Estimating the costs of war is a dirty business. Sure governments can tell you how much they spent on tanks, but what about rebuilding costs? What about the lives lost? What about the costs to healthcare systems that struggle to help veterans with PTSD many years down the line? There are so many hidden costs to war that there is absolutely no way to put a price tag on any given conflict. Which is why we won’t (at least not entirely). Rather, this list consists of 25 wars that are quasi ranked according to what historians and political scientists would probably say (although they would undoubtedly argue). These are the 25 most expensive wars in history.
War on Terror
Including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this fight has cost the nations involved a significant amount. In fact, in pure dollar terms some economists have argued that it is one of the most expensive wars to date. It cost the U.S. alone more than $1.6 trillion through 2010.
Involving several sides, this armed conflict has been characterized as one of the greatest upheavals of the 20th century.
The rebellion of Hui people in China had far reaching effects that rippled throughout the entire region and crippled economies not just locally but also in neighboring nations.
Fought by Julius Caesar, these wars included several costly military campaigns that led to Caesar becoming the sole ruler of the Roman Republic.
American Civil War
This was hands down the costliest war ever fought on the continent of North America. In pure monetary terms it cost the modern equivalent of $80 billion.
Including the Vietnam War, the Korean War and even the Space Race, the Cold War was a vast and extremely costly period of armament and conflict that cost numerous nations quite a lot in the areas of defense and espionage. To give some hard numbers, the US spent $738 billion (in 2014 dollars) on the Vietnam War and $341 billion (in 2014 dollars) on the Korean War.
Sudanese Civil War
Disease, famine, and displacement are still felt today from this civil war that lasted for nearly half of the 20th century. In terms of 2014 dollars, the last 10 years of war has been estimated to cost the country of Sudan over $100 billion.
Nigerian Civil War
Leading to massive famines and destruction of infrastructure, the Nigerian Civil War drew in numerous international players including the United States and the Soviet Union. The pure financial cost has been estimated to be somewhere in the billions of dollars.
Shaka has been largely credited as a military genius for revolutionizing the way the Zulu kingdom fought their battles. Although he managed to make the Zulus the most powerful tribe in southern Africa, he did so with an iron fist and brutal warfare was one of his trademarks. The effect of his military campaigns on the political and social structure is still seen today.
The Hundred Years War
The most notable conflict of the Middle Ages saw five generations vie for rule in Europe.
War in Afghanistan
This doesn’t only include the war on terror, this goes all the way back to 1978 when the fighting in Afghanistan started during the Saur Revolution. Since then the parties involved have changed but there has been no peace and the level of destruction has been quite extensive for everyone involved.
Thirty Years War
Actually a series of wars during the 1600s, this was one of the most destructive periods in the history of Europe prior to the 19th century. In fact, the war bankrupted almost all the belligerents and soldiers were eventually expected to fund themselves by looting.
Yellow Turban Rebellion
This Chinese peasant revolt against the Han Dynasty took over two decades to suppress and got its name from the color of the cloths that rebels wore on their heads.
Second Congo War
Known as the African World War, this was the largest, deadliest, and most destructive conflict ever fought on African soil.
Chinese Civil War
Ending in the creation of two Chinas (mainland China and Taiwan both claim to be the legitimate China), this civil war hasn’t technically ended yet as no peace treaty has been signed. In purely financial terms the war cost over $600 billion (in 2014 dollars).
Pitting France against the rest of Europe, these wars played out on an unprecedented scale and completely revolutionized modern warfare.
Russian Civil War
With a Red Army, White Army, Green Army, and about 8 foreign nations involved, this civil war rode in on the coattails of the Russian Revolution and led straight into several other wars of independence. It was basically a very bloody, very destructive period in Russia’s history.
When the Qing dynasty moved to overtake the Ming dynasty, the price was catastrophically high.
An Lushan Rebellion
Lasting for the course of nearly three generations in the 700s AD, this rebellion had far reaching consequences for the nation of China.
Conquests of Tamerlane
It was not mere coincidence that Tamerlane, the Turko-Mongol conqueror, basically re-enacted what Genghis Khan did several centuries earlier. Genghis Khan was his hero and although its hard to say whether Tamerlane’s conquests were more or less destructive, it’s really just splitting hairs.
In pure terms of human life, the only conflict more costly than the Three Kingdom period of China was World War II.
This Chinese civil war was one of Asia’s most extensive conflicts and also one of the first instances of total war in modern times (every single man, woman, and child was conscripted to fight) which technically means there was no such things as “civilians”. Not surprisingly the level of destruction was horrifying.
Although the Mongol conquests are extremely hard to label with a price tag, two things are for sure, the death toll was very high and the damage to land and property was extensive.
World War I
There was only one war more costly than World War I and that was World War II. To give you some insight, America spent the modern equivalent of $334 billion during World War I.
World War II
Considering the fact that much of Europe was completely decimated, it’s hard to estimate the total cost of the war. Without a doubt it was the most costly conflict in world history though. Once again, to give you some hard numbers, America spent the modern equivalent of $4.104 trillion during World War II. That’s over 12 times as much as during World War I.