Why They Died: The Motivations of American Soldiers in 12 Great Wars

Memorial Day is a time to remember all those who died while serving in the United States military. In our 240-year history, the United States has fought twelve major wars, and over one million Americans have died in wartime. This list will dwell on those wars, and explain why the troops in each fought and died.

Here are the twelve major wars that claimed American troops, in order from the least to most battlefield and non-battlefield deaths. Each war had unique causes and motivations, and it is important for us to understand why our soldiers gave the last measure of devotion.

Statistics are from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Congressional Research Service.

12. The Persian Gulf War (1990-1991) -- 383 deaths.

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When Iraq's Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Americans denounced his move as overreach and stepped in to support the smaller nation. Support for Israel might have been a motivation among American troops as well, because Hussein was well-known for supporting the Palestinians in the Arab-Israeli conflict. This was the shortest of America's major wars, and the most decisive. It has been called the "pinnacle of American military supremacy," and with good reason.

11. The Indian Wars (ca. 1817-1898) -- 1,000 deaths.

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United States citizens fought Native Americans for over a century, and there was abuse and foul play on both sides. Settlers often pushed natives back, and many of the worst abuses could be traced back to Andrew Jackson, who started the Seminole Wars and carried out the "Trail of Tears." Many American troops involved fought for their lands and families, while some fought for adventure and the spoils of war. The idea of "Manifest Destiny" also motivated many, who believed that American settlers should occupy all the land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The 1,000 American deaths is an estimate from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The actual number is not known, and while the major wars took place between 1817 and 1898, sporadic conflict between Americans and natives continued until 1924.

Next Page: The War of 1812 and the Spanish-American War.