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Top 10 Most Important Wars in American History

by Warren Cantrell on Jan.10, 2010, under History Lists

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It’s often hard to keep kids interested in school, especially when those students are presented with a vast array of dates, names, and events to memorize and regurgitate on command.  About the only thing a teacher can count on is that their students, if only the boys, will get a little more interested when the history-talk moves into war-discussions.  Yes, for any history: be it European, American, or even the broader ‘World’ categorization, the most interesting stuff usually comes out when discussing conflict.  True, most of the really dynamic and significant occurrences transpire in between the wars, when the smoke has settled and the actors in the historical drama piece together a new future from the shards of a broken past, yet analyzing that stuff is a more complex task.  For people looking to get the quick, TV-edited version, wars usually suffice and provide all the action, intrigue, drama, and theatrics needed keep an audience’s attention.  The United States isn’t much different in this regard.  Since we don’t have as much history to peel through compared to our Asiatic, African, and European cousins, the story of our nation usually gets framed through the lens of our various conflicts, and how each led toward the other.  While we certainly have a lot of important history in between these engagements, internet reading isn’t much more complex than the education afforded to bored teenagers, so we’ll stick with what keeps people interested: the wars.  The ranking below lists the ten most important wars in American history, gauging the conflicts that had a significant bearing on American culture, politics, and/or economics.  The entries had to have changed the United States in a quantifiable way, significantly altering the trajectory of American life after the fact.  So, to get it out of the way, because we were a confederation of loosely connected colonies and not an actual country at the time of its inception, the American Revolution was immediately excluded from contention.  And though it has been termed as such, the ‘Cold War’ will also not be discussed, as this was series of decades connected by a political ideology, not an active conflict.  Lastly, what has casually been termed the ‘Indian Wars’ of the 1870s and 80s was also not included, as that was not a war, but rather an exercise in genocide and extermination.  Now, with that out of the way…

 

 

 

10.) The War of 1812 –    war1812-2

Wars are complicated things with origins and factors at play that demand careful, detailed, annotated research, all of this entirely inappropriate considering the medium at play here today.  Suffice it to say that the summations and explanations afforded to the conflicts listed below are but a glimpse, a fraction of the social, political, cultural, and often ethnic nature of the disputes: each category just listed an investigation all to itself as it concerns any war.  Generally speaking, the older an event, the more difficult it becomes to critically understand it, as sources are only as good as their reliability, and usually the older a story the harder it is to verify.  There’s a lot of discussion to this day about the “real” reasons the U.S. declared war on Great Britain in 1812.  Most are in agreement that the U.S. hoped to protect itself from increasing British interference both at sea and amongst Native tribes who were increasingly getting encouraged by the Brits to raise hell in Michigan and Ohio.  Growing expansionist sentiments within the U.S. in the early 19th century coincided with a costly war taking place at the time between England and Napoleon, and the time seemed ripe to push the American advantage.  Thing was, Britain called our bluff and diverted badly needed resources into Canada and the American Atlantic to combat the uppity new kids acting like they knew how to tussle with the big boys.  Thus, the U.S. not only had a war on its hands with a seasoned, battle-hardened England, but also had to contend with very local Canadian and Native allies that had a vested interest in doing England a favor.  Indeed, the Canadians and Natives were getting little from their American neighbors, British victory the first real hope either had since the Yanks commandeered the continent over twenty years before.  The war started well for the enemies of America, quick victories in the north and at sea leading to humiliating defeats, most notably the burning of Washington, D.C. and our friggin’ White House.  The defeat was inexcusable and nearly took the heart out of the resistance.  Demonstrating a habit that was quickly becoming a time-honored American tradition, Americans resisted practicality and good sense and kept swinging, this blind resilience leading to a series of naval victories and considerable progress in the south.  Following the war, this impressive string of naval victories required England and Europe to take a moment of pause, forcing the world to reconsider the previously disregarded Americans.  Though off to a slow start at first, the U.S. won out through stubborn grit and showed that it could back up claims made to protect international prestige, a trait the nation proved it now possessed in quantity enough to defend.  For while there was a lot of growing to be done following the war, and a whole lot of progress to be made before the United States could enter into a serious discussion concerning influence on global affairs, the country survived its first test and proved that an experiment started in earnest had legs enough to endure (at least for the time being).  It was an important first step for a country that would grow into a global powerhouse, one which truly got its footing after a conflict called…

 

 

9.) World War II –  ww2

Merciful heavens, where does one even start with this one?  What could possibly be said that hasn’t already been written about maybe the most covered topic in the history of history?  Was this an important conflict that needed fighting?  Well, yeah: of course!  Did this have a tangible effect on American culture and the path this nation took after all the shooting was finished?  Totally.  Because Eisenhower and FDR played a masterful hand during the conflict and used their intervention and logistical support to muscle in on post-war spoils, the U.S. was in great shape to influence world-politics after 1945.  Though mostly isolationist before the war, America leap-frogged England and France to tussle with the Ruskies in the decades that followed, and assumed real global prominence for the first time in her history.  Possessed of citizens who had been saving nickels for the better part of five years and were again eager to start spending, the United States transformed into a veritable consumer utopia.  Advertising machines kicked into high gear to convince a war-weary nation that everybody NEEDED a house, car, washer, dryer, 2.5 kids and a dog named Spot.  Politically, the nation was testing international waters to see just how many red, white, and blue fingers could be thrust into assorted foreign pies, establishing influence that still bears fruit (and rotten vegetables) to this day.  Though a mostly disassembled and decommissioned shell prior to the conflict, America’s armed forces emerged from WWII a tested and formidable opponent ready and willing to take the fight to any comers.  In the grand scheme of things and examined in relation to what transpired before, the conflict was small potatoes for the United States in a strictly national sense.  Though the nation was certainly changed afterwards, World War II came about at a time when the U.S. had already developed a fairly stable sense of self, nudging an otherwise stagnant culture down a path that was effectively in the cards to begin with.  Though WWII was undeniably important for U.S. culture, economics, and politics, simply put, the world was ready for older European powers to self-destruct and for newer, larger players to move in and take center stage.  Like of an aftershock conceived from a more momentous conflict about thirty years prior to its beginning, World War II would never have been were it not for a predecessor that changed the way humanity viewed war and conflict…

 

 

8.) WWI –  ww1

Though it was really more of a European party, this was a pretty big deal for us Yanks as well.  You want to know the funny thing about this war, though?  In light of the casualties, it really isn’t funny, actually, but what’s striking is that WWI never really needed to happen.  Seriously!  Read a book about this war some time, and just try to get a handle on why everybody was so pissed off: I dare you!  Sure, you’ll find a lot of stuff in there about the decline of Ottoman prestige in the south and a long history of conflicts in the Baltic region, but everything that was popping off around 1913 and 1914 would seem somewhat tame and ordinary compared to the evil host of events at play in 2010.  Most historians agree that two things came together to get ‘The Big War’ going, and they were a combination of new technologies and the emergence of evolving concepts of Nationalism.  It doesn’t seem like much, but the people who had been around to lament the deprivations of Napoleon had since passed away, and sore lessons learned from war faded as self-important notions of national-pride came to the fore.  With the exception of the U.S., which still had people alive to remind saber-rattlers about a very costly Civil War, most of the world had forgotten how truly crappy war could be, and thought no better than to find an excuse to prove that THEIR country could totally kick YOUR country’s ass.  This sentiment landed right on top of the industrial revolution, which had pretty much run its full course and was operating at peak efficiency at the start of 1914.  Weapons that had only minimal exposure prior to the early-twentieth century got uncased and turned loose on soldiers and officers that had to quickly learn how to adapt to new battlefield innovations such as barbed wire, machine guns, poison gas, aerial warfare, and (later on in the war) tanks.  Casualties were beyond anything the world had ever seen and still hold no real comparison to this day.  As many as twenty thousand (THOUSAND!) soldiers died in one day, fatality rates of this nature entirely common during the war.  Before WWI, the United States’ army was a laughable band of soldiers serving a broke master, the navy the only real asset at play.  After the War the U.S. military found that it had solid leadership, organizational prowess, and rearmament capacities.  Though it scaled back the size of the military as well as her role in international affairs afterwards, America demonstrated that if there was going to be a ‘World’ War, then it wouldn’t do for the United States to be left out, a development that has stuck ever since.  It was because of her participation in World War I that the U.S. was even in the discussion to be involved in World War II, this nation’s entrance into ‘The Great War’ like a coming-out party for a country that had previously contented itself with smaller, less-risky international engagements like…

 

 

7.) The Mexican-American War –  Mexican-American

One of the forgotten giants of American politics was at the center of an oft overlooked American war, a song by the band They Might Be Giants one of the only fitting tributes out there for President James K. Polk.  Polk had a hunger for a United States that extended uninterrupted from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  Through peaceful means at first, the President tried to buy the Mexicans out by pitching somewhere between $20 & $30 million for California, the New Mexico Territories, and less hassles along the Rio Grande.  Understandably put-off because a gaggle of Yankees wanted to write them a check for half their country, Mexico told us where to go (not Heaven), and a war followed.  Though the conflict had its detractors, enough support from Democrats and Southerners looking to combat growing Northern influence got the ball rolling.  In the splintered, fractious Mexican government Polk saw his chance to strike a major blow and to expand American influence on a scale rivaled only by the Louisiana Purchase.  California went to the U.S. in a nearly bloodless campaign that was over almost before it had even started.  Invading forces in modern-day New Mexico and Arizona found little resistance, and things looked to be going off without a hitch before defenders in Northern Mexico/Texas came to the party with their game-faces.  Luckily for the U.S., a young, fresh crop of officers were on the scene and ready for a chance to show what they could do, men with names like Grant, Lee, Longstreet, and Davis cutting their teeth in a conflict that seasoned a nation only a few decades removed from internal revolution.  The consequences for Mexico were staggering, over half its country lost after the fighting had ended.  By signing and agreeing to the terms laid out in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the U.S. gained California, Nevada, Utah, chunks of Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, and the begrudging recognition that Texas had indeed kicked Mexico’s sorry ass about a decade earlier.  In the U.S., a nation discovered it had the ability to really, truly get mobilized for a large-scale, grown-up war.  Technological advances in communication meant that Americans were able to construct their own ideas about the conflict outside of what was coming from their politicians, the very nature of how popular opinion would influence culture and politics unquestionably altered afterwards.  Most importantly, it gave credence to an emerging ideology based on the notion of “Manifest Destiny,” whereby the United States was anointed as the veritable savior of humanity: her growth in size and influence practically pre-ordained (and not to be questioned).  This cocky posturing was born in earnest after the Mexican-American War, burning a scar into a national consciousness mired in a history self-righteous entitlement.  As the next war has demonstrated, it’s a legacy not easily shaken off…

 

 

6.) Iraq/Afghanistan –  afghanistan

Because this war(s) is still ongoing, depending on one’s politics the analysis and interpretation of the conflict varies.  What is known, however, is that the United States was bushwhacked something awful one September morning in 2001, and as a result other people had to die.  It didn’t really matter who, not really.  Afghanistan was an easy target what with their religious intolerance and especially brutal treatment of their women, and they just so happened to be the last place Osama Bin Laden stopped off before 9/11 hit with all the weight of a bag of hammers.  Afghanistan didn’t much care one way or the other what happened to the beard-heavy dick-hole, yet they also didn’t much care for a self-righteous bunch of rich assholes telling them what they could or couldn’t do.  Already in a bad mood, the U.S. attacked and made short work of what Afghani resistance could be assembled to take the invasion force on.  Though it was a tenuous connection, America got its retribution on the country “responsible” for the attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and D.C., yet something never occurred to the general public.  It never seemed to sink in that what the war was really about was the spread of American influence in a region that boasted both oil and a very valuable ally: Israel.  After 9/11, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the rest of the crooked batch of thieves in control took it upon themselves to take a sad song and make it better.  They invented justifications for continued military operations in the region whilst terrifying any doubters with stories of terrorism and Arab-ish men looking to invade Middle America to drink the blood of the young.  After the dust settled from yet another quick invasion and initial victory in Iraq, the world came to know what most had already suspected: there were no weapons of mass destruction, no signs of imminent threats to Americans.  What’s worse, the United States learned that victories won early on were fleeting, and though the invasion of Iraq had been framed in a way that presented the conflict as the means to make the U.S. safer, more Americans were dying after “victory” than before that conflict had taken place.  Though we missed out on the big catch, Osama, Saddam got pinched and proved that while he was a very bad man, really, the world was full of bad men, many in need of a hanging which almost none would receive.  This is not because the U.S. couldn’t make such things happen, but because their regimes weren’t conveniently replaceable and likely to be ignored by the international community.  While the ultimate effects on the nation are as yet to fully play out, what we do know is that the United States can still be whipped into a war-frenzy if attacked, and will remain in that state for the better part of a decade if leadership knows how to keep its people frightened (and quiet).  We learned that the U.S. economy cannot sustain itself properly during wartime in the 21st century, and that older models of imperial conquest no longer operate with the same efficiency as they did just a hundred years previous, when a war with Spain taught the U.S. how to get into the global game…

 

 

5.) Spanish-American War –  spanish-american

Though the Cuban aspect of the war usually gets most of the attention during discussions on the topic, this war was actually a series of engagements between the U.S. and Spain in territories outside each country’s main body.  Actually, most people don’t even know that this war took place, my buddy Noah, a California native, under the impression that this referred to a soccer riot that took place near his buddy’s house in Chula Vista.  It all got started with Cuba in 1895, and an attempt from previous insurgents to once again get independence from Spain.  A newspaper war between Pultizer and Hearst fired up public sentiment against what they deemed a cruel and oppressive Spanish-backed Cuban regime, and after the USS Maine sank in Havana Harbor, it was on.  American economic interests had already been pushing President McKinley to get a piece of Spanish interests in the Caribbean while the chaos and rebellion fermented, and the sudden dip in Spanish global influence meant that new doctrines about imperial domination via a strong Navy could get tested.  A relatively short, four month war followed, much of Guam, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba coming under American influence as a result.  The results were dramatic, as one of the old-guard European nations bent beneath the weight of a younger, aggressive power moving onto the international scene, one with a modern navy that had proven its capacity to defend multiple holdings abroad.  Both naval and infantry tactics changed as a result of the war, as well as the state of the U.S. economy, which thereafter had a real stake in over-seas markets.  Socially, some wounds still sore from a Civil War not yet forty years old began to heal, as people both in the North and South once again found a common enemy to fight.  Though not a full-fledged member of the game until the entire world seemed to lose its mind about sixteen years later, it was victory in this conflict that saw the United States at least move to the high-rollers table (victory there to come later).  Most importantly, the U.S. showed that it was an imperial power just like the rest of them, that democratic ideals meant little when it came time to draft peace treaties and stifle indigenous liberties to guarantee American influence.  Though the war with Spain began with the understanding that Cuba would be given over to the locals once the oppression had been lifted (Teller Amendment), once the war was over, Cubans learned that Americans were pretty much the same song with a different title, a significant moment for the U.S. and a startling indicator of a new foreign policy to emerge in the 20th century.

 

 

4.) Philippines –  philippine

The Cubans weren’t the only ones disappointed after the Spanish-American War, Philippine revolutionaries jobbed by the U.S. in a way that would make a prostitute blush.  When at war with Spain, the Americans were more than happy to tap into the local resistance movement and utilize both their manpower and intel. to push the Spanish out.  Once terms had been reached and the war there was over, the U.S. turned on the insurgency that had aided in its victory, quickly siding again with the Spanish to assure good relations with an established global partner.  In short, the Philippine revolutionary movement had been used only for what they could provide at the moment, and when they were no longer necessary to American interests there we turned on them, siding with America’s recent-enemy to combat their demands.  Pushing for a peaceful resolution to the dispute even after the first shots had been fired, the newly declared Independent Government of the Philippines was informed that while they might want peace, Americans don’t stop a war until we’d won it, thus it would have to continue to its conclusion.  In this, perhaps the most blatantly unnecessary and unjust war in American history, the United States entered the 20th century, invigorated by success against a worldly Spanish foe and looking for more scraps to be gobbled and stolen from international table.  All evidence suggests that despite claims that the war had started accidentally because of a provocation between American and Philippine sentries, that the U.S. had been deliberately positioning its forces for all-out war prior to the onset of hostilities.  A David v. Goliath struggle ensued whereby poorly-equipped, untrained peasants tried desperately to rob their opponents of their will to fight.  A guerilla campaign was successful in this regard at first, yet the American response was devastating.  Mirroring policies that would fracture the social bedrock of the United States some seventy years later, 1899 witnessed American strategy shift to punish the Philippine home-front, scores of civilians burned out of their homes and held in captivity for suspicion of aiding rebels.  The shooting and torture of prisoners became routine, most of the atrocities dismissed because of the psychologically effective guerilla tactics of the Philippine insurgents.  It was the first time the U.S. got serious blood on its hands for a fight unconnected from its borders, more than half a million soldiers and civilians dead after the war (a very conservative numerical estimate).  Though it was the first time the U.S. would employ such dramatic policies, it certainly wouldn’t be the last, and would come to characterize some of the more ugly and regrettable moments in America’s brand-new 20th century game-plan, one that didn’t always meet with similar success, as seen in the war below…

 

 

3.) The Korean War –  korea

Far more important than World War II in terms of American culture and political policy, it’s amazing this war gets so little attention outside of M*A*S*H reruns.  In school, it’s commonly skipped altogether, the event seemingly lost to bigger stories with more attractive villains (Hitler, Stalin, Il Duce) or marketable story lines (Vietnam).  In retrospect, it’s actually pretty obvious why this war doesn’t get a lot of ink, most of the details surrounding the conflict either very confusing or simply depressing.  It didn’t start well.  Roughly 300,000 Chinese and North Koreans thought MacArthur’s timetable for a quick, home-by-Christmas war that started in early December was a bit hasty, and consequently took the fight right to us.  What followed was the longest recorded retreat in American military history, scores of Americans killed and captured in the subsequent retreat to the 38th parallel, where U.N. forces set up shop and dug in for a good ol’ fashioned multi-year bullet fight.  The war was a tough blow to a recently unclenched America, one that figured the movie had ended, the bad guys were dead, and the good guys (everybody in the U.S.) had fairly won the day.  It was our first taste of something resembling defeat, the ambiguous nature of the war’s outcome fashioned in a way that relegated the conflict to just that, a “conflict,” and not a war.  The United States only won wars, after all, the complete conquest of the Korean peninsula and the “evil” Chinese absent along with any recognition that the country had actually been at war.  It was the first large, international test of a country that was looking to prove that a new power was on the scene, that if anybody was going to make a move, the United States had to first give it the okay.  Russia and China decided to test this, and the international pissing match that resulted was a war fought in Korea, one with no real resolution even to this day.  The U.S. got through it and proved that it had the gumption to fight it out along with the best of them, and through careful history and press management, they assured that only the official (marketable) story came out.  It was an important lesson that proved invaluable during America’s next war (Vietnam), and later on in Iraq, when the United States needed to frame intervention for imperialistic concerns beneath a blanket of re-written justifications and pretenses.

 

 

2.) Vietnam –  vietnam

Interestingly, the Spanish-American War came to life out of relative political calm because a ship, the USS Maine, sank just outside of Cuba and re-ignited tensions that had all but extinguished.  Though all evidence at the time (and through present historiography) indicated that the cause of the disaster was accidental, and was in no way the result of belligerent action, a good explosion is usually all it takes to get Americans geared up for war (see the #6 entrant above).  Over sixty years later, the sinking of a ship would again be turned into justification for war, and once again a benign naval incident (The Gulf of Tonkin Affair) would be purposefully engineered so as to provide a catalyst for war.  Few were fooled by the ploy even at the time, however, as the now-famous ‘Domino Theory’ regarding communist encroachments throughout southeast-Asia had been influencing American foreign policy in the region since the end of World War II.  Yet following the somewhat successful stalemate in Korea, the U.S. got it in its head that it could continue committing itself halfway across the world, to combat political ideologies striking cords with people whose culture and histories we couldn’t begin to comprehend.  To our stunning disappointment, Americans learned that there were some people in the world that didn’t give a tinker’s damn about democracy and capitalism, more basic socialist tenants often more appealing to agrarian cultures largely untouched by the industrial revolution.  Ten years of a war followed, almost forty thousand American soldiers killed in a lesson sorely learned, and not soon to be forgotten.  In the U.S., the war in Vietnam became the center-piece of a growing political consciousness that threatened to overthrow an established political order that was on the brink of capitulation in 1967 and early 68.  Naturally, this burgeoning awareness infected the youth more than any other sector of society, and sweeping race, gender, and ethnic social reforms found a voice for the first time in American history.  What Vietnam came to represent for the American people transcended the conflict itself, and a generation rooted in a struggle either for or against the war thereafter defined their identity based on the period, and what effect it had on their lives.  Ultimately, since we lost the war abroad as well as the fight to re-define our national identity at home, Vietnam became a sad rallying point for American culture, an undeniable wound that might have healed but will never fully disappear.  Unlike Korea, there was no denying that the war (indeed, this time nobody was arguing that Vietnam was a war) had been a mess and failure.  The effects on American life where as dramatic as any since World War II, except this time it was the inverse: we lost, the economy was in ruins, there were no public heroes (only silent, anonymous ones), no scheduled parades, and nobody really wanted to talk about it.

 

 

1.) Civil War –  acw

Make absolutely no mistake about it: the American Civil War was the driving force that propelled the United States into what exists today.  Loyal readers of the 10rant know this, of course, due in large part to a list that outlined how this conflict changed not just this country, but the world at large.  Singular credit should be given to one man, however, for understanding more than any of his contemporaries just what was at stake in the Spring of 1861, when South Carolina started a series of events that would devastate a nation.  Abraham Lincoln knew that he was the custodian of more than just a country, but of an ideal that represented humanity’s best intentions.  A Democratic Republic is a great dream, yet in the mid-19th century there was not a lot of evidence that one could “long endure,” that anything except authoritarian monarch-based states could survive into perpetuity.  The very notion of the U.S. seemed somewhat fickle.  The idea that independent and isolated municipalities should or could bear any responsibility to each other or a larger collective was just as practical an idea as the position that demanded for each state to govern its own affairs.  Essentially, the South pulled the cheating-partner card out when they broke off, explaining that since the relationship originally started because the North cheated on England, the Yankees shouldn’t have been surprised that the South would break out on its own in a similar fashion.  Thus, the American Civil War was a fight over what constituted “America,” and whether we were a unified nation or just a collection of paranoid jerks without concern for others in different parts of the continent.  After the Civil War the former argument won out, and the U.S. demonstrated that it was not merely a collection of loosely organized militia units but a country with an army the equal of any stupid enough to think about invading and taking it on.  Had Abraham Lincoln let the South secede the door might have been opened to any pocket of the “country” that felt it wasn’t getting enough love, and a unified, resource-rich, nasty bunch of Yankees might never have gathered to make a name for itself in Cuba, the Philippines, and both World Wars.  Had Abraham Lincoln been President when the United States fragmented into confederacies, sweeping Civil Rights legislation (already regrettably too slow to progress) might still be working its way through some portions of this country.  With Southern victory the Democratic tendencies of a world influenced by 20th century American politics might look very, very different, and tough decisions about how to act during seven of the conflicts listed above might not have been made at all (or made differently).  Because Abraham Lincoln knew how important the idea of America was, what a nation possessed of such promise could offer humanity, he fought hard to keep it together, and despite setbacks and a very determined foe that demanded increasingly dire sacrifices, the United States survived, theory and all.

 

 

 

Copyright Warren J. Cantrell – All rights reserved.

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