Seven Charts That Help Explain American War

Recently, the Washington Post published two interesting articles that offered 40 maps and 40 charts that explained the world. This led me to wonder if perhaps America’s wars could be explained in a similar way. Although no series of visualizations could ever hope to capture everything, the following seven charts offer a starting point from which to begin a discussion concerning how and why the U.S. fights the way it does.

How Many Years In Its History Has America Been at War?

The Congressional Research Service report, Declarations of War and Authorizations for the Use of Military Force, provides the details of every time Congress has officially declared war or authorized the use of force. The chart below is a visual representation of the data in that report. Based on this strict legal interpretation of the word “war,” three categories emerged:

  1. War officially approved by Congress (e.g., Spanish American War, WWI, WWII, etc.)
  2. Congressional authorization for the use of military force (e.g., Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.)
  3. Presidential use of force absent congressional approval (e.g., Korea, Grenada, etc.)

Number of Years the U.S. Congress Has Authorized War or the Use of Force, 1776–2015 (Source: Author)

This data indicate that there are three general flavors of war, based on the level of political commitment. To those that fight, this distinction may seem a bit academic, as it is just as easy to die in a “war” as it is during “authorized use of force.” Arguably, the only true difference lies in nation’s stated level of commitment to the political object.

Where Has America Fought?

Due to its actions in war and short of war, the U.S. Army has earned 189 campaign streamers that it displays on its flag. The picture below shows the approximate location where the Army has earned each streamer. As a heat map graphic, red depicts the areas of greatest concentration. These areas are the American East, France, Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Taking the fight to the enemy in this fashion is difficult, but serves to seize the initiative and put the maximum distance between the enemy and the homeland.

Concentration of U.S. Army Campaign Streamers 1775–2015 (Source: Author, See Notes)

As you look at this picture, you can see the founding of America, its expansion West, and growth into a regional and then global actor. You can also make the observation that the U.S. seems to fight “away games” choosing to almost always fight offensively using external lines of communication. Taking the fight to the enemy in this fashion is difficult and expensive, but serves to seize the initiative and put the maximum distance between the enemy and the homeland.

Why Has America Fought?

The chart below depicts the major examples of America’s stated casus belli over the last 100 years. Even though there are deeper issues that drove each conflict, it appears that the country commonly needs a tipping point-type event to push it out of the warm comfort of isolationism.

Examples of American Casus Belli, 1898–2011 (Source: Author)

The American press can also feed (or create) outrage and patriotic fervor that leads to a call to arms. What is dangerous about this attribute of American war is that if an adversary has strategic patience and settles for small gains, it can build incremental momentum without breaching the threshold of American outrage. If an enemy is clever and patient, it may be able to avoid ever awakening the “sleeping giant.”

How Does America Fight ?

Joint Publication 5–0 offers the diagram below as a notional way that America designs its operations. As you look carefully at this diagram, you can see that shaping and deterrence are granted an opportunity to work before the commitment of large-scale forces. By allowing room for a conflict to deescalate, America could be said to adhere to the Sun Tzu maxim: “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” This cooling off period also allows the nation to mobilize the population, and in cases such as World War II, train, equip, and deploy its forces.

“Notional” Campaign Design (Source: JP 5–0)

When looking at this diagram people often mistakenly assume that activities in the shaping phase do not include the use of lethal military force. This is not necessarily the case, as shaping can include a wide-array military activities. Even though the model progresses in a linear fashion on paper, in real life, phasing can be messy, and phases can occur simultaneously or in non-sequential order.

The complexity and non-linearity of conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have called the validity of this model into question and possible revisions of this diagram are currently under discussion. However, absent any other readily available model, this diagram provides a valid depiction of how the U.S. military fights.

Who Are America’s Formal Defense Partners?

The U.S. is a signatory on seven major collective defense agreements. The figure below depicts the U.S. and the countries with which it has these agreements in green. These defense agreements are each worded uniquely, but all formally link the enduring U.S. interests to those of other nations. These partnerships are key because they establish the foundation of America’s global defense posture, and directly affect its ability both defend itself and project power globally.

The U.S. and Its Collective Defense Agreements, 2015 (Source: Author)

To fight successful away games, the U.S. needs to build robust partnerships during the shaping phase before conflict arises. Defense posture is not just the U.S. basing footprint, it also consists of agreements, and forward-deployed forces as well. If strategy is akin to a game of global chess, defense posture sets the pieces on the board in locations of advantage before the game even begins. America would find this advantage impossible to achieve without partners.

Why Is the American Military So Attracted to Technology?

The American military is often attracted to technological solutions to the problems of war. The chart below is the best I was able to find that really gets to why technology is so attractive. However, in the interest of full disclosure, it does not come from any U.S. document, it comes from the Australian Army’s Future Land Operating Concept.

Increase of Weapon Lethality and Dispersion Over History (Source: Australian Army, Future Land Operating Concept)

What this chart depicts very well is that over time, technology has increased the lethality and accuracy of weapons, which has driven an increased dispersion of forces. Combined with advances in force protection and medical care, there have been fewer battlefield casualties over time. Using technology for an advantage in one of these areas is tempting because the benefits are immediate and tangible at the tactical level.

…in a few short months innovative Ukrainian soldiers have developed and put into use a highly-effective Uber-type app to call for indirect fire. America has had a similar initiative underway since 2011, but the app will not be released until 2016.

Looking to the future, the American technological edge is not a foregone conclusion. With a densely connected information environment countries such as Russia, China, and even non-state actors, are quickly closing the technology gap. Innovation can come from anyone anywhere, and low cost commercial solutions can often create innovation quicker than the cumbersome American acquisition process.

For example, in a few short months innovative Ukrainian soldiers developed and put into use a highly-effective Uber-type app to call for indirect fire. America has had a similar initiative underway since 2011, but the app will not be released until 2016. In a world where it takes 18 months for processor speed to double and where Apple releases a new iPhone just about every year, just how fast should the U.S. acquisition process be to keep up?

Another risk for the U.S. is that by relying too heavily on technology it can lead to the tendency to solve low-cost problems with high-cost solutions. For example, if the U.S. uses an $80 million F-35 to kill a squad of insurgents in Afghanistan that are paid around $300 each a month, it does not take a calculator to figure out that insurgent groups could bleed America dry over decades through a death from a thousand cuts approach. On the battlefield, technological overmatch is an advantage, but is no panacea.

So How Much Does It All Cost?

To fully understand American war, one must also understand the economic engine that drives it. It is a statement of the obvious to say that generating, projecting, and sustaining forces outside its borders for prolonged periods of combat is expensive. The U.S. spends much more on defense than any other nation in the world, to the tune of around $718 Billion a year. This is a staggering figure, but as a percentage of overall GDP, it may not be as much as you think. In these terms, American expenditures over the past 70 years have not come any where near World War II levels. What this means is that America could afford to spend more if it ever had to.

U.S. Military Expenditures as a Percentage of GDP (Source: 

One thing to keep in mind is that when the U.S. spends on defense, a large portion of this money stays within the American economy. In 2015, the Department of Defense awarded just over $200 Billion in contracts and $4.7 billion in grants. These contracts and grants drive many sectors of the domestic economy. Later down the road, a portion of this money will return to the U.S. government in the form of tax revenue to be spent once again. This is not a recent development. In 1935, Major General Smedley Butler, went so far as to call war a “racket.” Simply put, the American economy supports its wars, and reciprocally, American war drives certain sectors of its economy.


Overall, these charts are in no way a replacement for diligent study and deep reflection on the subject of American war. Despite whether you use a slide, a white board, or the back of a cocktail napkin to help you do so, visualization can be valuable because it can help you think broader and deeper about complex phenomena. American war is not fixed, and the men and women that fill the ranks of the U.S. military strive to make improvements to the ways they do business every day. As such, the way America fights its wars can, and will, change over time.

Aaron Bazin is a career Army officer, FA 59 (Strategist) with experience at the combatant command level, NATO, and within the institutional Army. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.


The author would like to apologize in advance to the Navy, Air Force, and Marines for the lack of inclusion in the campaign streamer graphic. The author is currently in process of developing an all-inclusive graphic that captures every instance of the American use of force. This map was constructed with the google fusion application. Also, it is important to note that if the battle or campaign included multiple locations the author plotted the location based on the concluding action of the battle or campaign.