Introducing Our Special Issue on America at War

The nation’s epic, expanding fight against terrorism overseas

In the matter of war, the American language creates its own fog. We speak not only of wars, but also of armed conflicts, military engagements, combat operations, expeditions, policing actions, raids, airstrikes and shows of force. And even with so many labels, we use the term “war” pretty loosely. Does the Honey War really count? The 1836 Missouri-Iowa border dispute—named for the chief on-the-ground casualty, three beehives—was settled at the Supreme Court. The Aroostook War? It was another 19th-century border dispute, in Maine, which the United States and England settled bloodlessly.

The Global War on Terrorism, declared in 2001, surely counts, but it has barreled onward through a fog of its own, a series of vagaries concerning territory, scale, foes and metrics for success. Exactly when the war in Afghanistan surpassed the Vietnam War as America’s longest overseas war is debated—the comparison depends on which benchmarks you use. Last September, however, the United States reached an indicator that clears away at least some of the confusion: The first cohort of Americans who were born after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, became old enough to enlist in the war that followed. Whatever else it is, the Global War on Terrorism is now a second-generation war.

With that in mind, this double issue of Smithsonian brings into focus who is fighting this war, and why, and where, and even what they’ve left behind. These men and women make up a tiny fraction of the U.S. population, and 17 years is a long time. But our awareness of this conflict shouldn’t become so normal that, to borrow one general’s valediction, it fades away.

A Nation at Arms

Infographic by Matthew Twombly
Research by David Lovett

By one count, the United States has been at war at some time in 93.5 percent of the calendar years between 1775 and 2018*. Of course, this depends on how you define “war.” We defined it as using military force, or the imminent threat of force (as in the “gunboat diplomacy” of the 1850s), to achieve national ends.

*As of November 2018.

(Sources:; Congressional Research Service; Office of Indian Affairs Bulletin and other reports)

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David Burnett: War Photographer

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