The American Legion Magazine | 5.1.15
By Alan W. Dowd
The world has known many kinds of war—the Hundred Years War
and a “hundred-hour war,” the Seven Years War and the Six Day War, cold wars
and phony wars, great wars and “splendid little wars.”[i]
Whatever one’s view of war, the hard truth is that war is part
of humanity. It can be limited or deterred. But it cannot be outlawed like some
crime because there’s no consensus on who should play the role of judge—and
there’s waning interest in the role of sheriff. Nor can it be cured like some
disease because of the very nature of man, as some of history’s greatest
thinkers have concluded. “There is a time for war and a time for peace,” as
Solomon wrote. Yet America’s generals are
seldom so matter-of-fact about war. Sherman called war “hell.” Lee said it was
“terrible.” Eisenhower deplored war for “its brutality, its futility, its
Drawn from various open-source materials, including the
Congressional Research Service (CRS), Congressional Budget Office (CBO),
Defense Department, Smithsonian Institution, Veterans Museum and Memorial
Center, and media outlets, the following is by no means an exhaustive catalog.
After all, a CRS index of U.S. military intervention tallies some 330 “notable
deployments of U.S. military forces overseas” since 1798.[ii]This list does not include, for instance, a myriad of limited military
engagements—blockades, humanitarian airdrops, rescue operations in Iran and
Syria, raids on Libya and Iraq, drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia. But by
highlighting the vital statistics of America’s most consequential and/or costly
military engagements, it traces war’s impact on America.
U.S. military deaths: 4,435
U.S. wounded: 6,188[iii]
Cost: $101 million in 1770s dollars
The 4,435 war deaths represent almost 0.2 percent of the
population at the time.[iv]While the U.S. didn’t technically have a GDP in 1775, we can get a sense of the
war’s enormous economic costs by extrapolating from U.S. GDP in 1790, when the
nation’s wealth totaled $189 million.[v]
Barbary Wars, 1801-1805
U.S. military deaths: 35
U.S. wounded: 64[vi]
In 1795, the U.S. paid almost $1 million to ransom 115
sailors.[vii]Thomas Jefferson bitterly opposed this policy, and overturned it as president,
declaring, “It will be more easy to raise ships and men to fight these pirates
into reason, than money to bribe them.”[viii]
War of 1812,
U.S. military deaths: 2,260
U.S. wounded: 4,505
Total serving: 286,730
Cost: $90 million (2.2
percent of GDP in peak year)[ix]
After defeating the British Empire less than 30 years earlier, the young
republic was soundly swatted back into place in 1812. U.S. forces were routed
in Canada, U.S. vessels seized, U.S. ports blockaded, the U.S. Capitol and
White House set ablaze. Congress declared war
against Britain in June 1812.
1813-1838 and 1866-1890
U.S. military deaths: 1,000[x]
Total serving: 106,000
We know that some 4,000 Cherokee died during their forced
westward migration in 1838.[xi]But estimates range wildly as to the number of Native Americans who died in the
U.S. military deaths: 13,283 (1,733 battle deaths)
U.S. wounded: 4,152
Total serving: 78,718
Cost: $71 million (1.4 percent of GDP in peak year)
pressure on Mexico, President James Polk sent Gen. Zachary Taylor to a disputed
area between the Rio Grande—where the U.S. defined the border—and the Nueces
River—where Mexico defined the border. To Mexican troops this was aggression,
and they attacked Taylor’s forces. Congress declared war against Mexico in May
Civil War, 1861-1865
Union military deaths: 364,511 (140,414 battle deaths)
Union wounded: 281,881
Confederate military deaths: 133,821
Union cost: $3.18 billion (11.3 percent of GDP in peak year)
Total serving: 2,213,363 (Union); 1,082,119 (Confederate)[xiii]
Spanish American War,
U.S. military deaths: 2,446 (385 battle deaths)
U.S. wounded: 1,662
Cost: $283 million (1.1 percent of GDP in peak year)
Total serving: 306,760
Long before U.S. forces rescued post-tsunami Sumatra,
triaged postwar Bosnia, fed Somalia, protected Kosovo and Kurdistan, defended
Libyans from Kaddafi or Yazidis from ISIS, President
Theodore Roosevelt argued against “cold-blooded indifference to the
misery of the oppressed.”[xiv]Even when “our own interests are not greatly involved,” he declared, “action
may be justifiable.”[xv]The American people took such action as Spain crushed Cuban independence
efforts—arguably America’s first humanitarian war. Of course, the war also had
strategic implications, as Washington used Spain’s mistreatment of Cuba as a
pretext to move against Spanish possessions in the Philippines, Puerto Rico and
Guam. Following the sinking of the Maine,
Congress declared war in April 1898.
U.S. military deaths: 4,200
U.S. wounded: 2,800[xvi]
Total serving: 120,000
Not unlike the Iraq War a century later, the postwar
occupation of the Philippines would lead to an insurgency that proved far
bloodier than the initial conflict.
U.S. military deaths: 21
U.S. civilian deaths: 35[xvii]
U.S. forces deployed: 6,000
Supporting anti-government revolutionaries inside Mexico,
President Woodrow Wilson ordered U.S. troops to seize the port at Veracruz and
prevent the shipment of German arms to the Mexican government. The Mexican
government was ousted, just as Wilson wanted. But when the new government
proved too independent for Wilson, he began supporting forces under the command
of Pancho Villa. When Wilson recognized the Mexican government, the spurned
Villa launched raids into the U.S., killing dozens of American civilians.
Wilson then ordered Gen. John Pershing to lead an expedition into Mexico to
kill or capture Villa, but events in Europe soon trumped all other matters of
World War I, 1917-1918
U.S. military deaths 116,516 (53,402 battle deaths)
U.S. wounded: 204,002
Total serving: 4.73 million
Cost: $20 billion (13.6 percent of GDP in peak year)
Congress declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary in
1917, after Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare and tried to lure
Mexico into the war against the United States.
World War II, 1941-1945
U.S. military deaths: 405,399 (291,557 battle deaths)
Total serving: 16.11 million
Cost: $296 billion, the equivalent of $4.3 trillion today
(36 percent of GDP in peak year)
In 1941, Congress declared war on Japan, after Japan’s
attack on Pearl Harbor, and then on Germany and Italy, after their declarations
of war against the U.S. In 1942, Congress declared war on Bulgaria, Hungary and
Romania, after they declared war against the U.S.
Cold War, 1947-1991
Total serving: 35 million[xix]
Cost: $4.65 trillion[xx] (14.2 percent of GDP in
peak spending year, 1953)
U.S. military deaths: 31
Peak U.S. troop
Cost: $224 million ($2.2
Blending the principles of strategic bombing with the
efficiency of a Detroit assembly line, Lt. Gen. Curtis LeMay crafted an air
campaign unlike any in history. From June 1948 to September 1949, Allied pilots
flew 277,000 missions and delivered 2.3 million tons of supplies to Berlin.
About 75 percent of those missions were flown by Americans.[xxiii]
Korean War, 1950-1953
U.S. military deaths: 36,574 (33,739 battle deaths)
U.S. wounded: 103,284
Total serving in theater: 1,789,000[xxiv]
Cost: $30 billion (4.2 percent of GDP in peak year)
The war’s economic cost as a percentage of GDP and battle
deaths as a percentage of total military deaths underscore why The New York Times called Korea “World
Vietnam War, 1965-1975
U.S. military deaths: 58,220 (47,434 battle deaths)
U.S. wounded 153,303
Cost: $111 billion (2.3 percent of GDP in peak year)
Total serving in Southeast Asia: 3,403,000[xxv]
authorized President Lyndon Johnson to use “all necessary measures” against North Vietnam in
1964, after U.S. warships came under apparent attack in the Tonkin Gulf. When Johnson asked military leaders what they needed to win,
the answer was seven years, 700,000-1,000,000 troops and an unfettered air campaign.
Instead, Johnson and President Richard Nixon launched a combined 16 bombing
pauses and 72 peace initiatives,[xxvi]thus undercutting battlefield momentum.
U.S. military deaths: 265[xxvii]
U.S. wounded: 177[xxviii]
President Ronald Reagan
deployed 1,200 Marines to Lebanon as part of a
congressionally-authorized multinational peacekeeping force.[xxx]Also deployed were elements of the Sixth Fleet, including USS New Jersey, which unloaded its 16-inch
guns during the campaign, and the carriers Independence and John
F. Kennedy, which launched airstrikes into the warzone.[xxxi]On October 23, a truck loaded with explosives rammed into the Marine barracks
in Beirut, killing 241 Americans.[xxxii]
U.S. military deaths: 19 (18 battle deaths)
U.S. wounded: 116
Total deployed: 5,000[xxxiii]
Reagan deployed U.S. forces to Grenada to rescue U.S. citizens, reverse a Cuban-backed coup and restore
order. U.S. forces discovered 800 Cuban advisors
and enough weaponry to arm 10,000 troops.[xxxiv]
As the Iran-Iraq War spilled into the Persian Gulf, the two
belligerents began attacking commercial shipping. Iranian fighters strafed
Kuwaiti tankers. Iran boarded a U.S. civilian ship.[xxxv]An Iraqi warplane attacked USS Stark, killing 37 sailors. To
protect Kuwaiti vessels from the maelstrom, the United States began reflagging
and escorting Kuwaiti ships.In April
1988, USS Samuel B. Roberts struck an
Iranian mine northeast of Qatar. The attack
prompted Reagan to order Operation Praying Mantis. “By the end of the
operation, U.S. air and surface units had sunk, or severely damaged, half of
Iran’s operational fleet,” a Navy report details.[xxxvi]
U.S. military deaths: 23
U.S. wounded: 322[xxxvii]
Total deployed: 26,000 troops[xxxviii]
December 1989, President George H.W. Bush dispatched U.S. troops to protect
American citizens, restore Panama’s democratically-elected government and apprehend
General Manuel Noriega, who had been involved in drug trafficking, weapons
smuggling and a campaign of violence against his political opponents.
Gulf War, 1990-1991
U.S. military deaths: 382 (147 battle deaths)
U.S. wounded: 467
Total serving in theater: 694,550
Cost: $61 billion*[xxxix]
The United States led a large international coalition to
defend Saudi Arabia from attack (Desert Shield) and eject Saddam Hussein’s
military from Kuwait (Desert Storm). Congress passed an authorization for use
of military force (AUMF). There is an asterisk attached to the cost of the war
because the war was largely underwritten by international partners.[xl]
Iraqi Kurdistan, 1991
U.S. military deaths: 5
Peak U.S. troop
Saddam moved against Kurdish minorities at the end of the first Gulf War, Bush
dispatched U.S. forces to mount a massive humanitarian operation in
northern Iraq. U.S. forces rescued 400,000 Kurds from starvation.[xlii]The five American deaths listed here came in the initial phase of Operation Provide
Comfort and were caused by land mines, weapons misfires and transport accidents.[xliii]The total-serving number is limited
to the initial months of Provide Comfort. Follow-on operations continued in
Iraqi Kurdistan for years: GAO reported $320.5 million spent on
Provide Comfort in 1991. As late as 1996, Congress was still appropriating $143
million for Provide Comfort.[xliv]No-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq were an outgrowth of
Provide Comfort. Maintaining
these protective umbrellas—and the related sanctions-and-inspections
regime—cost $13 billion annually through 2002.[xlv]
U.S. military deaths: 43
Peak U.S. troop
Cost: $2.22 billion (FY1992-FY1995)[xlvi]
Acting in response
to UN resolutions, Bush dispatched 28,000
troops to Somalia at the closing hours of his presidency[xlvii]to protect food shipments from tribal warfare and looting. But in 1993, the UN
expanded the limited humanitarian mission into an ambitious nation-building
effort. When Somali clans ambushed UN peacekeepers, President Bill Clinton sent
hundreds of U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force operators into Mogadishu to
apprehend clan leaders, leading to the bloody “Black Hawk Down” episode and
triggering the beginning of the end of America’s mercy mission in Somalia.
U.S. military deaths: 5 (all non-hostile)
U.S. troops: 16,253 (plus 11,773 in the “joint-operations
Cost: $2 billion[xlix]
Clinton dispatched troops to Haiti to restore the democratically-elected
president to office and stabilize the troubled country. This was nothing new:
U.S. forces intervened 16 times in Haiti between 1900 and 1913, before a
lengthy occupation from 1915 to 1934.[l]President George W. Bush sent troops into Haiti in 2004, as did President
Barack Obama in 2010.
Total serving: 100,000[li]
Cost: $14.83 billion (FY1992-FY2004)[lii]
1992 and 1995, the war in Yugoslavia claimed 250,000 people. It wasn’t until a
U.S.-led air armada was allowed to take the offensive against Serbian
militiamen in late 1995 that Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic finally came to
the peace table. In December 1995, Clinton ordered deployment of 25,000 troops to
Bosnia as part of NATO’s follow-on peacekeeping operation.[liii]By the latter half of 2003, the U.S. had sustained “only one hostile fatality,”
CRS reports.[liv] The
last U.S. troops withdrew in December 2004.[lv]
U.S. troops deployed during hostilities: 31,600[lvi]
Cost: $9.56 billion (1999-2004)[lvii]
When Milosevic tried to repeat in Kosovo what he had
perpetrated in Bosnia, NATO launched a 78-day air campaign targeting
Milosevic’s army and government. Milosevic’s regime was mortally wounded, and
850,000 Kosovar refugees returned home. Two American pilots were killed when
their helicopter crashed in Albania. In addition, during the first year of the
peacekeeping mission, three U.S. troops died in accidental deaths and 24 U.S.
troops were injured.[lviii]About 660 U.S. troops
remain in Kosovo, down from 7,000 in 1999.[lix]
Global War on
Terrorism/Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF)/Operation Freedom’s Sentinel/Operation
Resolute Support, 2001-Present
U.S. military and DoD civilian deaths: 2,355 as of March 2015 (1,846 battle deaths)[lx]
U.S. military wounded: 20,067[lxi]
nationals killed on September 11, 2001: 2,976
Total serving: 2.5 million+[lxii]
As CRS details, the Bush and Obama administrations have
reported “U.S. anti-terror related activities” in Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea,Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines,
Georgia, Yemen, Iraq, Djibouti and Somalia.[lxiii]In addition, the Defense Department reports that OEF casualties have occurred
in “Guantanamo Bay (Cuba), Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan,
Pakistan, Philippines, Seychelles, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan and
Yemen.”[lxiv]This explains the differing casualty numbers for what might be called
“OEF-Global” and “OEF-Afghanistan.” OEF officially gave way to Operation
Freedom’s Sentinel and Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan in late 2014. Congress passed
an AUMF in September 2001. According to the 9/11
Commission, “Calling this struggle a war accurately describes the use of
American and allied armed forces to find and destroy terrorist groups and their
allies in the field.”
U.S. military deaths: 2,215 as
of March 2015 (1,832 battle deaths)[lxv]
U.S. military wounded: 20,026[lxvi]
Total serving: 831,576 (as of
billion[lxviii] (0.7 percent of GDP in peak year)
in Afghanistan began October 7, 2001. Within weeks, U.S. forces, in conjunction
with an indigenous alliance of anti-Taliban militia, toppled the Taliban regime.
Then, U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan began to increase: 1,300 in 2001, 10,000
in 2003, 20,000 in 2006 and hitting a wartime high of 100,000 in 2010.[lxix] CBO estimates an additional $1.0
trillion will be appropriated 2015-2024 “for military operations and diplomatic
activities in Afghanistan and other possible overseas contingency operations.”[lxx]
Iraqi Freedom/Operation New Dawn, 2003-2011
U.S. military and DoD
civilian deaths: 4,491 (3,529 battle deaths)
U.S. wounded 32,244[lxxi]
Total serving: 1.5 million+
(March 2003-December 2011)
Cost: $820 billion[lxxii](1 percent of
GDP in peak year)
Congress authorized military action against Iraq in October
2002, citing “Iraq’s ongoing support for international terrorist groups” and
“development of weapons of mass destruction.” Saddam’s army and regime were quickly
routed, but Iraq’s postwar war proved costly. And the costs continue to mount.
U.S. military deaths: 3 (as of March 2015)[lxxiii]
Cost: $8.4 million per day[lxxiv]
The above casualty numbers and economic figures from the Iraq War do not enfold
the U.S. military campaign in Iraq and Syria targeting the jihadist army known
as ISIS. With military commanders expecting the operation to last more than
three years, Iraq promises to dominate the balance of Obama’s presidency, just
as it did the previous three administrations. August 2015 will mark 25 years
America has been wrestling with Iraq.
[i] John Hay’s description of the Spanish American War.
[ii] Richard Grimmett, “Instances of Use of United States
Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2013,” CRS Report for Congress, February 2,
2009; Barbara Salazar Torreon,
"Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2013,"
CRS Report for Congress, August 30, 2013
[iii] References to Americans serving, U.S. battle deaths,
non-combat deaths and wounded are from Anne Leland and Mari-Jana Oboroceanu,
“American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics,” CRS
Report for Congress, September 15, 2009 and The Veterans Museum and Memorial
[vii] Gerard Gawalt, “America and the Barbary Pirates: An
international battle against an unconventional foe,” Library of Congress,
September 10, 2010.
[ix] All references to GDP from Stephen Daggett, “Costs of
Major U.S. Wars,” CRS Report for Congress, June 29, 2010; current-day
equivalents based on Bureau of Labor Statistics conversion at http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl.
[x] Smithsonian Institution, “The Price of Freedom:
Americans at War, Eastern and Western Indian Wars,” http://amhistory.si.edu/militaryhistory/printable/section.asp?id=3 and http://amhistory.si.edu/militaryhistory/printable/section.asp?id=6.
[xiv] Quoted in Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, p.594.
[xv] Theodore Roosevelt, Annual Message to Congress,
December 6, 1904.
[xvi] Walter LaFeber, The
American Age, Vol. 2, 1989, p.215.
[xvii] LaFeber, p.280 and Salazar Torreon
[xviii] LaFeber, pp.279-280.
[xix]http://www.americancoldwarvets.org/Resources/Documents/8-8-2011%20DOD%20response%20on%20S%20402%20Cold%20War%20Service%20Medal.pdf and http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052970203846804578103272647950486.
National Defense Outlays as a Percentage of GNP/GDP, FY1910-2003, October 1998
[xxi] Stewart Powell, “The Berlin Airlift,” Air Force
Magazine, June 1998.
[xxiii]http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=50357 and Stewart Powell, “The Berlin Airlift,” Air Force
Magazine, June 1998.
[xxx] Richard F. Grimmett, "Instances of Use of United
States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2010," CRS Report for Congress, March 10,
[xxxvi] See George Wilson, “Navy missile downs Iranian
jetliner,” Washington Post, July 4, 1988; David Winkler, “Operation Praying
Mantis blows a hole in the Iranian navy,” Sea Power, September 2003, www.navyleague.org; http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=73436.
[xlv] Scott Wallsten and Katrina Kosec, The Economic Costs
of the War in Iraq, AEI-Brookings Working Paper 05-19,
September 2005, p. 16.
[l] Niall Ferguson, Colossus,
p.56; Grimmet, p.9; Max Boot, “Savage Wars of Peace,” Hoover Digest, 2002.
[li] Jim Garamone, “U.S. Peacekeepers Finish Bosnia
Mission, Case Colors,” AFPS, December 1, 2004.
[lii] Steven Bowman, “Bosnia: U.S. Military Operations,” CRS
Issue Brief for Congress, July 8, 2003.
[liii] Salazar Torreon
[lviii] U.S. Army Center for Military History, Operation Joint
Guardian, p.39 (no date available).
[lix] NATO, KFOR Key Facts and Figures, December 1, 2013.
[lx] Defense Department, http://www.defense.gov/news/casualty.pdf, March 3, 2015.
[lxi] Defense Department, http://www.defense.gov/news/casualty.pdf, March 3, 2015.
[lxiii] Salazar Torreon
[lxiv] Defense Department, http://www.defense.gov/news/casualty.pdf, August 11, 2014.
[lxv] Defense Department, http://www.defense.gov/news/casualty.pdf, March 3, 2015.
[lxvi] Defense Department, http://www.defense.gov/news/casualty.pdf, March 3, 2015.
[lxviii] See http://csis.org/publication/us-cost-afghan-war-fy2002-fy2013
for 2002-2013 figures and http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/45010-Outlook2014_Feb.pdf for 2014 figures.
[lxxi] Defense Department, http://www.defense.gov/news/casualty.pdf, March 3, 2015.
[lxxii]http://www.dpc.senate.gov/docs/fs-112-1-36.pdf, December 19, 2011.
[lxxiii] Defense Department, http://www.defense.gov/news/casualty.pdf, March 3, 2015.
[lxxiv] Defense Department, Special Report: Inherent Resolve,
as of March 3, 2015.