Misfire: 5 Wars America Should Never Have Fought

5 wars that the United States could have, and should have, kept out of.

In the debate that preceded the 2003 Iraq War, we became enamored of the distinction between “wars of choice” and “wars of necessity.”  Opponents of the Iraq War decried it as a “choice,” while supporters insisted on its “necessity.” Unfortunately, like many aspects of that debate, that framing was entirely wrong; America has faced vanishingly few wars of “necessity,” but some of our wars of “choice” have nevertheless been good choices. Some, sadly, have not.

As we would expect of any country, not all of America’s wars have been wisely fought, and not all of them were wise to fight. Here are five wars that the United States could have, and should have, stayed out of.

War of 1812:

The American Revolutionary War took place against a background of Anglo-French conflict and competition. The French Revolution of 1789 only exacerbated this conflict, threatening to draw the weak, distant American republic into a colossal European War. Although the Adams administration become tangentially embroiled with the French in the late 1790s, the United States largely succeeded in staying out of the war, at least until 1812.

U.S. grievances in the War of 1812 were legitimate, if not overwhelming; British ships were impressing U.S. sailors, and Great Britain was stirring up trouble among Native Americans on the frontier. The war also had an opportunistic element, however, as many American policymakers saw Canada (or what would become Canada) as the unfinished business of the Revolutionary War.

It turned out that the United States was ill-prepared for the conflict. The invasions of Canada failed; U.S. Navy frigates scored some notable successes, but in general the Royal Navy did what it wanted, when it wanted; the British burned the American capital, with only heroic resistance preventing the incineration of Baltimore. The Republic nearly collapsed from internal dissension before Washington and London made peace.

The Black Hills War:

For the first 120 years of its existence, the United States government waged nearly continuous warfare against the Native American tribes that lived on the Western frontier, (and sometimes within U.S. jurisdiction). In some cases these wars came as a result of Indian attacks against settlements; in others, the wars were purely acquisitive efforts to gain territory and resources.

One of the most poorly conceived of these wars began in 1876. The Black Hills War came about because of white settler encroachment on lands allocated, by treaty, to the Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux. The U.S. government was unable (and largely unwilling) to restrict white migration into the Black Hills, and after unproductive negotiation simply decided to seize some of the most valuable area.

The war resulted in one of the most serious U.S. military defeats of the Indian Wars, the annihilation of the Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Eventually, however, a combination of military and diplomatic efforts forced most of the Cheyenne and Sioux to surrender, apart from a portion that fled to Canada. Sporadic fighting would continue for another fifteen years or so. In the end, the U.S. government “pacified” the Cheyenne and Sioux (who were in the process of becoming more agrarian in any case), and assumed full control over the eastern half of what would become South Dakota.  The death and destruction caused by the war provided an appropriate coda for U.S. mistreatment of Native American tribes across the 19th century.

The Great War:

When war broke out in Europe in August 1914, American policymakers correctly saw the conflict as primarily a European affair. Despite the fact that the United States had the world’s largest economy, official Washington had not yet come to the conclusion that it bore responsibility for global stability and conflict resolution.  Accordingly, the United States watched, and profited from, the slow incineration of European civilization between 1914 and 1917.

President Woodrow Wilson promised, in the 1916 election campaign, to stay out of the war.  German submarines and an ill-advised effort on the part of the German foreign service to enlist Mexico’s support in the war changed that position. In eighteen months of war (with the most intense fighting concentrated in the summer of 1918), 116,000 Americans died.  Scholars still debate whether U.S. intervention was decisive, but in the end the war resulted in the collapse of four empires (Germany, Russia, Ottoman, Austria-Hungary) and the aggrandizement of two others (Britain and France) without resolving any of the central issues of dispute.

Vietnam War:

From the mid-1940s on, U.S. policymakers kept tabs on the developing war in Southeast Asia.  The first stage of this war involved a Vietnamese insurgency against the Japanese occupation. The second stage saw this insurgency transition to fighting against French colonial authorities.  After the historic victory of Viet Minh forces at Dien Bien Phu, the French made clear their intent to withdraw.

From that point forward, the United States inexorably drew itself into the conflict.  It helped prevent the unification of the country under Communist rule in the 1950s; supported the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem until it didn’t; launched a strategic bombing campaign designed to bring Hanoi to its knees; and finally became engaged directly, on the ground, against Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops.