The US is now involved in 134 wars or none, depending on your definition of ‘war’
The White House spent much of last week trying to figure out if the word “war” was the right one to describe its military actions against the Islamic State.
US Secretary of State John Kerry was at first reluctant:
“We’re engaged in a major counter-terrorism operation,” he told CBS News on Sept. 11. “I think war is the wrong terminology and analogy but the fact is that we are engaged in a very significant global effort to curb terrorist activity… I don’t think people need to get into war fever on this. I think they have to view it as a heightened level of counter terrorist activity.”
Kerry said similarly hedgy things during interviews on CNN and ABC.
By the next day, the Obama administration appeared more comfortable with the word war, yet hardly offered any more clarity. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters, “The United States is at war with ISIL in the same way we are at war with Al Qaeda and its affiliates.”
The problem is that our traditional definition of “war” is outdated, and so is our imagination of what war means.
World War II was the last time Congress officially declared war. Since then, the conflicts we’ve called “wars” — from Vietnam through to the second Iraq War — have actually been congressional “authorizations of military force.” And more recently, beginning with the War Powers Act of 1973, presidential war powers have expanded so much that, according to the Congressional Research Service, it’s no longer clear whether a president requires congressional authorization at all.
The recent US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will likely be the last time, in the foreseeable future, that the United States wages war in the way that’s most familiar to us: a lot of combat troops on the ground in a foreign country with lots of money and support and an ostensibly achievable objective.
US troop presence in Iraq peaked at 187,900 in 2008. In Afghanistan, it peaked in 2010 at 100,000. On paper, it looked like the United States was fighting two wars. But the reality was much more complicated, and it’s only gotten more complicated.
So how many wars is the US fighting right now? Somewhere between zero and 134. Here’s the rationale:
Total # of wars: 0
Congress hasn’t declared war since 1942 so there is no war right now. Okay, that makes no sense.
Total # of wars: 5
This maybe sounds more reasonable.
Consider the definition of war put forth by Linda Bilmes (Harvard Kennedy School) and Michael Intriligator (UCLA), who defined war in a 2013 paper as “conflicts where the US is launching extensive military incursions, including drone attacks, but that are not officially ‘declared.’”
By that definition, the United States is at war in five places right now: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.