Stephen Daggett, a defense budget and policy expert at the Congressional Research Service, has published an analysis of major U.S. war costs -- from the American Revolution to current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and adjusted the tallies for inflation, allowing for a side-by-side comparison of the costs of each campaign.
The tab for the two ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is $1.1 trillion so far. World War II, by comparison, cost $4.1 trillion once adjusted for inflation, according to the report.
Steven Aftergood, who first reported the CRS analysis on the Secrecy News blog, notes:
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.
Daggett in his eight-page report underscores the difficulty of making accurate comparisons of war costs across the centuries.
Comparisons of war costs over a 230-year period, however, are inherently problematic. One problem is how to separate costs of military operations from costs of forces in peacetime.
Another challenge is also the actual numbers in the ledgers:
Figures are problematic, as well, because of difficulties in comparing prices from one vastly different era to another. Inflation is one issue -- a dollar in the past would buy more than a dollar today. Perhaps a more significant problem is that wars appear vastly more expensive over time as the sophistication and cost of technology advances, both for military and for civilian purposes. The estimates presented in this report, therefore, should be treated, not as truly comparable figures on a continuum, but as snapshots of vastly different periods of U.S. history.
Even with these caveats, the figures are very interesting.
The American Revolution was a relative bargain at $2.4 billion in fiscal year 2011constant dollars, according to the report.
At today's rates, the Civil War ran the Union $59 billion and the Confederacy $20 billion.