the Korean War and did not cave to pressure to increase US presence in Vietnam during his term, yet his numbers show him at #3 on the "Warlike Presidents" list nonetheless.

The same could be said of Kennedy. He resisted the same pressure to expand the war in Vietnam, yet he still sent troops, arms, and tactical aid to South Vietnam and racked up an entire presidency technically "at war".

This leads to an interesting debate about what constitutes "war". The US Constitution stipulates that only Congress can declare war, yet does not prescribe the exact methodology by which this must be done, hence we have a situation whereby every war starting with Korea onward has been "authorized" in one form or another by Congress, yet not officially "declared".

As Randolph Bourne said when writing about World War I in 1918, war is the health of the state. As America's power has grown, so has its propensity for war. Regardless of the debates about the justness or morality of war, the numbers have shown peace to be the exception in America while war has been the rule, making this last century since the start of World War I undeniably a century of warfare.

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