The media has declared that the War in Afghanistan is now the longest major war in United States history. The eight-year battle in the War on Terrorism has surpassed both the American Revolution and the Vietnamese War. However, depending on how one counts, the Afghan War is not the longest war in American history or even the longest major war.
The distinction between a major war and a minor war is between major actions and minor ones, or between frequent and sporadic combat, distinctions long recognized by historians. I consider warfare to include mutual combat, not one-time one-sided attacks by regular or irregular forces on the United States military, or terrorist attacks on civilians, or the violence committed by rioters or actions taken by or against individual pirates or other criminals.
The Afghan War was a major war from 2001-2002 and again over the last two or three years, but in between it was a minor war. Therefore, it cannot be recognized as a continuous major war. A similar situation occurred with both of the other eight-year American wars. The Revolution was a major war from 1775 to 1781, but only a minor war until 1783, while the Vietnamese War, in terms of U.S. participation was a minor war from 1961-1964 and again in 1975, but a major war from 1964-1973. Therefore, by counting the entire action of a major war, including its minor war phases, the Vietnamese War remains the longest major war in American history.
The Afghan War, however, may be viewed as a battle in the War on Terrorism, a major war which began on September 11, 2001, although it could be considered as having begun in 1998, after the twin U.S. embassy bombings in Africa and the American bombing of an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in response.
Two ongoing wars that have been subsumed as battles by the War on Terrorism are the Somali Civil War, a minor war, and the Iraqi War, a major war, although both have been intermittent. U.S. involvement in the former began in 1993 (against a militia whose arms were supplied by al-Qaeda) and has occurred sporadically again since 2007 against another al-Qaeda-linked Islamic militia. The war with Baathist Iraq lasted from 1991 to 2003, or could be considered to be ongoing if one includes the Baathist participation in the Iraqi insurgency after the overthrow of the Baathist regime in 2003. The Iraqi war began with the Liberation of Kuwait in 1991. In between then and the Liberation of Iraq in 2003, sporadic clashes occurred between Iraq and the Coalition, which became frequent from 2000-2003. Indeed, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein considered the war, which he called “the Mother of All Battles,” to have continued despite his acceptance of the 1991 cease-fire until his overthrow and even beyond, which is why his forces continued to attack the Coalition.
There were other wars in American history which arguably were even longer. The Cold War lasted from 1945-1991 (not including U.S. participation in the Russian Civil War, 1918-1919). Beginning with an attack on American troops by Communist Yugoslav troops on the Italian border in 1945, there were numerous sporadic engagements between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and other Communist states and rebel forces over the decades. There were two major U.S. wars which were battles of the Cold War: the Korean War and the Vietnamese War. The Korean War was a major war from 1950-1953, but there have been sporadic clashes ever since. The last mutual combat in which American troops participated was a firefight in 1985, although as recently as 1994, a U.S. helicopter was shot down by Communist North Korea. The Cold War also included minor wars: the Salvadoran Civil War (i.e. the U.S. participation of this major war was minor) in 1982 and the Invasion of Grenada in 1983. Post-Cold War combat with Communists continued in two other minor wars: the Bosnian Civil War in 1995 and the War in Kosovo in 1999. Attacks by Communists continued since then, even into the War on Terrorism, when the Japanese Red Army, which had a history of attacking American troops, fired a shell at a U.S. base in Japan in 2001 and a U.S. helicopter assisting the Philippines against an al-Qaeda affiliate was shot at by Communist Filipino rebels.
The Barbary Wars were a series of two wars that lasted from 1801-1805 and again in 1815 against two different enemies on the Barbary Coast, the first against Tripoli, the second against Algiers, that are usually grouped together by historians. However, the Barbary Wars could also be considered as part of the war of militant Islam against the world, as the Barbary States justified their piracy in jihadist terms. American combat participation in this long, intermittent Islamic holy war that began in the Seventh Century includes the U.S. interventions in Lebanon in 1958 (which also was part of the Cold War) and 1983, clashes with Libya in 1981 and 1989 and the bombing thereof in 1986, clashes with Iran in 1986 and 1987, as well as the Somali Civil War, the Liberation of Kuwait and the War on Terrorism. Thus, the United States has been defending itself against Islamic jihad since 1801, of which the War in Afghanistan is the latest battle.
For more on this long war against militant Islam, click on the link to Lepanto, by G.K. Chesterton, in which I contributed an essay, or view my post with the same title from April of 2009 and another post that month, The Rise and Fall of Islamic Civilization, as well as a post the following month, Follow-up to the Rise and Fall of Islamic Civilization. See also my post from April of 2009, Obama’s Standard for Justification for War Troubling.