Normative Narratives

Transparency Thursday: Deriving the True Cost of “The War on Terror”


The “War on Terror” has been costly in a number of ways. The first thing we think of when we think of the cost of any war is the human death toll. The total number of deaths for U.S. military personnel is estimated at 6,518 . When considering casualties (deaths and wounded soldiers), that number balloons to 48,430. This means, according to estimates, a whopping 41,936 soldiers returned to the U.S. wounded from battle (physically or psychologically).

The number of deaths of indigenous people resulting from “The War on Terror” (which included military intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan) is estimated to be between 272,000 to 329,000.

From a death toll standpoint, the Americans escaped relatively unscathed. According to these numbers, there were 42 foreigner deaths to every American soldier killed. Not to discount those brave men and women who lost their lives fighting in “The War on Terror”, but it was historically one of the least deadly wars in U.S. history (in terms of the total % of U.S. population killed, .002%, and U.S. deaths per day, 1.72).

Human life is the hardest cost to quantify, because there is no numerical value that can be ascribed to a person’s life. Surely, more money was invested in each American soldier that died than in each Middle-Easterner killed, as the U.S. invests more in human capital (education, healthcare) and soldier training than the average Iraqi, Afghani, or Pakistani receives. But many of those killed in The War on Terror were innocent men, women and children. How do you value a life? Based on a person’s skill, or their age, or what they could have accomplished? The answer is that there is no answer, every death is personal (to a family / community), and leaves us wondering “what if”. The U.S. compensates families as best it can for those lost in war (although it can never bring that person back), whole most of the people who had loved ones die at the hands of U.S. soldiers receive nothing and are left trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.

Compared to the human cost, the dollar value of war is relatively straightforward:

“The 2011 study said the combined cost of the wars was at least $3.7 trillion, based on actual expenditures from the U.S. Treasury and future commitments, such as the medical and disability claims of U.S. war veterans.

That estimate climbed to nearly $4 trillion in the update… the costs left out trillions of dollars in interest the United States could pay over the next 40 years.

The interest on expenses for the Iraq war could amount to about $4 trillion during that period, the report said.”

If “The War on Terror” ended today, the bill could total 8 trillion dollars when future interest payments and veterans benefits are considered. To put that in perspective, the U.S. national debt clock currently reads $16.7 trillion. Of all the debt the U.S. government owes, a little less than half of it is due to “The War on Terror” (and one has to wonder how much of the unknown cost of the war is included in the “debt clock” figure, and if that figure should not be adjusted higher as more information on the monetary cost of the war becomes available).

What is less straightforward is the social cost of “The War on Terror”. Since the fighting occurred overseas, everyday U.S. life was generally uninterrupted. Those in the Middle-East were not so lucky:

“Excluded [from the 272,000 to 329,000 estimate] were indirect deaths caused by the mass exodus of doctors and a devastated infrastructure, for example…”

“The war reinvigorated radical Islamist militants in the region, set back women’s rights, and weakened an already precarious healthcare system, the report said. Meanwhile, the $212 billion reconstruction effort was largely a failure with most of that money spent on security or lost to waste and fraud…”

That is not to say that there was no social cost for the U.S. As the above numbers indicate, an estimated 6,500 soldiers died in the war, while an estimated 42,000 more were considered casualties of war. The families of the deceased must be compensated, while those lucky enough to be alive face the challenge of living with a physical or psychological handicap. Those lucky enough to escape with their lives and without injury must still receive the benefits they are entitled to, and these numbers add up over time:

“The report also examined the burden on U.S. veterans and their families, showing a deep social cost as well as an increase in spending on veterans. The 2011 study found U.S. medical and disability claims for veterans after a decade of war totaled $33 billion. Two years later, that number had risen to $134.7 billion.”

As forces are pulled out of Afghanistan, we can only expect that number to rise exponentially. So now that we have a rough idea of the human, social, and dollar costs of war, we must ask ourselves “why did we do this?”  To that question, there is unfortunately no good answer.

The U.S. invaded Iraq in 2001 in response to the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. The rationale behind this invasion was that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction”. Over time, this claim has been proven false.

When France began involvement in Mali, and while President Obama mulls over his options in Syria, it would be prudent to heed this warning (which I have stated before): be cautious of anybody trying to sell a quick and painless military intervention:

“‘Action needed to be taken,’ said Steven Bucci, the military assistant to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the run-up to the war and today a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think-tank.

Bucci, who was unconnected to the Watson study, agreed with its observation that the forecasts for the cost and duration of the war proved to be a tiny fraction of the real costs.

“If we had had the foresight to see how long it would last and even if it would have cost half the lives, we would not have gone in,” Bucci said. “Just the time alone would have been enough to stop us. Everyone thought it would be short.”

Due diligence must be taken more seriously. The estimated dollar costs of war fail to take into account the human and social costs, and even still tend to be overly optimistic. The price of fanning the flames of hatred in Islamic countries has also yet to be fully realized.

Whenever there is a question of domestic spending in the U.S., a long debate ensues, the specter of “moral hazard” is evoked, and quick action rarely takes place (if at all). Why then were our same tax dollars spent so liberally on these unneeded wars?

Is this what President Eisenhower was referring to when he famously warnedwe must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex”? A future where military spending was out of control, where money was spent on defense without proper due diligence while simultaneously taking money away from crucial domestic programs? I would say it certainly is; military spending accounted for 24% of the 2012 Federal Budget (education accounted for 4%). Eisenhower made this famous warning in his farewell address in 1961, yet it seems that over 50 years later we still have not heeded his words.

What we see now is people saying we didn’t know what we thought we knew, both in terms of the duration of the war and the reason for invading in the first place (weapons of mass destruction). Would a misappropriation of trillions of dollars on domestic programs be tolerated? Of course not. We should therefore take this as a lesson learned and reconsider how the U.S. intervenes in foreign affairs.

I have argued for a substantial downsizing of U.S. D.o.D. spending, with some of the money being reallocated to the D.o.S. (and to USAID specifically, to tackle the humanitarian roots of conflict which provide breeding grounds for terrorist activities), and the rest of the money going to underfunded domestic programs (or paying down the deficit).

Other countries do not want our help in the form of military intervention. While the costs of “The War on Terror” were much higher than initially believe, the benefits have been much lower (and in time may prove to be non-existent). The U.S. holds little sway over Iraqi policy since we pulled out in 2011, and recently Afghani President Hamid Karzia has taken up anti-American rhetoric to prove he is not a puppet of the west as the U.S. begins winding down its military efforts in Afghanistan.

Hopefully a lesson (albeit a costly one) has been learned. You cannot impose democracy through war. Democracy must occur organically through a process of empowering the citizens of a country. Less money, spent more carefully through the D.o.S., would go a longer way in achieving the goal of creating strategic regional allies.

We must also work more closely with existing strategic regional allies (in the Middle East, Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia come to mind) and our allies in Europe and around the world, to ensure a multilateral approach is taken when intervening in another country. This would reduce both the high (monetary) costs and  anti-American sentiment associated with unilateral U.S. military intervention. It should also increase the meager benefits that have come to define “The War on Terror” by creating lasting allies instead of simply running costly “babysitting” campaigns.

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