- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 12, 2006

During a recent World War II history symposium the question arose: “What’s a major war?” Nobody could agree.

Now, understand that we’re discussing war as opposed to combat. In a gunfight, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a soldier firing an M16, a cop confronting gang bangers, or a homeowner resisting an intruder. If there’s lead in the air, you’re in combat.

But what’s a war? There are different ways to define the term. Wars can be judged by duration: Europe suffered through the Hundred Years War, which lasted 115 years in the 14th and 15th centuries, and the Thirty Years War of 1618-48. (The French and English never tired of disputing with one another.) War can be defined by casualties. The United States lost 405,000 troops to all causes in World War II; about 36,000 in Korea and 58,000 in Southeast Asia. Certainly those were major wars.

But definitions are subject to change, including standard of scale. The Great War of 1914-1918 was eclipsed by the next global feud, such that we began numbering our world wars. Sequencing even applies to far lesser conflicts, as in “the First Gulf War.” Today we don’t officially have wars, but merely operations: Desert Storm; Enduring Freedom; Iraqi Freedom, and so on.

There are all kinds of wars: declared and undeclared; legal and illegal; conventional or guerrilla; hot or cold; wars of survival and wars of liberation; even theoretical nuclear and push-button wars. But whether a war, “police action” or “conflict,” young people still die.

Taking the “big ones” as a standard, apparently we have just entered the longest period in American history without a major war. In January 1973 the United States signed the Paris “peace” accords and abandoned the Republic of Vietnam to its fate. Now, 33 years later, we have gone longer than the intervals between any of our “real” wars: from the Revolution to 1812; 1815 to the Mexican War; 1847 to the War Between the States; 1865 to the Spanish-American War; 1898 to World War I; 1918 to World War II; 1945 to Korea; and 1953 to Vietnam, however that mess is reckoned.

Between some of the “real wars” were prolonged “conflicts” such as the Indian Wars (more or less constant until the 1890s) and the post-Spanish insurrection in Philippines. The latter may offer the best comparison with the current situation: an undeclared guerrilla war against irregular Muslim forces between 1899 and 1902. In those four years we lost some 4,000 troops to all causes.

However, operations in Afghanistan have already outlasted the Philippine insurrection and passed World War II last summer. The end is nowhere in sight.

On the other hand, American military losses to all causes since September 11 currently are roughly half the Philippine toll. At present rates, the casualties are certainlysupportable: about 70 deaths per month in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. That contrasts with several thousand per month in the world wars; 1,000 in Korea; and well over 500 per month for Vietnam.

Some people argue that anything much under the latter figure may not represent a major war.

There are, of course, other yardsticks. Currently the Pentagon is cutting military spending, and that fact alone makes it hard to accept that we’re engaged in a major war. Additionally, some ask if a war can be “major” without significant involvement of the Air Force and Navy.

For the moment, let’s take the long view. The Moors occupied Spain for 40 generations, and America fought the Indian wars roughly from 1775 to 1890. That’s “only” 115 years, resulting in some 4,000 military deaths or about 260 per year. Call it 20 a month.

No, that is not a major war. But it’s an awfully long conflict—a prolonged insurrection against a guerrilla enemy without uniforms, armies, or even a country. Today we face similar enemies, products of a culture that might be compared to Japan in World War II. Thus, we do ourselves no favor when we dismiss them as “cowardly suicide bombers.”

So, to return to the beginning: Does it matter how we define a war? To the troops at the sharp end, it matters little. But to the nation, and perhaps to western civilization, it could matter a great deal. After all, how we define ourselves affects the way we conduct ourselves. Therefore, let us not argue whether the war on terror is a major military conflict—clearly it is not. Instead, let us concede that we may “only” be entering the longest multi-generational clash in our history, sustainable as long as we possess enough resolve.

Therefore, let’s recognize it for what it is: perpetual insurrection; a rifle fight writ large. In this new era, jets count vastly less than stamina; tanks less than persistence; and artillery less than willpower.

Let’s acknowledge that we are conducting a low-intensity conflict that we are unlikely to win in our lifetime.

That’s a major challenge by any standard.

Barrett Tillman is a freelance writer and author of more than 30 books.

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