Afghanistan Now America’s Longest War, Or Maybe Not

There’s much press coverage today of the idea that, as of today, the Afghanistan War is now the longest war in American history:

The Afghan war was enormously popular when it began on a fall Sunday eight and a half years ago. Less than a month had passed since the September 11 attacks, and President Bush could draw on deep wells of support when he ordered air strikes against Kabul , Jalalabad and the Taliban stronghold at Kandahar.

“We are supported,” Bush said that day, with only slight exaggeration, “by the collective will of the world.”


As I began this column we received word that 15 more coalition soldiers had been killed in the last two days in Afghanistan; 11 of the dead were American. Their names will be added to a grim roster whose numbers recently cleared 1,000.

And today “The Other War” has gained a fresh and dubious distinction: it is the longest war in our nation’s history, surpassing the conflict in Vietnam. 103 months passed between passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the withdrawal of the last American combat forces from Vietnam. As of today, the Afghanistan war is 104 months old.

Former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, however, is among those who take exception to this idea:

HOLBROOKE: Just to be technical since I spent three and half years of my life in Vietnam, and we were taking casualties, and then I read the date that makes the longest war and I think to myself ‘Gee, that’s funny. I was in Vietnam a year and half before they started the war, according to these new journalistic reports.’

They are dating the war from the Gulf of Tonkin incident. And that simply isn’t right. American casualties began no later than 1961.


You want to tell that to the families of the people whose names are on the Vietnam War Memorial? The first names are from 1961, if I’m not mistaken. And the last are after 1973. And I think we should respect the sacrifice and risk everyone took in Vietnam.

When the Vietnam War started, at least for the United States, isn’t an easy question to answer. President Eisenhower deployed advisers to South Vietnam in November 1955, the first official death of a U.S. solider occurred in 1957, and the first soldiers named on the wall died on July 8, 1959. Then, of course, American involvement in Vietnamese affairs expanded significantly during the Kennedy Administration.

So, it is really historically accurate, or fair, to say that the Vietnam War didn’t really begin until August 7, 1964 when Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution ?

Of course, the answer to this question says more about how we view the Vietnam War than it really does about Afghanistan and, in the end, whether Afghanistan is now the longest war, or still only our second-longest war, doesn’t really matter in the end. We’ve still got the same strategic problems there that we had yesterday, so slapping a new label on the war isn’t really all that important.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. sam says:

    I suppose, technically, you could count the Banana Wars as one conflict, and they lasted from 1898 to 1934.

  2. arcs says:

    While the first casualty in Viet Nam may have been in 1957, Truman sent the first military advisors there in 1950.