The cost to American taxpayers of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has surpassed $1 trillion, but after adjusting for inflation, World War II continues to reach a far higher price at more than $4 trillion. A new report from the Congressional Research Service warns against too closely comparing armed conflicts the United States has engaged in, but it’s nonetheless a useful exercise to consider how the global war on terror figures into the nation’s history.

The price tag of more recent wars from the latter half of the 20th century don’t come close to matching post-9/11 engagements, including Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf wars. The second Iraq War alone launched by George W. Bush has cost $46 billion more than Vietnam, according to the CRS report. As far as length of time goes, the Afghan War this year became the longest running in U.S. history.

There are some things to consider when looking at the charts Elevated Risk has created below using the CRS numbers. One significant problem when looking at such costs may be that war-fighting technology is much more sophisticated and costly today. The Excalibur XM982 – a 155mm GPS-guided “fire-and-forget” projectile designed for the Army and Marine Corps – is perhaps a little smarter and pricier than your average Civil War cannon.

It’s also important to note the size of the U.S. economy in the 19th century compared to today. The War of 1812 in constant dollars, i.e. adjusted for inflation, cost about $1.6 billion. But after measuring it as a percentage of the nation’s economic output, i.e. gross domestic product, in terms of the resources it consumed, the total comes to $300 billion today, which seems to go further in illustrating its impact. That’s why we chose to separately include the research service’s GDP figures. Staffers there, however, did not include GDP numbers for the Confederate side of the Civil War or the American Revolution, so they’re not contained in our chart.

Additionally, prior to the Vietnam War, the Department of Defense didn’t attempt to calculate the actual cost of conflict beyond what amounts are normally appropriated by Congress for the day-to-day recruiting, paying, outfitting and training of personnel needed to maintain the nation’s military forces. In other words, we’re better now at understanding the price of defense during wartime as opposed to peacetime.

And finally, the report notes that tallied costs cover military operations and not things that are more peripheral in nature or may accrue over time, such as assistance to allies, interest paid on money burrowed to finance wars and benefits afforded to veterans. Have a look at the CRS report yourself for more on these issues.


Profile of the Excalibur projectile from the U.S. Army’s 2010 Weapon Systems handbook. Click to enlarge
CRS on the cost of military operations

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.