Anyone paying attention to the costs of U.S. military action in Iraq and Afghanistan must have known that the president badly underestimated those numbers on June 22, when he told the nation that we have spent “a trillion dollars” waging war over the past decade. For well over two years, we have known that the total monetary cost of those wars will eventually amount to well over $2 trillion, and might well rise higher, according to Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz and his associate Linda Bilmes.
What we didn’t know until this week is that the expense in constant dollars — leaving aside the horrific price paid by the dead, wounded, displaced and ruined in every country — will likely reach well over $4.4 trillion.
That is the conclusion of a study released by the Eisenhower Research Project, a group of scholars, diplomats and other experts based at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. The Eisenhower study doesn’t scant the human damage, which its authors say has been underestimated as badly as the fiscal costs. According to them, “an extremely conservative estimate of the toll in direct war dead and wounded is about 225,000 dead and about 365,000 physically wounded in these wars so far” — including those in Pakistan, which is embroiled in war just as lethally as Afghanistan.
The American military dead in all three countries now total more than 6,000, a figure that does not include another 2,300 in U.S. military contractors; the American wounded, military and civilian, are well over 100,000, which doesn’t include the psychological destruction wreaked on those who served and their families. The most obvious indicator is the exceptionally high suicide rate among the million or more returned veterans.
The Eisenhower study’s authors concede that they cannot readily estimate the full value of the economic and social damage we have sustained as a nation — in lost years of work and wrecked families, as well as huge interest costs on the money borrowed to finance these interventions.
Nor can they fully account for the growth and investment forfeited because such a great proportion of the nation’s resources was squandered on war rather than pressing needs in infrastructure, energy, education and health.
For less than 5 percent of what we have spent on war — to consider one example among many — we could have completed an American high-speed rail system and repaired most of our crumbling infrastructure, too.
Even if the current war could somehow be concluded instantly, however, the moral and fiscal obligations incurred so far will continue for decades. Beyond the mandatory disability payments, medical and psychiatric care, and additional benefits to which our veterans are entitled, we will face the prospect of increasing military budgets to restore the equipment and readiness of the battered Army and National Guard.
And those costs in turn will subtract from the scant dollars left for domestic programs — as President Eisenhower himself observed when he said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
It is sobering to revisit the question of what war has cost us in this generation at a moment when the debate over the nation’s finances is so furious and yet so often frivolous.
But it is ever more important to remember how we arrived at this dead end, especially as we listen to the braying Republican leaders who refuse to consider any tax increase. Our fiscal woe is the legacy of their policy, waging war at enormous expense, while sharply reducing taxes on the rich. What we live with now is what “conservatism” has wrought.
Joe Conason is editor-in-chief of The National Memo