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The Costs Of War To America -- And Where Our Trillions Really Go

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

As a Navy spouse of 10 years and counting, my life offers an up-close view of our country's priorities when it comes to infrastructure and government spending.

Recently, my husband, a naval officer currently serving with the Department of Energy, spent a week with colleagues touring a former nuclear testing site about 65 miles north of Las Vegas. Between 1951 and 1957, the U.S. conducted more than 1,000 nuclear tests in those 680 square miles of desert and only stopped when scientists began urging that the tests be halted because of soaring cancer rates among the downwind residents of Arizona, Nevada, and Utah.

My spouse's trip was a kind of ritual Department of Energy personnel undertake to learn about nuclear weapons as they maintain our country's vast and still wildly expanding arsenal.

Meanwhile, unable to afford to take time off from my job as a therapist, I found myself once again working double shifts. After all, I was also watching our two young children (ages four and six), shuttling them to appointments and activities along the narrow roads of our rural town, handling a sudden school shutdown due to flooded roads that halted school buses, while working. And mine is really the usual story for so many of the partners of this country's 1.3 million active-duty military personnel when they are sent elsewhere on assignment.

My six year old typically woke me at night to ask whether his dad was shooting at people and started throwing the sort of tantrums that had become uncharacteristic since his father stopped serving months-long deployments on submarines. Once recently, he even conned his already overworked bus driver — our county, one of the richest in the country, has a deficit of such drivers, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic — into taking him home rather than to his after-school program. He let himself into our house and appeared at my office door to "make sure you haven't left, too."

It was hard to miss the irony of being overstretched at home by poor infrastructure and gaps in care (even as I went into debt to pay for the most affordable childcare center in the area) at a moment when the government was perfectly happy to fund my spouse to tour a mothballed nuclear testing site. His trip came on the heels of two 14-hour days he spent at the Capitol displaying a collection of model warheads to members of Congress. They then chatted with one another and him in a rare bipartisan moment that we as a couple witnessed.

At that time, members of the House of Representatives had yet to even vote on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill to fund our country's roads, bridges, buses, and electric grid, which to our relief would pass two weeks later. And when it comes to President Biden's shrinking Build Back Better bill, who knows if it will ever be passed?

It's about time! was all I could think when I heard that the first bill was about to be signed into law. I couldn't help imagining how useful so much of what's packed into both of them would be for people like me — not least of all things in the Build Back Better plan like universal pre-K and some paid family leave, four weeks of which I could have used over the past two months of my husband's military travels and my own late nights. And mind you, as someone with a great job and a relatively high family income, I have it much better than the vast majority of Americans, military or not.

Twenty Years Of War

Meanwhile, as I'm sure you know, Congress has been blindly supporting wars and counter-terror operations in dozens of countries globally from Afghanistan and Iraq to Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and beyond for two decades now. Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, and other congressional representatives in the House and Senate have been quibbling for months over whether to allow Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices or pay for dental and vision benefits on the premise that such expenditures might add to our high national debt.

Yet they've voted repeatedly and without quibble or question to fund a Pentagon that has run a failing $8 trillion (and counting!) war on terror financed on just such debt. In fact, both of our recent infrastructure bills could have been paid for at their original higher funding levels with money to spare, had we not decided to go to war after 9/11 in a big-time fashion or even stopped the fighting after killing Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Finally — can you hear my sigh of relief? — President Biden actually cited the more than $2 trillion cost of the Afghan War in his defense of his administration's decision to pull out of that country. That the cost of such a failed war wasn't common knowledge, even then, should be (but isn't) notable.

How could that be when "a trillion dollars" for infrastructure work here at home is a commonplace figure in debates everywhere, regardless of which side you're on? How can the cost of that bill be labeled as the "communist takeover of America" by Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and resisted tooth and nail by so many others like her when they say nothing about the costs of war?

The good news is that, whether you know those war figures or not, the difficult legwork of tracking down where those trillions of federal dollars have gone has actually been done and is available to anyone. In 2010, I was one of about two-dozen people — including social scientists, an Iraqi medical doctor, a journalist, and two human-rights lawyers — who started the Costs of War Project at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies.

We were nearly a decade into the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, initiated in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks by President George W. Bush and being carried on at the time by President Barack Obama. Anthropologist Catherine Lutz, political scientist Neta Crawford, and I were then concerned that Americans weren't paying enough attention to what those wars were costing in lives and dollars.

Nor was the government helping. Costs of War economist Winslow Wheeler found that the Pentagon frequently failed to keep track of the money it spent, while its officials often entered made-up numbers in logs supposedly tracking supplies (like weaponry) to make budgets balance more comfortably and so influence future congressional funding. As we were soon to discover, the Department of Defense routinely failed even to keep track of whom it owed money to, no less how much.

What's more, congressional funding for additional expenses unrelated to overseas wars, while stuffed into the Pentagon base budget, was regularly justified by this thing called "terrorism" that was everywhere (and nowhere) at once. Those terror wars of ours increased that base budget by at least $884 billion from 2001 to 2022.

We relied on all kinds of sources from government watchdog agencies like the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) to local doctors and journalists in the distant lands our country was disrupting to fill in our gaps in knowledge until we gained a clearer picture of just how much those wars of ours had cost.

Some 10 years after the Costs of War Project's initial launch, the project, now led by Stephanie Savell, Catherine Lutz, and Neta Crawford, is 50-people strong and has tracked so many things, including the more than 929,000 people killed in those wars of ours, almost half of them civilians, and the $8 trillion spent on them. That figure, however, doesn't even include future interest payments on war borrowing, which we have estimated may total $6.5 trillion by the 2050s.

Yep, you got it! The interest alone that this country will fork over for those wars would have undoubtedly been more than enough to fund both infrastructure bills in their original forms.

Spent On America?

But it's all for a good purpose, right? After all, in a Congress in which the two parties are now eternally at each other's throats, the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act managed to pass in January by an overwhelming margin of 377-48 in the House and 86-8 in the Senate. That act authorized $731.6 billion, including $635.5 billion for the Department of Defense, $26.6 billion for Department of Energy national security programs (which presumably includes pilgrimages to ancient nuclear testing sites), $69 billion for overseas military operations, and $494 million for other "defense-related" activities. Included in that bill, to be sure, were some modest increases in military health care for families, including a few hours of "respite care" for military family members supporting someone with a developmental disability. But essentially none of that money went to improving the American quality of life. Want to guess if Senators Manchin and Sinema supported it? No need to even ask, is there?

Under the circumstances, I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that the Pentagon's total assets, as measured by its ships, aircraft, buildings, vehicles, computers, and weapons, have risen steadily since 2000 even as government investment in non-military infrastructure continued at a paltry rate — unchanged since the 1970s. Of course, those hundreds of billions of dollars "invested" in military infrastructure during just the first decade of the war on terror would have led to strikingly greater capital improvements if invested in education, health care, and green energy at home.

If you take a closer look at how our money has been spent on infrastructure in these years, everything just gets uglier and uglier. For example, more than half of the money the U.S. government spent on what were called "reconstruction efforts" in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan actually went to funding and arming local security forces. In Afghanistan, we recently saw just how well that turned out.

Beyond that, examples abound of so-called development money poorly spent or not accounted for. As a 2011 SIGAR report made all too clear, for example, one federally funded project in Afghanistan, the Commander's Emergency Response Program, was tasked with building roads in that country. The investigation found that of 11 road projects surveyed, nine lacked plans or resources for future maintenance.

Similarly, according to a paper by Costs of War Project co-director Lutz and grassroots organizer Sujaya Desai, a 2012 SIGAR report revealed that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could not account for 95% of the materials it purchased that year to construct roads and other infrastructure in Iraq, including, for example, $1.3 billion in fuel that it had theoretically paid for. In 2011, the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan estimated that $31 billion to $60 billion were squandered in both war zones in incidents of waste, fraud, and abuse. Even the lower estimate would have covered about a year of paid family leave for working Americans.

Nor has all of this war spending made us safer. Stephanie Savell, for instance, did a case study of the U.S. war on terror security assistance to the African country of Burkina Faso. What she showed was how our ongoing security operations in the name of counterterrorism actually tend to do just the opposite of keeping us or anyone else safe. According to Savell, security assistance to foreign governments in just 36 of the 79 countries where we've recently conducted such operations cost the U.S. a total of $125 billion between 2002 and 2016. Yet the effect of such assistance, as she made all-too-vividly clear in one country, has been to bolster an authoritarian government, repress minority groups through violence, and facilitate war profiteering, while failing to provide needed humanitarian aid of any sort in the contested areas.

$8 Trillion (And Counting)

Our problem in this country, folks, isn't lack of funds, no matter what the Republicans, Manchin, and Sinema may claim. Our problem is that we're not paying attention to where our money actually goes or truly thinking about how it might be better spent.

As Pentagon experts William Hartung and Mandy Smithberger explained recently, even an exceedingly modest reduction in Pentagon spending of $1 trillion, or 15 percent of total current expenditures over the next decade (as recommended recently by the Congressional Budget Office), would still leave the Pentagon with a staggering $6.3 trillion to spend in those same years. Unfortunately, everything's moving in the other direction. As those two authors remind us, only recently the Biden administration requested $750 billion for the next Pentagon budget and for nuclear weapons development at the Department of Energy. The Democratic-controlled House promptly responded (with, of course, strong support from the Republicans there) by voting to add $25 billion to that already stunning sum, even as the arguments only continued about how little to spend on us here at home.

If there's one thing that's reminiscent of overseas adversaries like Russia from which we theoretically seek to defend ourselves, it's a tendency to spend increasing amounts of money on military assets at the expense of the general population, while demonizing those who would dare challenge that way of cutting up the national pie.

Every American should check out the Costs of War Project website to see how much money we're still spending on military operations and decide for themselves whether it might not be better spent domestically. And if you think it might, Hartung and Smithberger's article on cutting fat from the Pentagon budget is an excellent place to start. Send it to your elected representatives and ask them why we've spent $8 trillion on these endlessly failing wars of ours when we could have been building a social safety net here at home instead.

In the meantime, let me tiptoe into my son's bedroom and make sure he's truly sound asleep and then catch a few winks myself.

Copyright 2021 Andrea Mazzarino

Andrea Mazzarino, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded Brown University's Costs of War Project. She has held various clinical, research, and advocacy positions, including at a Veterans Affairs PTSD Outpatient Clinic, with Human Rights Watch, and at a community mental health agency. She is the co-editor of War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Civil War? A Military Spouse Wonders — And Worries

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

When it rains, pieces of glass, pottery, and metal rise through the mud in the hills surrounding my Maryland home. The other day, I walked outside barefoot to fetch one of my kid's shoes and a pottery shard stabbed me in the heel. Nursing a minor infection, I wondered how long that fragment dated back.

A neighbor of mine found what he said looked like a cartridge case from an old percussion-cap rifle in his pumpkin patch. He told us that the battle of Monocacy had been fought on these grounds in July 1864, with 1,300 Union and 900 Confederate troops killed or wounded here. The stuff that surfaces in my fields when it storms may or may not be battle artifacts, but it does remind me that the past lingers and that modern America was formed in a civil war.

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What War Costs Me As A Military Spouse

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

There is some incongruity between my role as an editor of a book about the costs of America’s wars and my identity as a military spouse. I’m deeply disturbed at the scale of human suffering caused by those conflicts and yet I’ve unintentionally contributed to the war effort through the life I’ve chosen.

I am the co-editor with Catherine Lutz of War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a new volume of social science research from Brown University’s Costs of War Project. At the same time, I am a practicing therapist-in-training and I specialize in working with veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Through the scholarly research I review and the veteran clients I have seen, I am committed professionally to bearing witness to the human costs of America’s forever wars, and to alleviating suffering where I can.

I am also married to a submarine officer in the Navy. We are so fortunate in so many ways. We have two beautiful children, pets, loving friends, and extended family. We both have graduate degrees. While our finances take hits from relocations without adequate job and childcare support, we don’t face the continuous fears that many military families experience when a loved one is sent into a war zone. In many respects, my family’s life does not look like that of most American military families profiled in my book.

And yet I have misgivings.

During one of my husband’s deployments, I was relieved to hear our 2-year-old son talk about war in a way that, despite his innocence, was more nuanced than the usual tales of “sacrifice,” “honor,” and “fighting terror” that one hears routinely in the mainstream media and in local command newsletters.

It was spring 2017 and we had just seen Kim Jong-un displaying one of North Korea’s new missiles on the TV news. Our son asked me what a war is. I gave my best explanation and his reply, undoubtedly garnered from preschool discussions about conflict resolution, was: “They don’t use words? They hit?”

Sort of, I told him. I did my best to explain what a weapon was, a description I suspect that many of my liberal mom friends would balk at. In our military community, however, such imagery is all around us. Real missiles and replicas are, for instance, often used as decorations lining the streets of naval bases or as lampposts or even wall hangings in military family households.

My son did his best to take it in. Later, at the waterfront near our home, he tossed a piece of his donut into the ocean and told me it was for his father who, he insisted, was under the water “playing hide-and-seek.” Of course, he doesn’t connect the relentless training and deployments characteristic of our military life with the fighting of war itself, though our family feels the strain and implicit sense of danger in our daily lives.

In writing my recent book on the costs of this country’s post-9/11 wars, I learned about Afghan war widows who use heroin to make it morally possible to live amid grief and poverty after seeing their spouses and children killed; about NGO workers who leave their own families, facing threats of kidnapping and death, to aid refugees in the Pakistani-Afghan borderlands. And I read about the experiences of the million war-wounded, ill, or traumatized American combat veterans, the sorts of patients my therapy will someday (I hope) help, who have sought health care and social support and so often come up desperately short.

As I do this, there’s always a low buzz of guilt somewhere in my gut, even about my own voluntary, unpaid work in support of other military spouses, even after I’ve relinquished travel assignments in my work as an activist that would have compromised my husband’s security clearance, even as I abide by harsh security restrictions in my personal life. I worry, in other words, about aiding the very military that, 18 years after the 9/11 attacks, still continues to rack up war’s costs without an end in sight.

The Costs of War at Home

I see firsthand trends affecting all military communities in the United States. Deployments during these wars have come more frequently and often last longer than in past American wars. The specter of death by suicide hangs over all our lives, because everyone in such communities knows someone who has died that way or has threatened to do so.

In 2012, for the first time in our history, American service members began to die by suicide at higher rates than civilians. Today, they are more likely to take their own lives than to perish in combat. As anthropologist Kenneth MacLeish points out, military suicides are most prevalent among those who have deployed to our war zones just once or not at all, or who left the military involuntarily with a “bad paper discharge” or other than honorable discharges of some kind. Moreover, mental illness is rampant among active-duty military service members. According to the nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness, in 2014 roughly one in four active-duty service members showed signs of mental illness, including mood and trauma disorders such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety (though this figure is conservative, given that the study did not include the prevalence of traumatic brain injuries among combat vets. Many soldiers seek relief from the stresses of training and combat through alcohol and other drugs and, in our military community, it’s common knowledge that seeking professional support for such problems can place you at risk of social stigma.

And don’t forget military families either. Training and fighting both take a toll on us, too. What modest figures we have on the subject make the point. For example, as anthropologists Jean Scandlyn and Sarah Hautzinger point out in our book, among servicemembers who entered the military between 1999 and 2008, the more months spent deployed, the more likely they are to divorce, with the vast majority of such divorces occurring soon after returning from deployments.

Local reports of domestic violence in military communities suggest that the problems leading to such divorces are only growing, though documentation on the subject is unreliable. It wasn’t until 2018 that, under pressure from Congress, the military made domestic violence a crime under its own legal code. Deployments of nine months or longer or frequent redeployments leave spouses at greater risk of depression, anxiety, and sleep problems, which, in turn, often affect the mental and physical health of their children as well.

Young children with deployed parents visit the doctor more frequently for behavioral health issues than those whose parents have not been deployed. Yet, as many spouses like me have discovered, community-based physicians are often unprepared to help in such situations, tending instead to blame the behavioral and mental-health issues of children on their parents or even on the children themselves, while not making referrals to services that could help (often, sadly, because there are none in the community).

“They Were as Hard Off as Me and I Was Killing Them”

Such collective problems are, of course, experienced individually and I’ve felt many of them in my own life. My spouse, for instance, departed for sea tours at moments when most of our family’s ducks were anything but in a row, whether it was a matter of childcare, work schedules, my health needs, or our other family obligations. Our son, for instance, has trouble sleeping because he was sad and scared for his dad, given what he hears in passing about Syria, North Korea, and — from other well-meaning military spouses and our own extended family — his own father’s attempts to “keep us safe” from unnamed others who might want to harm us.

I’m edgy and uneasy, knowing that my husband’s commander, a combat vet, has been angry at our family because I refused at one point to volunteer to work with a spouses group. When our house gets broken into, mid-deployment, and I’m alone with our toddler and pregnant, I wonder briefly if payback could have been involved before I dismiss the thought.

After I have our second child, a woman from the base with no mental-health or social-work training calls me weekly to ask about my baby’s health and safety. When I request that she stop, she refuses, telling me the same commander has ordered her to check in on each new mother in his command during deployment. I receive capitalized, hysterically punctuated emails from this woman warning all spouses not to jeopardize national security by talking to anyone about the submarine’s movements or, for that matter, emailing anything to our partners that they might find “distressing,” even details about a family member’s illness. Repeatedly, I am reminded that the U.S. is fighting a war on terror and our individual problems should never get in the way of that.

Things aren’t exactly a cakewalk between deployments either. It seems that, wherever I go, I find stigma, not support. For example, shortly after giving birth, I consulted a psychiatrist for help with post-partum depression. He was the only psychiatrist within 30 miles of our town who accepted military health insurance. Upon meeting me for the first time, he asked me to sign paperwork allowing him discretion to commit me to a psychiatric hospital “because military spouses often get psychotic during deployments.” I decided to tough it out rather than see him again.

And I try to keep in mind that my problems don’t add up to much, given the true costs of war out there. As a start, it’s a stretch to draw comparisons of any sort between an educated, white millennial family here and those who directly pay war’s costs like combat vets or, above all, civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other American war zones. As my co-editor Catherine Lutz and others have shown, though, combat and the home front are connected in unexpected ways.

If you spend 18 years fighting wars you grossly underestimated how to pay for, if you embark upon those wars without first considering alternatives like diplomacy, if you assume that social support for this country’s wars and those fighting them will come from military families that are patriarchal ideals from the white 1950s, and if you imagine an enemy — terrorism — that could be anywhere at all any time at all, then you’re already in a battle that’s going to prove unwinnable and morally unnerving for everyone involved.

I obviously can’t speak for how people from groups in this country more vulnerable than mine think about our never-ending wars and their costs, but my guess is that at least some of them feel connections to those in the war zones far more intimately than I do, no matter how hard I try. I will never forget a neighbor of ours, a Mexican-American Vietnam vet whom I would find smoking on our street when I completed my daily runs. One evening, when we were chatting, he told me that what haunted him most was how many of the rural, poor Vietnamese he’d shot at looked more like him than most of the American officers in his unit. “They were as hard off as me and I was killing them,” he suddenly said, tears in his eyes. Among veterans, he’s not alone in feeling an affinity for those on the other side.

On Bearing Witness

When Catherine Lutz, Neta Crawford, and I first founded the Costs of War Project at Brown University in 2011, we took a close look at the kinds of public assumptions we wanted to upend. As a start, we wanted to show that, contrary to the Bush administration’s stated rationales for invading Afghanistan and then Iraq, Washington had not effectively protected human rights — not to safety, liberty, or for that matter freedom of speech — nor brought “democracy” with us into those distant lands. Instead, by then, those countries had already seen spikes in gender-based violence and the deterioration of the most basic protections that led to everything from the collapse of prenatal care to the killing of civilians to the kidnapping of journalists, aid workers, and academics.

We wanted to go beyond the Pentagon’s focus on the deaths of American soldiers and focus instead on the tens of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi military deaths that had taken place and especially the soaring death rates of civilians in those lands. And, of course, we wanted to show that our grim wars should not be described in sterile terms via the usual imagery of families embracing upon a smiling service-member’s return or the by-then-familiar photographs of neat coffins draped with flags being carried out of planes by uniformed service members as spouses (usually white, female, and non-disabled) looked on sadly.

That, we knew, was not the essence of America’s already ongoing war on terror. My colleagues and I wanted people in this country to refocus on the staggering death and injury rates that only grew as the years passed, the ever-more-crippling ways in which all sides learned to kill and injure, and the long-term mental-health effects of arduous family separations.

A therapist mentor once taught me that, when working with veterans who have PTSD, I should, as he put it, “Ask them to start their story a little before they think it began and have them keep going even after they think it’s over.” My colleagues and I wanted to do that when it came to our wars, focusing not just on the obvious newsworthy photographs that tended to appeal to the American psyche, but on the missing context in which those photographs were taken. That’s the best way I can think of to describe the purpose of our new book (and our future work). None of us should stop trying to refocus in that way, not until America’s war story is declared over — and not even then, given how long the costs of war are likely to take to play out.

One sunny afternoon in May 2011, as Catherine Lutz and I sat in her office in Brown’s Anthropology Department sifting through media images for the initial launch of the Costs of War website, we happened upon a video of a screaming young Iraqi child with open burn wounds covering his face and body, a relative clutching him in her arms as they hustled through a crowd. Gunshots and explosions were audible in the background. The before, the after, the neighborhood where the violence was taking place, the weapons used, who was even fighting whom — none of that was evident from the clip.

For years, that image and the sound of that child has haunted me. Who was he? Did he get to the hospital? Was there even a hospital for him to get to? Would he ever go to school or play again? Who was the woman and what had her life been like before the American invasion of Iraq in 2003? What was it like now? What services could she access? Was she safe?

I think of this image when I wake up at night, when I hear patients describe the screams of children in war zones, when I hear my own children scream during tantrums. It’s like a nightmarish echo that spurs me to keep working because all of us, regardless of where we are, should be bearing witness to the costs of war until somebody in power decides to end the suffering.

Andrea Mazzarino co-founded Brown University’s Costs of War Project. She is an activist and social worker interested in the health impacts of war. She has held various clinical, research, and advocacy positions, including at a Veterans Affairs PTSD Outpatient Clinic, with Human Rights Watch, and at a community mental health agency. She is the co-editor of the new book War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.