Recently, a U.S. think tank announced that U.S. military operations in
Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere had, since September 11, 2001, cost $904
billion. That seems like a lot, and it is. But it's not a lot like it used to
be. For example, World War II cost, at the time (in current dollars) over four
trillion dollars. That amounted to over a third of U.S. GDP. The current war on
terror is costing about one percent of GDP. So while war may appear to be
getting more expensive, relative to the amount of money available, it's
actually getting cheaper.
cost of World War II, and most wars that came after it, will eventually double
because of the cost of taking care of the veterans. There were over a million
casualties in World War II, many of them serious, with long range effects. The
long range health problems were not anticipated, nor were the more expensive
treatments. You have to pay. The vets are owned a debt that cannot be avoided.
percentage of GDP, military spending continues a decline that has been going on
since the 1960s (when, because of the $686 billion cost of the Vietnam war,
defense spending was 10.7 percent of GDP). That went down to 5.9 percent of GDP
in the 1970s and, despite a much heralded defense buildup in the 1980s, still
declined in the 1980s (to 5.8 percent.) With the end of the Cold War, spending
dropped sharply again in the 1990s, to 4.1 percent. For the first decade of the
21st century, defense spending is expected to average 3.4 percent of GDP. Most
of the current defense budget is being spent on personnel (payroll and
benefits), and buying new equipment to replace the Cold War era stuff that is
wearing out and to pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
is all because of the industrial revolution of the 19th century, which created
a lot more money, much of which nations promptly squandered on wars they could
not have afforded earlier. The American Revolution, for example, cost the
United States less than $2 billion. The main reason for the low cost, compared
to later wars, was that there simply was not a lot of wealth (money or goods)
to scrounge up for the war.
States has always been enthusiastic about spending enormous amounts on weapons,
ammunition, supplies and equipment for the troops, with the idea of keeping
U.S. casualties down while still winning the war. Thus during World War II,
U.S. combat deaths were 300,000 (plus 100,000 non-combat dead). The Soviet
Union, on the other end of this scale, lost 10.7 million dead in combat
(including 4.4 million captured and missing), and nearly 20 million civilians
killed as well. Of all the major combatants in World War II, the U.S. had the
lowest casualty rate (about 2 percent). Russia lost about 15 percent of its
entire population during the war.
kept its losses down partly because of the amount of money spent per person in
the military (over $250,000). The current casualty rate is a third of what it
was during World War II, and the amount spent per person has more than tripled
(exact comparison is tricky, as all military expenses were counted during World
War II, while the current war is being fought with only a small portion of
American military might, and the navy and air force continue to take care of
many non-war-on-terror responsibilities.) While the dollar cost of war is good
for a hot headline on a slow news day, the fact that the money saved lots of American
lives, never seems to make it to the front page.
figures mentioned above are in terms of 2008 (inflation adjusted) dollars.