A Reckoning

The Price Tag for America's Wars

Republican lawmakers have declared that President Barack Obama’s new health-care law will literally bankrupt the nation, driving small businesses into ruin and millions of Americans into penury. And yet despite its continuing economic woes, the United States remains the richest nation in the world, with an annual GDP (currently in the range of $15 trillion) three times greater than the world’s next largest economies, China and Japan.

How is it, then, that the world’s most prosperous nation—a nation that spends more each year on its pets ($45 billion) than the entire GDPs of 116 countries—should find itself unable to provide decent health care at affordable rates to some of its poorest citizens without risking insolvency and a crisis of apocalyptic dimensions?

In one sense, the Republican Party is surely right: the United States cannot afford the new health-care law, which is expected to cost $1 trillion over the next decade—nor Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, nor any other program of protection against the ravages of unfettered competition—if we are unwilling either to raise taxes or to begin the long and painful task of transforming our permanent war economy. It is time for a reckoning. Well into the eighth year of the occupation of Iraq, it behooves us to take stock of what the “war on terror” has cost us. Doing so may help put the price of universal health care into clearer economic and moral perspective.

To begin, a review of some facts and figures. The federal budget for 2010 is about $3.5 trillion. Of this amount, $2.2 trillion consists of “nondiscretionary” spending, or items that must be paid for by prior law, including Social Security ($695 billion), Medicare and Medicaid ($743 billion), and interest on the national debt ($164 billion). These costs are all expected to rise exponentially in the coming years as the baby-boom generation enters retirement. The remaining $1.3 trillion of the federal budget is not mandated by prior law but disbursed according to our elected officials’ priorities. This is the government’s “discretionary spending.” Of this amount, about $534 billion will be given in 2010 to the Department of Defense and another $55 billion to Veterans Affairs. Defense spending does not include, however, the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, counted as separate items in the budget under the category of “contingency operations.” In 2010 alone, the wars are slated to cost taxpayers an additional $205 billion, including $76 billion in supplemental spending for 2009 expenses. And the 2011 budget, which increases the DOD’s base budget by $20 billion and the budget for the wars by another $30 billion, already includes a $33 billion supplemental request to cover 2010 war costs.

Even excluding “black operations,” whose budgets are kept secret from the public but nearly doubled in the Bush years to an estimated $32 billion, as well as other programs with strong military overlays (such as NASA and the Department of Homeland Security, whose annual budget has grown to $43 billion), and leaving out the supplemental war spending this year that will appear only on next year’s books, military-related spending in 2010 will total well over $700 billion—approximately 55 percent of all discretionary spending. The United States will spend nearly as much this year on its military as the rest of the world combined; and America together with its NATO allies will account for about 70 percent of global military spending.

In historical perspective, it is true that the United States will spend a good deal less on the military this year—as a percentage of its GDP—than it did in the 1950s through the 1980s. Yet this apparent decrease, as critics have pointed out, reflects primarily the massive growth in the overall U.S. economy. In fact, defense spending, measured per capita and adjusted for inflation, will be higher in 2010 than at any time since World War II, including the peak spending years of the Reagan era. In constant 2005 dollars, more of America’s treasure will go to the military this year than in any previous year in history except for 1945—a year in which the United States found itself fighting pitched battles against two global superpowers in two theaters while also serving as the effective arms factory of both Britain and the Soviet Union.

These figures do not begin to capture, however, the true costs of the war in Iraq—a war that began with a “carefully orchestrated campaign of misinformation” by the Bush administration, which “led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses.” Such were the conclusions reached by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, which recorded 935 false statements about the Iraq threat made by President George W. Bush and seven of his top officials in the two years prior to the invasion. As for the dollar expense of the war, before the bombs began to fall, the White House predicted a rapid victory and the establishment of a thriving democracy at a cost of at most $60 billion to U.S. taxpayers. Even this, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told members of Congress, would be quickly recovered from the grateful Iraqis through postwar oil revenues. The war came, and five years later the Congressional Budget Office reported a running tab of over $691 billion, for an average of $93 billion a year.

The Bush administration chose to finance the war through heavy borrowing at high interest rates, primarily from the Chinese and Japanese governments. Between 2000 and 2005, the U.S. debt to China alone tripled from $71 billion to $242 billion. This war-related debt does not appear as military or war spending in the federal budget but rather is subsumed in the total national debt, which by the end of 2008 stood at nearly $11 trillion—an increase of $4 trillion from when Bush took office and the greatest deficit spending of any president in American history. And yet even as the Bush administration borrowed hundreds of billions of dollars from other nations at high interest rates to finance the war, it enacted what it proudly described as the greatest tax cut in history. As a result of the $1.35 trillion eleven-year “tax relief” measure passed by Congress in 2001, the average after-tax income of the wealthiest 1 percent of American households rose in 2004 to $868,000—an increase of $146,000, or 20 percent, in a single year.

A large part of the billions in borrowed foreign capital, meanwhile, was paid out in no-bid contracts to private corporations such as Texas-based Halliburton (formerly led by Vice President Dick Cheney), its subsidiary KBR, and Blackwater, the for-profit paramilitary outfit later implicated in atrocities against civilians and also linked in 2009 to a secret assassination program, run by the CIA at a cost of unknown millions of dollars, free from congressional oversight. The Pentagon tasked these private corporations with a wide array of jobs historically performed by the military, ranging from food services to construction to armed security details. Within four years of the invasion, an unprecedented 180,000 private contractors (not including subcontractors) were working for the U.S. government in Iraq at U.S. taxpayer expense.

This privatization of war—which placed more private contractors than troops in Iraq—was spearheaded by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and hastily pushed through the offices of the Pentagon without any public debate. It was justified by the administration on the grounds that corporations created to maximize profits for shareholders are more efficient at managing money and resources than institutions created to serve the common trust. Indeed, the benefits to shareholders were impressive. Halliburton’s stock value rose nearly sevenfold from $8.70 in 2001 to $58 by August 2005. But the benefits of privatized war for taxpayers were less clear. A 2009 report by DOD auditors found that KBR alone was responsible for “a majority” of $13 billion of war-related fraud, waste, vanished equipment, and unsupported costs.

In their 2008 book The Three Trillion Dollar War, Nobel laureate and former World Bank chief Joseph E. Stiglitz and Harvard economist Linda J. Bilmes meticulously calculate still other hidden costs of President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Even by an “excessively conservative” calculation, they write, Americans can expect to pay $3 trillion for the war over the coming years (they think $5 trillion is a more likely figure). The cost of deploying a single soldier to Afghanistan for one year, the Pentagon comptroller estimates, is $500,000. In 2005—two years before the “troop surge” began in Iraq—the Pentagon reported that more than one million troops had already fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, the biggest costs of the war have yet to be seen by Americans. They will arrive in the form of things like replacing military equipment for many years to come (used up or destroyed in the desert sands at six times the peacetime rate), the GI Bill, and provision of medical care and benefits to tens of thousands of wounded and maimed soldiers for the rest of their lives.

There is something morally degrading, of course, in speaking of the costs of war in terms of dollar figures. The true costs of the war are the human costs. These include the killed, wounded, and psychologically traumatized U.S. soldiers and their grieving families. They also include Army suicides, which began to climb in 2005, surpassing civilian suicide rates in 2008 for the first time since the Vietnam War, and reaching an all-time high at the end of last year. Suicides among discharged veterans, according to a 2007 study by CBS News, have meanwhile reached “epidemic” levels: an average of eighteen veterans per day, twice the national rate.

Then there are those human costs of the war that remain unspeakable, perhaps unthinkable, among both Democratic and Republican politicians. I’m referring to the 2 million Iraqi refugees (10 percent of the country’s 2003 population) now living in other countries; the 1.5 million internally displaced persons, whose situation the UN High Commissioner for Refugees calls “deteriorating”; and the conservatively estimated 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths directly caused by the invasion and the sectarian violence it unleashed. Relative to population size, this level of loss would be the equivalent of about 29 million American refugees forced to flee to Canada and Mexico, and a million Americans killed.

In addition, the tremendous social costs of the war for Americans are felt daily in a host of complex, interrelated, and pernicious ways that are very hard to quantify (including domestic crimes and leaps in spousal abuse and violence against women), but that appear most starkly in the form of opportunities forgone. Every dollar spent on the military is a lost opportunity to tackle poverty, hunger, and social inequality. President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican and a military man, grasped this more clearly than any subsequent American president. As he said in a speech in 1953, “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 not clothed.” Living with a permanent war economy, he asserted, “is not a way of life at all, in any true sense,” but “humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

A few additional figures will suffice to outline the contours of the theft—to use Eisenhower’s word—the government committed when it chose to launch the $3 trillion war. In 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, one out of every eight Americans lived below the poverty line (defined as $22,025 in income for a family of four), including an estimated 25 percent of children in cities and 22 percent of children in rural areas. Many millions more live on the edge of poverty. Cross-national statistical comparisons are difficult, but there is widespread agreement that the United States has one of the worst poverty rates in the developed world. (In the twenty-six countries of the European Union, by contrast, 11 percent of children in the mid-2000s were counted as poor.) Also in 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that about 15 percent of Americans were living in a state of low or very low food security. Households with low food security must maintain regular eating patterns through a range of coping strategies, including relying on Federal food assistance programs and local community pantries. Households with very low food security (about 10 million Americans in 2008, up 4 percent from 2007) cannot put adequate food on the table. They live with hunger as an ongoing reality.

Some will argue in the face of these forbidding facts that the Iraq War remains, on balance, a victory for truth and justice, for American security, and for world peace. They will declare that “freedom isn’t free.” That President Bush did what he had to do, on the basis of what we knew at the time, in order to protect American lives. That he understood, as President Obama does not, the necessity of fighting terrorists “over there” in order not to have to fight them “over here,” on American soil. That what is needed is not less military spending, but more.

No amount of evidence will dissuade those who continue to justify the Iraq War and America’s colossal defense budgets in these terms; but more than seven years after the Iraq invasion, we know enough about the choices made in 2002 and 2003 and their consequences to begin a sober moral and spiritual reckoning. All Americans must pay for the costs of the Iraq War and of our profligate military spending, costs that dwarf those of health-care reform. But some Americans must be held to greater account than others for the fact that the war was not merely a strategic blunder, but a human catastrophe of staggering proportions. It was a war of aggression, an unjust war; and those intellectuals outside of government who helped sell it (through their advocacy at conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and through journals like the National Review and First Things) bear a particularly heavy burden of responsibility and, in the language of the Christian tradition, repentance.

In the wake of Iraq, is there the slightest theoretical plausibility left to the notion that preemptive war can ever satisfy the criterion of just cause? Even if there is, there surely can be no doubt that the invasion of Iraq failed to satisfy the criterion of just means; for unjust means of war include not only tactics such as secret “renditions,” “enhanced interrogation,” and the establishment of extrajudicial zones where people can be held without legal rights in perpetuity, but also the squandering of human resources and goods in a war of choice—a war, moreover, in which massive civilian casualties and suffering were a predictable outcome.

Before the invasion, Pope John Paul II warned, unequivocally and prophetically, that such a war of choice “threatens the fate of humanity.” There is every reason to fear the United States has sown seeds of hatred, suffering, waste, and insecurity that will someday return to us in forms of violence we can barely imagine. It may be, as René Girard has recently declared in conversations with Benoît Chantre (published under the title Battling to the End), that we are living in the midst of an apocalypse already set in motion. The horrific violence of fundamentalist terrorists, Girard suggests, is now matched and raised by the violence of the state in an escalating rivalry that threatens life on our planet. In this view, the Iraq War, no less than 9/11, is filled with eschatological meaning, a revelation of what the biblical writers referred to as “the principalities and powers.” In the modern age, the spirit of war has become its own end, so that violence and massive arms spending serve as their own justifiers, without any need for rational explanation or accountability (40 percent of the defense budget, plus the budgets of all intelligence agencies, are kept secret and thus free from democratic control). The preferred term for the “war on terror” among its architects, Andrew Bacevich points out, is “the long war”—a summons to Americans to lay down resources and live in a struggle without end.

Yet cycles of violence can, on rare occasions, be broken through the power of remembrance. This leaves us with some slight ground for hope. If we are not to make the same mistakes again, the costs of our permanent war economy, of the Iraq War, and of the choices that took us there must not be forgotten. Those choices, and the mixture of hubris, fear, idealism, and imperial aggression that concocted them, must be remembered by Americans—even when some semblance of peace and wholeness returns to the land we fragmented more than seven years ago.

 


Related: The War We Can't Win, by Andrew Bacevich
The Cost of Peace, by Joel Hafvenstein
Still Counting: How Many Iraqis Have Died? by Ronald Osborn

Published in the 2010-07-16 issue: 

Ronald E. Osborn is an adjunct professor of international relations at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence and Theodicy (Cascade Books), and Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (IVP Academic).

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