The New York Times had an article today about Obama’s “war presidency.” It isn’t a bad article, but it makes much of the idea that there is something new in the idea of a U.S. fighting foreign enemies in less than “an all-consuming national campaign, in the tradition of World War II or, to a lesser degree, Vietnam.”
The article went on to say, “The longevity of his war record, military historians say, also reflects the changing definition of war.”
Except, as I wrote in 2012 in response to the debate around Rachel Maddow’s Drift, the definition of war hasn’t changed! I was disappointed that none of the people engaged in that debate recognized that history didn’t begin in 1945. So, it has lurched up again the idea that there is something new about having the U.S. continuously engaged in small-scale low-casualty low-footprint military actions, let me repeat what I said in 2012:
In 1898, the United States went to war with Spain. Between 1898 and 1902, American troops battled Philippine insurgents. Peace came to Luzon in 1901-02, but fighting continued on Mindanao until 1912. In 1904, the U.S. navy bombarded rebel positions in the Dominican Republic; eventually U.S. Marines wound up (with the permission of the local government) occupying the customhouses. In 1906-09, we occupied Cuba, although there was (to be fair) not much fighting. In 1907 and 1911, we deployed to Honduras to halt Nicaraguan invasions. Between 1912 and 1925, U.S. Marines actively hunted insurgents (the original Sandinistas) in Nicaragua. In 1914, we once again bombarded Dominican rebels; we also occupied Veracruz to prevent arms from getting to the government. Between 1914 and 1934, we occupied Haiti: unlike Cuba in 1906-09, that one did involve quite a bit of fighting. We did the same on the other side of Hispaniola in 1916-24. In 1916-17, we invaded northern Mexico after Pancho Villa attacked Columbus.
Then there was World War 1. After which ...
In 1917-19, U.S. troops again garrisoned Cuba. In 1919, we landed in Honduras to protect a neutral zone during a civil war. Between 1918 and 1920, American forces blundered pointlessly around Siberia doing something or other, and sustaining a lot of casualties. For a few days in Guatemala, Marines saw combat during a civil war in that country. In 1925, we invaded both Honduras and Panama during periods of unrest. In 1933 and 1934, we waved gunboats around Cuba, but no war was necessary, since we succeeded in overthrowing the government by what would today be called covert action.
And then, peace until 1941.
Counting ... between 1898 and 1934, the United States was at peace for all of ... well, never, actually.
It is true that with the exceptions of Mexico, Siberia, and Cuba, most of the American interventions were not sold as protecting what we would today call the Homeland. But those are three large exceptions!
In short, President Obama’s experience as a “president at war” rather than a “war president” is nothing new. McKinley, Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge and Hoover would find it very familiar.