U.S. Involved in Iraq Longer than WWII

We have officially reached a milestone that has been bandied about in the press the last few days. The YahooNews headline gets it as close to right as any: “U.S. involved in Iraq longer than WWII.”

The war in Iraq has now lasted longer than the U.S. involvement in the war that
President Bush’s father fought in, World War II. As of Sunday, the conflict in Iraq has raged for three years and just over eight months.

Only the Vietnam War (eight years, five months), the Revolutionary War (six years, nine months), and the Civil War (four years), have engaged America longer. Fighting in Afghanistan, which may or may not be a full-fledged war depending on who is keeping track, has gone on for five years, one month. It continues as the ousted Taliban resurges and the central government is challenged.

At least YahooNews isn’t making the mistake of saying that the Iraq War has lasted longer than World War II, as many outlets are. They’re rightly limiting it to the U.S. involvement which dates from our declaration of war December 8, 1941; most start the war with the September 1, 1939 German invasion of Poland, although others tab the July 7, 1937 invasion of China by Japan.

Even that statistic, though, is dubious. For one thing, one could easily argue that the war in Iraq has been ongoing since 1991, since Gulf War I/Desert Storm ended with a cease-fire and American military forces never left. Furthermore, we are using different metrics for the “wars.” In the case of WWII, we are stopping with V-J Day and not counting the post-war occupation and nation-building activities, which lasted until 1952. By that standard, this war ended in three weeks.

While it should go without saying, Victoria Coates reminds us that the casualty tolls of the two wars are vastly different:

[W]e have lost 2303 of our best and brightest to combat in Iraq to date–which is for me a far more tangible cost to our nation than the number of days we’ve been there. How does that stack up against WWII? The battle death tally for WWII was 292,131. More than a quarter of a million. 292,131. It’s a staggering number, especially when you remember that the total population of the United States was less than half than it is now in 1941 at roughly 132 million. The AP might also consider that during the period we were involved in WWII, we lost servicemen at the rate of 6,639 per month.

That’s worth remembering. Of course, in both cases we had goals of effecting regime change and defeating the forces of fascism. In WWII, we achieved both. In the case of Iraq, we easily achieved the first but seem to be making little progress in the second. The cost was far greater in the first war but, so far at least, so was the return.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. cirby says:

    By the standard of Iraq, we’re still engaged in nation-building activities in Germany, since they rely on us so heavily for defense against the still-problematic Russia.

    Even if you only count to the end of the Cold War, we were involved in active combat preparation in Germany for over 40 years.

    By Iraq standards, we’re certainly still “nation building” in South Korea, 50 years later.

    Does anyone think we’re still going to have a continuing strong military presence in Iraq in 50 years?

  2. Bithead says:

    Exactly so, cirby.
    The real issue here is not the length of the war, but the length of involvement afterward. ANyone making the argument that Yahoo “news” does is clearly tryiung to score a hit on THe White House.

  3. Anderson says:

    Um, Cirby & Bithead, the Germans aren’t blowing us up every day.

    In the case of WWII, we are stopping with V-J Day and not counting the post-war occupation and nation-building activities, which lasted until 1952.

    Nor were the Japanese attacking us; I’m finishing Manchester’s bio of MacArthur right now, and the Americans were positively spooked at how completely the vanquished accepted the occupation. A few random assassination plots here & there, but nothing remotely comparable to Iraq post-April 2003.

  4. Michael says:

    Anderson is right, post-war Germany and Japan were nothing like post “Mission Accomplished” Iraq is.

    And I don’t see how you can possibly equate US activities in South Korea with our activities in Iraq. How many times do US troops setup armed checkpoints in Seoul? We are a barely noticed presence there. In Iraq, we are more noticeable than the Iraqi government, we are involved in every aspect of that country’s life.

  5. Matt S says:

    I agree with your larger point but I wouldn’t characterize the US presence in South Korea as “barely noticed”. There have been several rallies in Seoul and elsewhere protesting the US presence there, and I’ve seen polls showing that a large number of South Koreans want the US out of their country.

  6. Wayne says:

    The YahooNews headline is playing a typical MSM shell game. Some have already been listed. Others include that we were involve in WWII before we ever declared war. Including unofficially supplying military units and supplies to China, England and Russia.
    The Korean War is not officially over. It ended in a temporary cease-fire agreement that has lasted for the most part all this time and U.S. troops do participate in active combat patrols along the border.

    If one go by what was historically typically considered the length of the war then Iraq lasted weeks. The violence now in Iraq would be considered local unrest. Do time change and can war be redefine? Of course, but to considered the to wars equal when they have different definitions is dishonest.

    I won’t even get into the debate that if we follow the same rules and threw everything we could into the current conflict like we did in WWII the situation would be different.

  7. jpe says:

    Was the post-war occupation of conquered land in WWII anything at all like quelling a civil war? If not, the WWII comparisons are completely apropos.

  8. Anthony C says:

    The WW2 analogy, as various people have noted either implicitly or explicitly, is fairly misplaced as even successful counterinsurgency operations tend to last substantially longer than conventional wars. They’re generally a slow burn.

    Although they were broadly at a far lower level of intensity than Iraq, the Malayan Emergency lasted over a decade and the Hukbalahap rebellion was only a couple of years shorter.

    None of that’s to say that Iraq is going anything other than very, very badly, mind.

  9. Bithead says:

    Um, Cirby & Bithead, the Germans aren’t blowing us up every day.

    They certainly were following the war, however, and that’s the point. Had we followed your advice in both those cases, Germany and Japan would not be the countries of the world they are today.

  10. anjin-san says:


    Can you document all these postwar attacks on occupying US forces in Germany & Japan, or is it just something you heard from Rush?

  11. LJD says:

    Never ceases to amaze how the anti-war crowd likes to rewrite history. Barely noticed in Korea? I think the North ‘notices’ the line of mines, razor wire, and American troops with live ammunition.

    So what’s the point of this comparison again? The left wants us to start incendiary bombing Iraqi cities?

  12. Patrick McGuire says:

    This comparison is ludricrous at best. During WWII, we bombed Germany and Japan into rubble, totally destroying their infrastructure, killing millions of their population. Remember Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the fire bombing of Dresden?

    Now we use precision guided weapons to prevent collateral damage and spend more time fighting public opinion regarding civilian casualties than we do the enemy.

    If you want a real comparison between the two conflicts, drop a couple of well placed nukes around Baghdad and see how quickly this all comes to a screeching halt.

  13. Anderson says:

    Can you document all these postwar attacks on occupying US forces in Germany & Japan, or is it just something you heard from Rush?

    Oh, like you didn’t know the answer before you asked, Anjin-san.

  14. madmatt says:

    and how many men were fighting in WW2 to get 6600 deaths per month…and fighting how many people…now which has the higher percentage of deaths?

  15. LJD says:

    I’ll use round numbers so as not to confuse you.

    16 million served in WWII.
    500,000 killed (just over three percent)

    140,000 troops NOW in Iraq. Less than 3,000 killed (just over two percent) using that number for THIS YEAR ONLY.

    I can’t locate any reliable numbers as to the total amount of troops that have served in Iraq to date, but if you figure 150,000 per year since it started, you get about 550,000 pairs of boots on the ground. This makes our figure more like half of one percent.

    Your point was?