Being in the midst of history sometimes mean events are not seen in the “big picture” view that historians often later take, when looking back at the period. Case in point: what will America’s ongoing war eventually be known as? To date, we’ve been at war since October 2001, or a mind-boggling period of 15 years. This war was initially called “The Global War On Terror” by the Bush administration, which lumped in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq with all the skirmishes in various other North African and Middle East countries. The Obama administration has dropped the term, but they’ve never really replaced it with anything else. But what I wonder this Memorial Day is what it will be called in the future. Right now, it’d be the “Fifteen Years’ War” — but few expect all conflicts will end by the time the next president is sworn in, so eventually that number will likely be higher.
Three wars (that I’m aware of) are historically referred to by their length: the Seven Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, and the Hundred Years’ War. The only one that is strictly accurate is the Thirty Years’ War, which took place from 1618 to 1648. The Seven Years’ War was actually fought over nine years’ time, from 1754 to 1763, but it got two years lopped off because it didn’t really get underway until 1756. And the Hundred Years’ War raged from 1337 to 1453 — much longer than a single century.
Most Americans know little about any of these wars, it’s worth pointing out. The only one American schoolchildren even regularly learn about is the Seven Years’ War, but by a different name. To us, it was the French and Indian War, and in some ways it was a precursor to our own Revolutionary War (Britain levied a bunch of taxes on the American colonies in the mid-1760s largely to pay the costs of the Seven Years’ War, which the colonists did not take kindly to, especially in Boston). Interestingly, the Seven Years’ War is now considered by some to be the first “world war,” since it involved so many countries all over the globe. This was a contributing influence on American thinking about involvement in the wars which periodically raged in Europe from the country’s founding onwards, especially after the pointless War Of 1812 drove the point home. Shortly thereafter, America embraced the Monroe Doctrine which stated in part that Europe should leave the Americas alone and the United States wouldn’t get involved in European conflicts. Later on, America was very reluctant to get involved with both twentieth-century world wars because of this long-held belief that Europe should solve its own problems.
The Thirty Years’ War was religious in nature, at least at the start. It was the last big battle between Protestants and Catholics in Europe. The Hundred Years’ War was mostly waged between England and France (in a nutshell, France had ruled England since the Norman Conquest, and the English thought it’d be a better idea if they ruled France, instead). Both were long drawn-out conflicts with periods of calm interspersed with major battles in various places. It was thinking of these two that made me wonder whether in the future the period America and the Middle East now find themselves in might be called something like the “Twenty Years’ War” or perhaps the “Quarter-Century’s War.” And that’s being optimistic, of course.
This is the longest period of American history when we’ve been constantly at war. The level of our involvement has waxed and waned, from having over a hundred thousand soldiers on the battlefield to merely conducting drone strikes from above. We’ve been overtly involved to some degree or another in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. But America has always seen this as a war without borders, so it has spilled over into plenty of other countries in other ways (such as a raid conducted within Pakistan to capture Osama Bin Laden, for instance). There are proxy wars going on, often involving the animosity between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda have tried to expand into as many franchises as they can in as many different countries as they can, with varying degrees of success.
Right now the hottest war is being waged in Syria. This is truly a global conflict, with the Americans and the Russians backing different sides in a multiplicity of fighting groups. The Islamic State is benefiting from the fighting between the other groups, in fact. In Iraq, the Americans have backed the Iraqi army (and, to a lesser degree, the Kurds), and the Islamic State has lost major ground — albeit a lot slower than America might wish. The battle for Fallujah is going on right now, although looking back with a historian’s eye the current fight will likely be labeled the “Third Battle of Fallujah,” since American forces have their own hard-fought battles to remember in this town. Fallujah was where an American military contractor was killed and his burnt corpse hung from a bridge, in case you’ve forgotten. The final big battle in Iraq will come in the northern city of Mosul.
Iraq is right now a success story for the Iraqi government’s side, which is a big turnaround from when their army fled in terror a few years ago (while the Islamic State moved in blitzkrieg fashion from town to town, getting ever closer to Baghdad). Starting roughly a year ago, the tide has turned completely and the Islamic State has lost almost half the Iraqi territory they once held. The progress is slow, but has been consistent — the Islamic State has lost every major conflict, and has never regained major ground once lost.
It is hard to see an end to the overall war, even at this point, fifteen years in. America’s new normal is being at war — although in a barely-noticeable fashion. Since Barack Obama took office, our troop presence has been drastically reduced in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the conflicts didn’t exactly end in either place. We’ve been drawn in to new battlefields (Yemen, Syria), and other countries also look ripe for America to get drawn into (Libya) in the near future, depending on who becomes our next president. Who now can see an end to this region-wide conflict? The chances now actually seem better that the war intensifies — perhaps as Saudi Arabia and Iran get closer to more-overt hostilities. American soldiers might be deployed in this conflict for a long time to come, in various countries around the region.
It is remarkable that we’ve spent the last decade and a half at war. It’s gotten to the point that most people don’t even think about it in any way — a natural reaction to the (so far) Fifteen Years’ War. But what’s really remarkable to consider today is that we’ve gone through the longest period at war in our entire history and we still have an all-volunteer army. Conscription has not returned. The politicians learned their lesson well from Vietnam — when young men (and, now, women) face being drafted, then the public gets a lot more involved in war decisions.
This Memorial Day I’ll be remembering all who died in service to the United States military. Especially all those who have died in our current and ongoing wars — every one of whom volunteered to do his or her duty, so that your son or daughter or other loved one wasn’t forced to. But I do wonder how many more of our fighting men and women will be memorialized before the Twenty Years’ War (or Quarter-Century’s War, or whatever) is finally over.
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