The Costs of War

LUCKY SEVERSON, correspondent: Going into the Iraq war, U.S. military officials described the overwhelming force they intended to employ as “shock and awe.” Now it seems that same phrase could be used to describe the overall cost of that war and the one in Afghanistan and the U.S. engagement in neighboring Pakistan. It’s much greater than predicted by the government, according to a report compiled by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. It’s called the Eisenhower Research Project, codirected by Professors Catherine Lutz and Neta Crawford.

PROFESSOR NETA CRAWFORD (Political Science, Boston University): I’ve been looking at the history of war and its conduct for a long time, and what struck me about these three wars most startlingly was how much we don’t know about the costs.

PROFESSOR CATHERINE LUTZ (Anthropology and International Studies, Brown University): The reasonable estimate is approximately $4 trillion for the war, up to today and including some of the future costs that we’re obligated to pay for veterans care.

post01-costsofwarSEVERSON: That estimate includes the cost of the fighting that hasn’t ended yet, but it does not include as much as a trillion dollars just for the interest payments on the war debt through 2020. That’s a unique aspect of these wars.

CRAWFORD: Every other war the US has fought historically has been paid for by revenue, either by raising taxes or selling war bonds. In this war, the United States has almost entirely financed it, paid for it by borrowing.

LUTZ: What surprised me most was this idea that wars have such a long tail into the future of negative effects that we pay environmentally, we pay in human suffering, we pay in financially decades into the future.

President George W. Bush in 2003: “My fellow Americans, major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”

SEVERSON: Originally, the Bush Administration projected the Iraq war would be short and cost approximately $60 billion, clearly off the mark, but historically not unusual.

LUTZ: Governments often try to sell wars to the public and they use, at best, a very, very conservative estimate that will seem the most attractive and reasonable to the public. There tends to be an assumption that force will work, and therefore the job will be done in a couple of weeks or a month.

post02-costsofwarCRAWFORD: That doesn’t usually happen. In fact, it hardly ever happens. You have to really destroy a country to get people to roll over, and in every instance, the duration of war is almost always underestimated.

SEVERSON: To date, more than 6,000 U.S. troops have come home in coffins, although until recently images of the solemn event at Dover Air Force Base have been forbidden. Less well known is the fact that more than 26,000 allied military and security forces, most of them Iraqi or Afghan, have also been killed.

LUTZ: A lot of the information about the war is not available to the American public. For a variety of reasons, the idea that you want to have a sanitized version of the war available for purposes of morale, for the public at large, for the troops.

SEVERSON: Hundreds of aid workers have been killed, others kidnapped. Twenty-three hundred U.S. contractors have died. But what we rarely hear about are the numbers of civilian deaths, and they are considerably greater than military casualties.

CRAWFORD: In Iraq, it’s been about 125,000 people killed, civilians killed. In Afghanistan, the conflict has killed directly about 12,000 to 14,000 civilians.

post03-costsofwarSEVERSON: The hostilities In Pakistan have actually taken more lives than the war in Afghanistan—about 35,000, including civilians and militants. There, the U.S. military relies increasingly on drone attacks. The cost of this operation is classified.

CRAWFORD: These strikes have killed about 2,000 people. We don’t know exactly how many, and we don’t know exactly how many of those people were insurgent targets. Now this is a secret war, but it’s an open secret.

SEVERSON: Another war statistic is the number of wounded. Among U.S. servicemen alone that number is nearly 100,000, and the wounds are often severe.

LUTZ: This war differs from previous wars in a number of ways, and so there are certain kind of injuries and severity of injury that we did not see in previous wars. Survival rates are higher because of battlefield medicine and other factors.

SEVERSON: The insurgents’ use of IEDs or improvised explosive devices has been a major cause of injuries.

LUTZ: So we have a lot more injuries that are, again, whole body impact rather than just a single bullet kind of injuries, and these kinds of traumatic brain injuries that have such long-term negative effects and often interact with some of the other problems, the PTSD and other injuries that have this major effect on the person.

SEVERSON: It’s the hidden costs or unquantifiable costs of war that keep popping up in the Watson Institute report, which was compiled by 20 academics from around the country—the cost, for instance, to our civil liberties. The report says there has been unprecedented surveillance of American behavior and phone conversations that have been allowed through the Patriot Act, which was enacted to fight terrorism at home.

post05-costsofwarLUTZ: It is common to wars in general that they have often expanded the power of the government beyond what they were, what those powers were in peacetime, and that those powers are often maintained past the end of the conflict, and so in line with the idea that wars are never over when we think they’re over, that’s one way in which that statement’s true.

SEVERSON: Then there’s the image of the U.S., which has suffered globally, first after the torture pictures from Abu Ghraib, then the reports of the secret prisons and the detention of hundreds of terror suspects at Guantanamo, many of whom were released after several years.

CRAWFORD: It’s tarnished the image of the United States as a country of the rule of law.

LUTZ: For the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, this has been a nightmare decade.

SEVERSON: The report says the psychological effects for the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have been “massive”—depression, post traumatic stress disorder, broken families, targeted victims and collateral damage of a counterinsurgency war.

post06-costsofwarLUTZ: The number of refugees from these wars have been estimated by the UN at 7.8 million persons in those three countries—Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. And that’s equivalent to the population of Connecticut and Kentucky being forced from their homes.

SEVERSON: The environmental harm is difficult to calculate but significant: damage from spilt fuel, spent munitions, toxic dust, increased rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, which is also showing up in returning troops.

SEVERSON: The report also takes into account what the wars have accomplished—the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the diminished ability of the Taliban, greater rights for women in Afghanistan, the spread of democracy, although Iraq and Afghanistan are listed as two of the world’s most corrupt countries. But like the costs, it will be impossible to measure the benefits until well into the future, and it’s the future that concerns the authors of this report.

LUTZ: The data is out there, but it’s very difficult to access. In some cases it’s not there at all. We need to know what those data are for past conflicts in order to try and project forward to other conflicts. That’s how a democratic society should operate is with full information about what public policy decisions are being made and who’s being asked to pay what. These have been costs that have also been born very unevenly, so the people who are paying the costs, military families, veterans, civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan—those people deserve to have their story told.

SEVERSON: Benjamin Franklin is quoted as having said, “Wars are not paid for in wartime. The bill comes later.” The Watson Institute report says the bills for these wars will keep coming in for as long as 40 years later.

For Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, this is Lucky Severson in Washington.

  • Professor M. Coppola

    I have been teaching college at 3 different institutions for 30 years. My courses include public speaking, mass media and its influences, argument & persuasion, social & political philosophy and other writing classes. I constantly refer to PBS and WHYY when telling my students they need reliable sources of information for references as well as complete information usually scanned over if available at all on other networks.
    This particular story was long overdue and of inestimable value to anyone who wants to knowall the information necessary to understanding where we are now and how we got here as well as being fair to everyone as we remember the events of Spetember 11, 2001.
    I only wish that as everyone mourns the loss of those in America, yhey thought even momentarily about the far worse loss of life sustained by others who have lived with a “9/11″ for 10 years and not just one day. Thank you for your completeness and honesty as we try to heal the whole world and not just America.

  • freedml

    The pictures from Abu Grahib show, at most, prisoner abuse or maltreatment. I don’t know any reputable source (until RENW) which still alleges that the pictures from Abu Grahib are evidence of ‘torture.’ There is also no evidence that the actions of those soldiers were condoned by the chain of command or US policy. If any mistreatment or abuse of prisoners by a few rogue soldiers constitutes a policy of ‘torture’ then every country which holds prisoners (military or not) is guilty of torture.

  • L Morton

    This information needs to be on the front upper fold of newspapers weekly at least, and on the nightly news daily. The general public is ignorant of these facts and findings, and I include myself in that group. I do crave original reporting vs. fast and cheap McNews that most outlets simply re-package, if they even do that. Mostly we get drivel and infotainment. Our press has turned its back on our country by failing to do its true job, choosing instead its new mistress: Wall Street.

    This is but one example of why media consolidation and mega news monopolies are dangerous to the survival of any democracy. We have Congress to thank for approving the systematic dismantling of our most precious resource: a free press. Every year Congress threatens to cut funding for PBS and NPR. They surely would not want this story to become common knowledge.

    Thank you PBS for airing this critically needed story and thank you to the brave researchers that tackled it.

  • Humanist

    Excellent piece of journalism! I just wish we could download the video.

  • Tom Frank Uss

    Help me out here. I am under the impression that Iraq was to help defray the financial costs of the war with the sale of their oil. Thank you.

  • Geri Greene

    One of the lies perpetrated to ‘sell’ us on the acceptable idea of going into battle with Iraq was that the oil we controlled would pay for the war. It sure didn’t work that way, now did it George and Dick!