History is full of wars and conflicts that seem to go on forever. Just look at America’s current wars in Afghanistan (began in 2001) and Iraq (began in 2003), as recent examples. But history is full of very long wars, as well as long series of wars that stretch on for generations.
We are looking at those international wars that lasted for 15 years or more that involved more than one nation fighting another nation. Many civil wars and rebellions last for decades (recent examples: Burma’s many rebellions since 1948, various rebellions in India since the 1960s, Kurdish rebellions in Iraq and Turkey), but this list of long wars will focus on those international conflicts that pitted nations against one another. The only type of internal war we will include in this list are those Wars of Independence where a part of a nation or empire successfully broke away from another nation. An example included in this list is the Eighty Years War that led to the independence of the Netherlands from Spain.
While there are many conflicts between nations that include a long series of somewhat separate wars that lead to yet more wars between those participants, that is a list for another article, with some exceptions. For instance, Russia and Turkey fought many wars against each other from 1568 to 1918. This span of time is well over 300 years, but it would be hard to say they formed one long, continuous, coherent war. But, other conflicts in a series, have, over time, been linked by historians and the general public, to form a more-or-less coherent whole. Probably the best example of this is the Hundred Years War between England and France. In reality, this conflict was made up of four or five wars (depending on how you count them), but over time, historians, and, the public perceptions in England and France, blended these wars together as one, connected conflict. The Thirty Years War forms a similar example.
Okay, so, we have established that in looking at the long wars of history, we will focus on international (nation vs. nation) wars that last for 15 years or longer. Why 15 years? We wanted to include wars that could be considered “generational,” in that, say, a soldier at the start of the war who has, say, a five-year old child, could see that child reach adulthood and then serve in that same war some 13 to 15 years later at the age of 18 to 20. Of course, in the modern day, the age of 18 is seen as being an adult in much of the world, but throughout history, many younger soldiers served in war. This is not an exhaustive look at these types of wars, but we are including some of the best known and most important of these conflicts.
NOTE: Some conflicts, due to diplomatic or political irregularities technically have gone on for hundreds of years (and that is yet another list for the future), but are not included in this list.
This long war list runs in rough order by the length of the conflict, starting with the longest on this list:
The Hundred Years War (1337-1457) [116 years]-part of a nearly thousand year-long series of wars between England (and later Britain) and France. This part of that conflict centered on the question of whether the King of England was also the rightful heir to the French throne.
The Eighty Years War (1568-1648) [80 years]-Also known as the Dutch (or Netherlands) War of Independence, this conflict contained periods of semi-peace and some truces, but really was an ongoing conflict between the mostly Protestant Dutch and Imperial Catholic Spain. The naval portions of this war also included combat in the Americas and elsewhere.
The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) [30 years]-a long-running war that began as a Catholic vs. Protestant religious war, but evolved into a typical European war over power and territory. This war drew in almost every Christian nation in Europe, and also blended in with other ongoing conflicts, such as the 80-year Dutch War of Independence.
Eritrean War of Independence (1961-1991) [30 years]-Following World War Two, Eritrea was given to Ethiopia. The Eritreans rebelled in 1961, finally winning the war (they actually conquered Ethiopia to win it), after 30 long years. During parts of this war, the Eritreans also had to fight against Cuban troops and Soviet forces who helped the Marxist Ethiopian regime in the 1970s.
French Conquest of Algeria (1827-1857) [30 years]-France invaded and conquered Algeria relatively quickly, but soon became bogged down by persistent guerrilla warfare by the Algerians. Even after the conquest was complete in 1857, periodic rebellions would pop up.
The Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC) [27 years]-Ancient Greek war that pitted alliances of Greek City-States against each other. The two main protagonists were Athens and Sparta. This was one of the big wars of the Ancient world in European history.
The Byzantine–Persian War of 602–628 [26 years] The final and most devastating of the series of wars fought between the Greek-speaking Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire and the Sasanian Persian Empire. The end result of this long war was to leave both the Byzantines and the Sasanian Persians so weak, that they both fell victim to conquest by the new Muslim Empire rising out of the Arabian Peninsula only a few years later.
First Punic War (264-241 BC) [23 years]-First of three major wars between ancient Rome and Carthage. This series of three wars was literally a death match between the two most powerful entities in the Mediterranean region.
Britain Vs. France: French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815) [23 years]-While many nations fought against (and with) France in the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s wars, Britain and France fought almost constantly for 23 years, with only a short interlude of peace through the Treaty of Amiens (March, 1802), which ended when Britain declared war on France in May of 1803.
South African Border War (1966-1990) [23 years]-The South African Border War includes the Namibian War of Independence (from South Africa) as well as what South Africans call the Angolan Bush War, but the rest of the world refers to as the Angolan Civil War. Cuba and other communist nations aided the Namibians and the Angolan MPLA government in this conflict. This was part of a larger conflict in Southern Africa in which local guerrilla forces, allied with the independent “Front Line” nations of Angola, Zambia, Botswana, and Mozambique (with assistance from communist Soviet Union, Cuba, China and others) fought against white-minority rule in South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
The Great Northern War (1700–1721) [21 years]-A complicated war in which a coalition led by Russia successfully contested Swedish dominance in the Baltic region and northern Europe.
The Byzantine–Persian War of 572–591 [19 years] was a war fought between the Sasanian Empire of Persia and the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire. This was part of a long series of wars between these two empires.
The Mahdist War (1881–1899) [18 years]-British and Egyptian war against Islamic Jihadists (called Mahdists) in Sudan. This war featured a very public British defeat a Khartoum, and a powerful British response to crush the Sudanese.
Second Punic War (218–201 BC) [17 years]-Continuation of the war between Rome and Carthage for control of the Mediterranean region. This war saw Carthaginian general Hannibal cross the Alps and wage a long and destructive war in Italy. Despite Hannibal’s many victories, he could not conquer Rome. Eventually, Rome invaded Carthaginian North Africa and defeated their foes. The Third Punic War some years later completed this trifecta wars and resulted in the complete destruction of Carthage.
The Vietnam War (1959-1975) [16 years]-While the internal part of the Vietnam War began in 1955 with the first Viet Cong attacks against the Saigon government, it did not become an actual international war until (arguably) 1959. While American troops had served as advisors in South Vietnam since 1955, the first combat death of American troops did not occur until 1959. This could easily be seen as starting in 1955 as an international conflict (and it would spread to Laos and Cambodia as well), we choose to be conservative in picking the start date. Major American combat action began in 1964 with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and would continue until 1973, when most U.S. combat forces were withdrawn. Saigon fell to communist forces in April of 1975, ending the war.
Ongoing (i.e. current) Long Wars:
Among international wars and conflicts, we must mention two that have dominated world attention for some time.
The ongoing Arab-Israeli Conflict (1948-Present) has dominated the Middle East (and the world) for generations. At the heart of this war is the seemingly never-ending conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Both groups claim ownership of the same territory, and they have warred for decades. Many historians also look at the first PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) guerrilla attacks on Israel in 1964 as the beginning of the current phase of this war.
Multiple Arab nations have waged war on Israel on and off since 1948, continuous, but near-continuous warfare has marked Palestinian-Israeli relations since at least 1964. Included in the current iteration of this conflict on the Palestinian side is the group known as Hamas, which currently rules the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, which exercises control of the parts of the West Bank not under Israeli control.
Another major long war that shows no signs of ending, is the world-wide and very complicated war that pits (mostly) Western nations against a loose coalition of Islamic Jihadist forces. Having said that though, it must be noted that not all of the participants against the U.S. and the West are or were true Jihadists. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, for example, was a secular state that often battled extremist Islamic forces that challenged Saddam’s power. Regardless, Iraq ended up in the crosshairs of America’s War on Terror. This Long War (also a phrase used by the American military initially, is also quite descriptive and realistic) began with the al-Qaida attacks on America on September 11, 2001. The U.S. first retaliated in October, 2001, with the U.S. Invasion of Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and al-Qaida. From there, the “War on Terror” metastasized as American and allied forces began fighting Jihadist forces and organizations throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The Jihadists have retaliated with terrorist attacks throughout the world, including in North America and Europe. The longest-waged battlefield in this war is the War in Afghanistan (Oct. 2001-Present), which, as of this writing, is only a few days away from lasting 17 years.
There are other examples of very long wars in history, as well as other types of conflicts (such as the Cold War from the 1940s to the 1990s), that were conflicts, but not the same types of wars we see in this war list. The wars mentioned in here are among the best examples for your perusal.
NOTE: We did not include the various Latin American Wars of Independence, as in many cases, these also were as much civil wars between local Royalists and the revolutionaries as they were wars against the European colonial nation. Similarly, Chinese and Japanese history are full of long periods of warfare, but by most indicators, these were what are considered internal wars, and not against other nations. The Sino-Japanese wars of the 20th Century could be considered one long war, but many historians separate them out as independent conflicts.