Friday, February 24, 2012

Costs of War Project

“The Costs of War Project:  Linda Bilmes and Andrew Bacevich,”
Veterans for Peace (Winter 2012).
The following reports are transcriptions
of video talks by Professor Linda Bilmes
and Professor Andrew Bacevich as part of
the Eisenhower Research Group’s Costs of
War Project based at Brown University’s
Watson Institute for International Studies
( The videos are available
at (Professor
Bilmes) and
(Professor Bacevich; the transcriptions
are reproduced here with the permission of
Professor Bilmes and Professor Bacevich.
Professor Bilmes’s full research paper is
available at
caring-us-veterans The Editor.
When you look at the costs of the Iraq
and Afghanistan conflicts, the numbers
published by the government are about
$1.3 trillion, but this is just the tip of the
iceberg because this is just money that has
already been spent. There are other costs
yet to come, one of the most significant of
which is for providing medical care for the
young Americans who have been deployed
to Iraq and Afghanistan. There have been
2.2 million Americans who have fought in
these wars, 1.2 million have come home
and are now veterans. Of these returned
veterans more than 600,000 have been
treated in veteran hospitals and facilities for
a wide variety of ailments, ranging from
mental health disorders, musculoskeletal
disorders, skin disorders, hearing loss, and
other injuries that were either sustained or
exacerbated during their service. These are
costs that we are just beginning to pay right
now, but they are costs that will be growing
over the next 20, 30, 40 years, and they
will add another $600 billion to $1 trillion
in cost just for caring for our veterans over
and above what we’ve already spent.
It is important to look at the full cost of
war because if you use poor accounting,
which is what the government uses, you
don’t get a real sense of what things cost.
For example, if I sell you a car for $20,000
and when you look at the fine print it costs
$40,000, you might have second thoughts
about buying that car. That’s essentially
what we’ve done with the Iraq and Afghanistan
conflicts. Congress has voted on
one quotation of how much it would cost,
but the real cost is much larger. Particularly
in the case of the care for our veterans we
haven’t set aside money to care for them so
we have incurred a long-term obligation to
provide medical care and disability benefits
for our wounded veterans without setting
any provision for how we’re going to
pay for it. What we need is an accounting
system that is based on accrual accounting
that makes transparent the true costs of war.
It’s only with a fully transparent accounting
system and budgetary systems that those in
power can really make decisions because as
of now they don’t actually have the data to
understand how much we’re actually paying
on any military activity. There are two
decisions that have to be made in regard
to every conflict: one is whether to get involved
in it; the second is how to pay for it
if you do. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan,
we have for the first time in United
States history since the revolutionary war
borrowed virtually all of the money that
had been used to pay for these conflicts.
This has added at least $1.5 trillion to our
national debt.
At this point, I think the questions that
we should be asking are whether if not for
the decision to invade Iraq, would we still
be mired in Afghanistan?, would oil prices
be what they are?, would the national debt
be as high as it is?, and would the financial
crisis be as severe as it was? I think arguably
the answers to all four of these questions
is no. The Iraq war has been tragic in
many respects but from a purely economic
sense it has been tragic in that we have
spent money that we could have invested
in education, in our infrastructure, paying
off our debt, and other activities rather than
on activities that have very low benefit economically
speaking and which have added
a great deal to our national debt.
Linda J. Bilmes is the Daniel Patrick
Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy
at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.
She is the author with Professor Joseph Stiglitz
of the book The Three Trillion Dollar
War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict.
There is an immense and urgent requirement
to learn from the experience of the
past decade, to learn why the global war on
terror has been such a costly disappointment,
to learn why the Iraq war produced
results so radically different from what was
expected, to learn why the Afghanistan war
is now the longest war in our history. It
is crucially important to tally up the costs
of war to properly assess the wisdom or
unwisdom of the policies that landed us in
war in the first place. At a bare minimum
we’ve already spent $1 trillion, and there
are reasonable projections that we will end
up spending $2 trillion, $3 trillion, perhaps
as much as $6 trillion. This at a time when
the American economy is not performing
well and when the debt is going through the
Not to be lost of course is the question
of the human costs paid by non-Americans,
not simply by our allies but the people of
Iraq, the people of Afghanistan, and the
people of Pakistan, of Yemen, and many
other places across the Islamic world. We
know that there have been something on
the order of two to two-and-a-half million
Iraqis who are living in exile; a large
number of other Iraqis who have been displaced
from their homes. Were something
like this to happen in the United States, we
would view it as an catastrophe of historic
magnitude. The population displaced by
the global war on terror is, for example,
far larger than the population displaced by
Hurricane Katrina.
Wars create distortions, in our politics,
in our economy. War concentrates power;
war delivers profit to certain people and
imposes sacrifices on others. I think those
distortions have happened in the global
war on terror launched after 9/11. To some
degree, they have been hidden or concealed;
they’ve been hidden in part by our
unwillingness to actually pay for many of
the costs, at least the economic costs of
the war. The willingness to simply go ever
deeper in debt, to shove off the economic
costs onto future generations, that’s one
of the things that actually blind us to the
actual impact of the wars we’ve been conducting.
I would like to see the equivalent of the
9/11 Commission be undertaken and focus
on what we might call the long war: The
Commission to Study the Long War. Public
hearings; testimony by officials, participants
both soldiers and civilians, by people
who lost loved ones on 9/11, by historians
and journalists. There should be a comprehensive
effort to understand what’s
happened since the United States went to
war against so-called terrorism. I think
The Costs of War Project could make an
important contribution to the larger effort to
divine the truth.
Andrew Bacevich is a graduate of West
Point, a retired US Army Colonel, a Professor
of History and International Relations
at Boston University, and author most
recently of Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.

No comments: