The large force occupation portion of the War on Terror is winding down. The last of the U.S. troops leaving Iraq and the government announced the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, we decided to have a look at U.S. wars through a different lens—efficiency. We know that technology improves efficiency and cuts costs. We wondered if this was true in war also. The conventional wisdom is that the War on Terror, which has largely been fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been the longest, costliest, and deadliest war in recent American history. As is often the case with conventional wisdom, however, the actual evidence shows a different picture.
At ten years and counting, the War on Terror is, in fact, the longest lasting war in US history (tied with the Vietnam War). But perhaps surprisingly, the number of deaths and the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are far lower than one would expect from listening to politicians and the media.
To analyze the death toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan compared to other recent wars (going back to World War I), we first looked at the sheer number of military, civilian, and total deaths, and then examined those numbers as a percentage of the United States population during each war. As the following figure shows, the deaths as a percentage of the US population in the War on Terror is much smaller than one would expect:
Sources: US Census Bureau Population Estimates (http://www.census.gov/popest/estimates.html); Department of Defense Personnel and Procurement Statistics (http://siadapp.dmdc.osd.mil/personnel/CASUALTY/castop.htm)
Similarly, we also looked at the cost of each war as measured in 2011 dollars. As with the number of deaths, World War II is also the costliest, in financial terms, of all recent US wars. While not insignificant, the cost of the War on Terror—at approximately 1.3 trillion dollars—falls significantly below that of World War II, the Vietnam War, and Korean conflict.
Source: US Army Center of Military History (http://www.history.army.mil); Encyclopaedia Brittanica (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/291225/international-relations/32820/World-War-I-1914-18)
In short, World War II remains the deadliest and costliest war in recent U.S. history, killing about one-third of one percent of the U.S. population (primarily members of the military) and costing nearly $4.5 trillion in today’s dollars. In contrast, although it will be the longest war the United States has ever engaged in, the Iraq- and Afghanistan-based War on Terror has killed less than one percent of the people killed in World War II and has cost about one third of what the Vietnam War cost in today’s dollars. In fact, the War on Terror is second to last in terms of total deaths (the Gulf War is lower) and behind World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Korean Conflict in terms of cost.