J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Cost of War

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (slogan: “Thinking Smarter About Defense”) just released a report by Steven M. Kosiak titled Cost of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other Military Operations through 2008 and Beyond. It makes a couple of striking points in comparing the U.S. of A.’s current war to those of the past, including the war for independence.

In real (inflation-adjusted) terms, the war in Iraq alone has already cost more than every past US war but World War II. Combined, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have already exceeded the cost of the Vietnam War—the second most costly past US war—by about 50 percent.

On the other hand, to date at least, the financial burden imposed by these ongoing military operations is lower—measured as a share of the economy—than was imposed, for example, by the Korean or Vietnam Wars.
Here’s the data for such a comparison, created by ProPublica using figures from the Congressional Research Service in order to produce this visual representation. That analysis treats the current Iraq conflict separately from the war in Afghanistan, as well as from the previous war with Iraq. (The current administration prefers to bunch the first and second; future historians might bunch the first and third.)

Measured in terms of how much of the gross domestic product they consume, however, the current wars are much, much smaller than the World Wars or U.S. Civil War. I haven’t found an estimate of that measurement for the Revolutionary War; economic statistics for the nascent U.S. of A. are rudimentary. However, it’s clear that the conflict had a huge effect on the American economy, lasting into the late 1780s.

The C.S.B.A. report highlighted another way this conflict is set apart:
Prior to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the only time foreign lenders had been relied upon extensively in wartime was during the Revolutionary War, when the Continental Army was financed in part by loans from France and the Netherlands. . . .

the fact that a substantial share of the national debt is currently owned by foreigners may increase the economic costs of borrowing, since a portion of the interest payments will be sent abroad. But the United States’ growing dependence on foreign lenders may also represent a strategic vulnerability.
The debt from the Revolution—that of the Continental government, that of the states, and that taken on by individuals who accepted those governments’ scrip—became a major economic and political issue of the 1780s. The war’s cost led indirectly both to a more powerful federal government in the U.S. and the fall of the Bourbon dynasty in France.

Some other comparatives measures of the wars’ costs:
  • The Revolutionary War (1775-1783) is the second-longest of the U.S. of A.’s wars, after the conflict in Vietnam. The Afghanistan war is now third in length, the Iraq war fourth.
  • The Revolutionary War remains the fifth worst in terms of American lives lost, with World War 2 being the U.S. of A.’s most deadly. It’s the second worst (after the Civil War) in terms of percentage of the U.S. population killed while in the military.

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