The myth that Afghanistan is our longest war

American journalists dismiss formality as much as the American public does. As a realistic formalist, I understand and accept that attitude until it interferes with accuracy. Then, I have to object. Such is the case with the recent news that the duration of American combat in Afghanistan, at 104 months, now exceeds the length of American combat in Vietnam at 103 months. Saying so is accurate; calling Afghanistan America's longest war is not.

Calling some government program "war," as in naming addiction suppression "the War On Drugs," can be seen as a clear metaphor. We understand that the phrase expresses the presumed intensity of the government's motivation, and does not fit the definition of real war, which is both a physical act and a legal status. The laws of war define "War" as both the armed conflict between states (nations) and the special legal statuses of belligerency and neutrality that armed conflict confers on the signatories to the treaties that set out allowed international conduct during the existence of a state of war anywhere in the world.

Accepting the definition as a legal status, the longest formal war involving the United States is that with North Korea and China, which as of today (June 25, 2010) has lasted exactly 720 months, and shows few signs of ending anytime soon. For those who may object that the 1953 armistice ended the conflict for all practical purposes, note that the latest battle in this continuing war involved the sinking of a South Korean warship by a probable North Korean submarine-fired torpedo in March 2010. Armistices may suspend hostilities, but unlike peace treaties, do not end the state of war.

But even accepting the objection that the Korean War doesn't count because of prolonged periods of inaction, consider the Philippine insurrection. Beginning in February 1899, following America's defeat of the Spanish, Philippine nationalists came into open conflict with United States forces. Teddy Roosevelt declared the insurrection over on July 4th, 1902, but the Philippinos, especially Muslims in the south, apparently didn't understand Roosevelt's dictate, because the battles sputtered on until June 1913, when the Moro guerillas on southern islands were finally suppressed. That's a total of 172 months of open conflict in a contest that contains many parallels to the current Afghan conflict.

The longest open conflicts involving the United States were the 19th century Indian wars during the westward expansion of the country. I recognize that these wars offend modern sensibilities, but my argument here is about length, not justification. Various sources place the duration of these war in the decades: the Sioux resisted modern expansion in the north about 552 months from 1854 to 1890; the Apache resisted in the south about 468 months, from 1861 to about 1900.

So I rest my case. Neither of the wars, in Afghanistan or Vietnam, was - nor is - America's longest armed conflict. Journalists attempting to disparage the current war effort on the basis of duration will have to marshal greater evidence and come up with stronger arguments than excessive length to indict officials who are conducting this war with the aim of a satisfactory ending, however long that may take.

Jack Lott teaches courses on intelligence, globalization, and terrorism for the Christopher Wren Association at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.