Total Cost of America’s Wars

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

WarYearsTotal Cost (2011 Constant $)Peak Year of War SpendingWar Cost as % of GDP
in Peak Year of War Spending
American Revolution1775-17832,407 millionNA
War of 18121812-18151,553 million18132.2%
Mexican War1846-18492,376 million18471.4%
Civil War: Union1861-186559,631 million186511.3%
Civil War: Confederacy1861-186520,111 millionNA
Spanish American War1898-18999,034 million18991.1%
World War I1917-1921334 billion191913.6%
World War II1941-19454,104 billion194535.8%
Korea1950-1953341 billion19524.2%
Vietnam1965-1975738 billion19682.3%
Persian Gulf War1990-1991102 billion19910.3%
Afghanistan (includes all Operation Freedom actions)2001-20101,147 billion20081.2%
Iraq2003-2010784 billion20081.0%

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.