The other day I ran across a story about government spending that made me wonder how much the United States has spent on the numerous wars it has waged over the last couple centuries. Well, it turns out that in 2010 Stephen Daggett of the Congressional Research Service prepared a report (155k PDF) estimating the military costs of all American Wars beginning with the Revolutionary War and extending to the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Based on Daggett’s estimates, U.S. war spending looks something like this:
Military Costs of U.S. Wars, 1775-2010
War Years Total Cost (2011 Constant $) Peak Year of War Spending War Cost as % of GDP
in Peak Year of War Spending
American Revolution 1775-1783 2,407 million NA
War of 1812 1812-1815 1,553 million 1813 2.2%
Mexican War 1846-1849 2,376 million 1847 1.4%
Civil War: Union 1861-1865 59,631 million 1865 11.3%
Civil War: Confederacy 1861-1865 20,111 million NA
Spanish American War 1898-1899 9,034 million 1899 1.1%
World War I 1917-1921 334 billion 1919 13.6%
World War II 1941-1945 4,104 billion 1945 35.8%
Korea 1950-1953 341 billion 1952 4.2%
Vietnam 1965-1975 738 billion 1968 2.3%
Persian Gulf War 1990-1991 102 billion 1991 0.3%
Afghanistan (includes all Operation Freedom actions) 2001-2010 1,147 billion 2008 1.2%
Iraq 2003-2010 784 billion 2008 1.0%
Daggett notes a number of challenges with estimating total war costs. Although the costs are expressed in FY 2011 dollars, comparing costs accurately over such a long period of time is difficult at best. With more recent wars, what counts as a direct war expenditure has changed over time and so earlier wars such as Vietnam likely underreport their true cost.
On the other hand, even for current wars the dollar estimate is for ongoing combat and support actions and does “not reflect costs of veterans’ benefits, interest on war-related debt, or assistance to allies.” With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, some studies estimate that total veteran benefits costs will actually be large than the cost of the wars themselves.