Misfire: 5 Wars America Should Never Have Fought (2023)

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.

To what end? The United States withdrew from South Vietnam in 1972, having established a state that could at least, for a time, protect itself against internal guerillas. South Vietnam could not protect itself from the North, however, and a 1975 offensive quickly rolled up the country. That conquest produced tremendous humanitarian suffering, but not much beyond what the war itself had produced in the previous decade. Today, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam enjoys a growing diplomatic, military, and economic relationship with the United States, and may become one of the bulwarks of the American strategy to contain the People’s Republic of China.

Operation Iraqi Freedom:

In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq in order to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein, establish a friendly, democratic state in its place, and prevent the distribution of weapons of mass destruction to Iraqi-affiliated terrorist networks. In hindsight, every aspect of that sentence seems absurd.

The United States won a convincing victory against Iraqi military forces in the first weeks of the war, but could not establish order in the country. Iraq quickly devolved into various stages of civil war, at immense human and economic cost. Extensive investigation in the wake of the invasion found no serious WMD program, and no meaningful contacts with the Al Qaeda terror network.

After a surge of troops in 2007 contributed to a reduction of violence in the country, the United States withdrew most military forces. The new Iraqi government controls some of its territory, but has struggled to contend with ISIS, and remains deeply vulnerable to Iranian influence. The United States itself has become remarkably intervention-averse, with even GOP presidential candidates reluctant to express support for the decision to go to war.


Avoiding bad wars is perhaps the most important responsibility of leadership. Among George Washington’s chief warnings in his Farewell Address was that the United States should take great care to stay out of unnecessary wars, and aloof from foreign entanglements. America’s leaders would be best advised to pay great heed to this advice when they consider further foreign adventures.

Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as an Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Army


What is America's most forgotten war? ›

America's Forgotten War may refer to: War of 1812 (1812-1815) Apache Wars (1851–1900) First Barbary War (1801–1805)

Why are wars never fought on American soil? ›

One pivotal factor contributing to the scarcity of international wars on US soil is the nation's geographic isolation and natural barriers. The United States is situated between two vast oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific, providing a natural buffer zone that has safeguarded the country from direct invasions.

How many wars can you list that America fought in? ›

The United States has been involved in many wars and minor conflicts since its birth, but the 12 major wars include the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Indian Wars, the Mexican-American Wars, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf ...

Has there ever been a war fought on US soil? ›

The Battle of Attu was the only land battle to be fought on North American soil during World War II. + Add to calendar. The Battle of Attu was the only land battle to be fought on North American soil during World War II.

What was the most brutal war in US history? ›

The Civil War was America's bloodiest conflict. The unprecedented violence of battles such as Shiloh, Antietam, Stones River, and Gettysburg shocked citizens and international observers alike. Nearly as many men died in captivity during the Civil War as were killed in the whole of the Vietnam War.

What is the only war that the United States lost? ›

Twenty-five years after the ignominious American withdrawal from what was then South Vietnam, this much is clear: the United States lost the war, but won the peace.

Why has no one invaded the US? ›

Geographic feasibility

Many experts have considered the US practically impossible to invade because of its well-funded and extensive military, major industries, reliable and fast supply lines, large population and geographic size, geographic location, and difficult regional features.

What were the worst US wars to fight in? ›

The origins of the U.S. military can be traced to the Americans' fight for independence from their former colonial power, Great Britain, in the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783). The three bloodiest conflicts have been American Civil War (1861–1865), World War I (1917–1918), and World War II (1941–45).

Has the US ever lost a war? ›

The United States has only lost two major wars: the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and the Vietnam War (1954–1975). The American Revolutionary War was a conflict between the 13 American colonies, led by General George Washington, and British forces in North America.

What was the deadliest war in history? ›

World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China.

Are there any active wars for USA? ›

Syria. The United State's involvement in the conflict in Syria began with President Obama in 2014 and is still unresolved, with 900 troops remaining there as of July 2021. Again, this conflict is designed to attack and hold back Al-Qaeda forces and Islamic State. Aleppo, Syria.

What war had the most deaths? ›

World War II

The war pitted the Allies and the Axis power in the deadliest war in history, and was responsible for the deaths of over 70 million people. Known for its genocidal campaign against the Jewish people, the war was also responsible for the deaths of more than 50 million civilians.

Could any country invade the US? ›

There is no army in the world that is large enough to conquer the United States and control its population. It would be nearly impossible for a foreign military to successfully invade the United States. This is an important reason why the US would never be invaded.

What were the bloodiest battles on US soil? ›

The Battle of Antietam remains the bloodiest single day in American history. The battle left 23,000 men killed or wounded in the fields, woods and dirt roads, and it changed the course of the Civil War.

Can the US deploy troops on US soil? ›

The Posse Comitatus Act is a United States federal law (18 U.S.C. § 1385, original at 20 Stat. 152) signed on June 18, 1878, by President Rutherford B. Hayes which limits the powers of the federal government in the use of federal military personnel to enforce domestic policies within the United States.

What is the deadliest day in human history? ›

But when considering a single day of devastation, the Shaanxi earthquake – also known as the Jiajing earthquake because it struck under the reign of the Jiajing Emperor of the Ming dynasty – is widely considered the most fatal we know of.

What event has killed the most humans? ›

Wars and armed conflicts
EventLowest estimateLocation
World War II70,000,000Worldwide
Mongol invasions and conquests30,000,000Eurasia
Taiping Rebellion20,000,000China
European colonization of the Americas8,400,000Americas
45 more rows

What is the bloodiest day in American history? ›

Battle of Antietam: The Bloodiest Day in American History
  • The most accurate estimate comes in at 22,717 casualties — 12,401 Union soldiers and 10,316 Confederates. ...
  • That's not to say, though, that there was nothing of consequence to come from the battle.
Sep 17, 2021

Why didn't the US win the Vietnam War? ›

The US army had superior conventional weapons but they were ineffective against a country that was not industrialized and an army which employed guerrilla tactics and used the dense jungle as cover.

What country has won the most wars? ›

According to historian Niall Ferguson, France is the most successful military power in history.

How the US could have won Vietnam? ›

In the aftermath of the war, General Westmoreland, the primary leader of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) for the majority of the war, put forward the argument that the United States could have easily won had the United States not restrained their means from the offset[25]: this would have been achieved with ...

What country did the US try to invade but failed? ›

On April 17, 1961, 1,400 Cuban exiles launched what became a botched invasion at the Bay of Pigs on the south coast of Cuba.

What 3 countries has the US not invaded? ›

In fact, there are only three countries in the world America hasn't invaded or have never seen a U.S. military presence: Andorra, Bhutan, and Liechtenstein.

Why did Japan not invade Hawaii? ›

Keeping Hawaii supplied, with its much larger civilian population and garrison, would have been even more difficult. In short, the Japanese simply did not possess the amphibious and logistical wherewithal to assault, capture, and hold the Hawaiian Islands.

Has America ever surrendered? ›

U.S. Army National Guard and Filipino soldiers shown at the outset of the Bataan Death March. Allied forces were forced to surrender to the Japanese on April 9, 1942, the largest surrender in U.S. history.

What war did Canada beat the US? ›

War of 1812
Published OnlineMarch 6, 2012
Last EditedOctober 31, 2018
Mar 6, 2012

When was the last time the USA won a war? ›

Since 1945, in terms of victory in a major war, the United States is one for five. The Gulf War in 1991 is the only success story. The dark age is a time of protracted fighting, featuring the three longest wars in American history (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam).

What is the most forgotten war in history? ›

Korea is known as the “forgotten war.” Some historians have noted, that much like the soldiers in Afghanistan, the 1.8 million Americans who fought in Korea rotated in and out of the war zone without attracting much attention.

What is the longest the US has gone without war? ›

Since 1776, the U.S. has only been at peace for 17 years. American colonists took up arms against Britain to win independence. European settlers then wiped out North America's indigenous people in order to expand westward.

Why is this known as America's Forgotten War? ›

The Korean War is often called the “Forgotten War” because it was largely overshadowed by WWII and Vietnam. The importance of this war in the history of the United States and the world is vastly understated; this conflict marked the first clear battle of the Cold War.


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