The colossal cost of war
Fifteen years ago today, the United States and its coalition partners invaded Iraq.
That decision led to a more than eight-year occupation in which nearly 4,500 Americans lost their lives. While most estimates put the number of Iraqi civilians killed at between 100,000 and 165,000, when factoring in those who died indirectly because of the conflict, the number may be closer to one million. Many millions more have been displaced. While Saddam Hussein is dead, and Iraq is a more open society than during his totalitarian rule, it remains a violent and unstable place. Ten years after the initial invasion, the United States sent more troops to Iraq and Syria to deal with the Islamic State, and that conflict is ongoing.
Indeed, the so-called war on terrorism is far from over. There are still Americans on the ground in Afghanistan — 17 years after 9/11 — fighting terrorism, costing both blood and treasure.
Yet, for the most part, most Americans have moved on. Those responsible for the decision to launch a preemptive against a country that didn’t threaten the United States remain accepted in polite society. There has been precious little reckoning with not just the decision to wage a global, multi-front war against terrorists, but also the ultimate financial costs to America. But, make no mistake: multiple generations of Americans will be footing the bill for Iraq and Afghanistan.
In direct costs, the United States has spent close to $1.9 trillion on these conflicts. Amazingly, more of that money has been spent in Afghanistan than Iraq. According to a recent estimate by the Costs of War project at the Watson Institute at Brown University, the amount of direct and indirect costs for the war totals more $5.5 trillion. The average taxpayer has, since 2001, been responsible for $23,386 of that figure.
These numbers will continue to grow. Take just as one example, the financial burden of caring for those who have been wounded in battle.
In 2001, the United States spent close to $1.8 billion on disability benefits for veterans of the Gulf War, a conflict in which 148 Americans lost their lives and 1,000 were wounded. In contrast, the US war on terrorism left 6,800 Americans dead and more than 50,000 wounded. By 2016, the United States was already doling out around $15 billion annually in such benefits. Because of the nature of modern war-time injuries — and, in particular, the long-overdue focus on the psychological scars of war — these numbers are only going to increase. Indeed, by 2016, more than 1 million veterans of the post-9/11 wars are currently receiving some form of disability compensation.
Linda Bilmes, a Harvard University professor who has written extensively on the cost of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, estimated in 2014 that by 2054, the cost of veterans’ care alone for these wars would top $1 trillion.
Then there is the impact that is even harder to measure. Nearly one million children have a parent who was sent to Iraq or Afghanistan. Compared to the kids of civilian parents, these children tend to perform worse in schools and are more likely to have greater anxiety and clinical depression. Many have been forced to take on parenting and nursing responsibilities at a cost of billions in lost productivity.
Since the war was not paid for with higher taxes, it contributed significantly to the national debt. That higher debt burden led to higher interest rates (including those on fixed mortgages), which by 2010 were estimated by one economist to be 0.35 percentage points higher than they would have been if not for deficit-financed war spending. For the average homeowner that could mean an additional $600 a year in mortgage costs.
Think about how a trillion dollars could have been spent in the United States. The US government could have dramatically expanded health care, improved the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, combatted the growing opioid epidemic, expanded child care and family leave programs, and shored up Social Security and Medicare for the long-term. Internationally, with an initial investment of just $15 billion, the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief has helped to save millions of lives from HIV/AIDS. Think what a larger investment could do, or one that addressed other treatable diseases.
As much as we focus on the direct costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s the places where that money could have gone — and done so much good — that is most enraging.
What is even more maddening about these stratospheric numbers is contrasting them with the predictions made by Bush administration officials in the run-up to the war. “Something under $50 billion” was the estimate given by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Former chief White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey said the war could cost 1 percent or 2 percent of gross domestic product — $100 billion to $200 billion. Those comments cost him his job. Andrew Natsios, who was the director of the US Agency of International Development, pegged reconstruction costs at around $1.7 billion — the actual number was $170 billion.
So the next time a politician or pundit says the United States needs to fight an overseas war to protect America’s national security interests, remind them that we’re still paying for the last two . . . and neither of them made America the slightest bit safer.