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Costs of Major U.S. Wars Compared

More than a trillion dollars has been appropriated since September 11, 2001 for U.S. military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.  This makes the “war on terrorism” the most costly of any military engagement in U.S. history in absolute terms or, if correcting for inflation, the second most expensive U.S. military action after World War II.

A newly updated report from the Congressional Research Service estimated the financial costs of major U.S. wars from the American Revolution ($2.4 billion in FY 2011 dollars) to World War I ($334 billion) to World War II ($4.1 trillion) to the second Iraq war ($784 billion) and the war in Afghanistan ($321 billion).  CRS provided its estimates in current year dollars (i.e. the year they were spent) and in constant year dollars (adjusted for inflation), and as a percentage of gross domestic product.  Many caveats apply to these figures, which are spelled out in the CRS report.

In constant dollars, World War II is still the most expensive of all U.S. wars, having consumed a massive 35.8% of GDP at its height and having cost $4.1 trillion in FY2011 dollars.  See “Costs of Major U.S. Wars,” June 29, 2010.

11 thoughts on “Costs of Major U.S. Wars Compared

  1. Steve,

    This is exactly the kind of story which leaves lay folks like me cold. How does a mere mortal make comparisons? Can’t the people who craft these reports look at opportunity costs? For example, what could have been purchased in the 1860s with the money saved if the Civil War hadn’t been fought? At least with opportunity costs there would have been a comparison of like for like (e.g. nobody would be trying to think of how many aircraft carriers Lincoln could have bought).

  2. All young adults under 40 need to be aware of this stuff. Most of them probably do not pay much attention. It’d be nice to see more of them involved in running this country and voting. Maybe they will be smarter than my generation is/was.

  3. In the old days you’d plaster the country with dumb bombs and afterwards shoot anyone that looked at you funny.
    Now they try to reduce civilian casualties and the resultant cost gets criticised.

  4. WWII was very expensive but it didn’t make much difference at the time. The iPhone and all the other really good junk hadn’t been invented yet so no one had use for extra spending cash.

  5. This should be looked at in terms of return on investment. The US came out quite well in WWI and WWII, in economic terms, in both cases as a net creditor and significantly improved relative position. In comparison, with the Civil War the Union was able to preserve half of its productive land, though significantly raising labor costs (ending of slavery — though we certainly saved our souls for having done it, not sure how you quantify that). What is the ROI to the US from Iraq II and Afghanistan? I just don’t see it.

  6. “Lorenzo Poe Says:
    July 31st, 2010 at 7:45 am

    I would have thought that the War on poverty was the most expensive.”

    Yep, Well over 30 trillion 2010 dollars spent since 1964 and no end in sight. Poverty is kicking our ass but no one wants to admit defeat and withdraw with honor in that conflict.

  7. The War On Drugs costs Federal, State, and Local GVmt. About $50 bn a year. Keep that up for 20 years and you have blown a trillion. And it goes back to 1914. That could add up to a lot at compound interest. Let alone inflation adjusted.

    BTW don’t we have to subtract what we were paying in 1998, 1999, and 2000 (suitably averaged) from current spending to figure out what the war is costing over and above the base rate? Having an Army, Navy (Marines included), and Air Force at the ready going to cost something. It is not going to be zero.

  8. It is sad commentary that the human cost is not discussed here, albeit the topic is about the dollar costs of wars. Maybe some day we will stop trying to make the dollar the absolute almighty and single most important thing in lives. The Iraq war is a huge waste of money and cost more lives than the event it was a reaction to. But the 58,000 lost lives of Vietnam make Iraq look like child’s play.

    Just sayin’.

  9. @Gregg
    “The US came out quite well in WWI and WWII, in economic terms…”
    False. After World War I, they dropped the gold standard in the UK, most likely to curb inflation. Eventually, everyone in “The West” followed, and currency was replaced by debt. Realistically, we couldn’t afford WWI, and we killed off too much of the labour force to ever pay for it. Bankruptcy would have resulted in the loss of colonial power, so the Germans blamed the Jews and the Russians blamed the rich.

  10. regardless of lives and/or money…look at the waste!
    can you imagine where this country would be and the positive
    things we could accomplish had we just taken a different approach
    to the decisions made in the past? water…bridge.
    it is never too late yet we just continue to make the same mistakes
    repeatedly. why?
    there other ways to show power and leadership besides threats and war.
    by the way. when was the last war we won? militarily or socially?
    i mean really won.
    i am for military strength and programs of social concience but the waste and lies need to stop before it really is too late.

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