THIS OCTOBER MARKS 15 years since American troops entered Afghanistan. It was a precursor to the occupation of Iraq and is the longest military conflict in US history. Yet the trillions of dollars and thousands of lives expended in these wars have rated barely a mention in the presidential campaign.
Yet the cost seems invisible to politicians and the public alike. The reason is that almost all of the spending has been financed through borrowing — selling US Treasury Bonds around the world — leaving our children to pick up the tab. Consequently, the wars have had little impact on our pocketbooks.
In earlier wars, the government routinely raised taxes, slashed nonmilitary spending, and sold war bonds. Taxes were raised to pay for the Spanish-American War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and World War I and World War II. Top rates of federal income taxes climbed to 70 percent during Vietnam and to over 90 percent during the Korean War. These policies were all part of an explicit strategy of engaging the American public in the war efforts. In sharp contrast, the George W. Bush administration cut taxes after the invasion of Afghanistan, in 2001 and again, in 2003, when we invaded Iraq. Most Americans pay lower taxes now than they did 15 years ago.
Congress has also managed to avoid painful budgetary choices. Since 2001, Congress has employed a series of so-called “temporary special appropriations” to authorize hundreds of billions of dollars for war spending, bypassing the regular spending process. Despite President Obama’s pledge to end such “gimmicks,” they have continued throughout his presidency. Thus the money appropriated for the post-9/11 wars did not have to be traded off against other spending priorities. The war appropriation also gets far less scrutiny than the regular defense budget. Consequently, the war budget has become a magnet for pet nonwar spending projects that senators and congressmen want to slip in under the radar. As a consequence, the reported war cost per troop deployed has ballooned from $1 million per year at the peak of the fighting in 2008 to $4.9 million today.
Besides ducking the immediate financial burden, most of us are also shielded from the risks and hardships of military service. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were the first major US conflicts fought entirely by an “all-volunteer” military force. Less than 1 percent of the adult US population was deployed to the combat zones — the smallest percentage at any time since the short peacetime period between the two World Wars. Instead, our small volunteer army is supplemented by a large shadow force of private contractors. In Afghanistan, contractors outnumber US troops by 3 to 1, performing critical roles in virtually every area of military activity. More than two-thirds of them are recruited from other countries, including the Philippines and Nepal.
As a result, the post-9/11 conflicts have become a “spectator war,” as Andrew Bacevich of Boston University put it, in which most Americans are neither engaged nor involved.
All of this accounts for the absence of any real political discussion about how we will fund huge costs of the war that are still to be paid — for example, the $1 trillion in lifetime disability compensation that we have awarded to 960,000 recent veterans. Worse, no one is asking whether the current approach in Afghanistan is working. Last month the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, John Sopko, reported that corruption in Afghanistan is far more widespread than before the 2001 US invasion, due to US policies that “unintentionally aided and abetted corruption.” But his investigations get barely a mention in the media.
As long as the cost of the war remains hidden from public view, there is no pressure to reexamine our military strategy. Donald Trump says his secret plan is to “ask the generals.” But the Pentagon should be focused on tactics, not on deciding our national purpose. Assuming Hillary Clinton wins, she cannot lead a national conversation unless the public is paying attention.
This will change only if we are obliged to pay for war operations as we go, and to set aside money now to support and care for our veterans in the future. This is not simply about sound fiscal budgetary policy. Rather, it is about shouldering the burden of our wars and, in doing so, being open to learn from our mistakes. We all want to continue to “support our troops.” Sweeping the costs under the carpet is not the right way to do it.
Linda J. Bilmes is a senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard University and coauthor, with Joseph E. Stiglitz, of “The Three Trillion Dollar War.”