America’s Longest Wars

A popular headline in the media is to describe the Afghan War as “America’s longest,” as in this brief summary today from Foreign Policy:

The war in Afghanistan, America’s longest, is now formally over. The 13-year war, which claimed more than 2,200 American lives and cost more than one trillion dollars, ended quietly at a ceremony in Kabul yesterday. US President Barack Obama and other Western leaders promised their ongoing commitment under the rebranded Operation Resolute Support and insisted the war was a success. But the Taliban is poised for a comeback with a recent surge in violence in Kabul and around the country. There are concerns that Afghanistan’s military and fragile political institutions will crumble as the United States leaves.

There’s a big problem with this. America’s longest war, by far, is not the recent Afghan War; it was its more or less continuous effort against Native Americans from the early 1600s to the late 1800s. Americans like to forget that native peoples populated the land before European settlers began to arrive, and that these native peoples had to be killed, or corralled, or otherwise subjugated or shunted aside in the name of Manifest Destiny and in the pursuit of profit.

As historian John Grenier notes in The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814,

For the first 200 years of our military heritage, then, Americans depended on arts of war … [that included] razing and destroying enemy villages and fields; killing enemy women and children; raiding settlements for captives; intimidating and brutalizing enemy noncombatants; and assassinating enemy leaders.

For Grenier, America’s “first way of war” relied on “extravagant violence” often aimed at “the complete destruction of the enemy,” in this case various Native American peoples. This was indeed America’s longest war. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) its long duration and brutal violence, the war against indigenous peoples is rarely mentioned today, especially by those who seek to promote American exceptionalism.

Another longer war than the Afghan one, more recent in America’s memory, was the Cold War we fought against the Soviet Union and its allies from the close of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Lasting nearly half a century, this war ended in victory of a sort for the United States, even as its legacy continues to poison US culture and foreign relations. For the Cold War left us with an enormous military-industrial-Congressional complex, to include nuclear forces capable of destroying the planet, which the US continues to feed and even to enlarge. The result has been the growth of a second “shadow” government, a national security and surveillance state of enormous power, an apparatus with wide-reaching and unaccountable powers that is potentially a greater threat to American freedoms than the Soviet Union ever was.

When America forgets its longest wars, and especially when Americans forget the legacies of these wars, it’s more than history that suffers.

Update: Just after I wrote this, I came across this article on corporate “land grabs” that continue to bedevil Native Americans. Some would argue that the long war against native peoples never really ended. And to state a point that is perhaps obvious: the Afghan War grew out of the Cold War and US efforts to embroil the Soviet Union in its own Vietnam in 1980. US efforts to support the Afghan “freedom fighters” against the Soviets contributed to the rise of Osama bin Laden, who would eventually turn against the US in the 1990s. America’s Afghan War, in other words, is not a 13-year war. To understand it, one must look back to 1979-80 and the machinations of a US foreign policy establishment that was much more concerned with hobbling the Soviets than with helping the Afghan people.