March 6, 2008 – A certain reverence is required just to approach the book’s title: “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict” by noted economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes. I can see why they understated it.
The pulse of outrage beats behind the cold calculations in this concise volume, newly published by Norton. We’re not just “losing” this tragic, arrogantly unplanned war in the conventional sense of failing to subdue our enemies — we’re committing slow socioeconomic suicide with its open-ended pursuit, losing, as we plunge recklessly into debt over it, our options, our ability to choose. We’re losing the future.
“Because of the war, the national deficit is $2 trillion higher,” Stiglitz, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2001, told me. “At 5 percent interest, that’s $100 billion a year, year after year after year — forever!”
Such numbers are beyond the scope of the human imagination. To begin putting the war into financial perspective, Stiglitz suggested that we need a new unit of account: “Think of what things would cost in terms of hours, days, weeks of fighting.”
For instance, he said, “Three years ago we had a financial crisis with the Social Security system. For one-sixth of an Iraq war, you could have fixed Social Security for the next 50 to 75 years.”
Or how about health insurance for children? Remember when President Bush vetoed a bill to expand it? “We’re talking about days of fighting in Iraq,” Stiglitz said.
Or, hmm, what about the fact that suddenly one of every 150 children is being diagnosed with autism? The cost of serious research on this issue? “Four hours of an Iraq war!”
(Note: The American Friends Service Committee has a Web page devoted to the Iraq war as a unit of account, at afsc.org/cost/banners.htm.)
Before we begin a serious waltz with the current war numbers that Stiglitz and Bilmes force us to confront in their book, let’s ponder some far easier stats. Remember Gulf War I? We drove Saddam out of Kuwait, racking up huge kills in the process and sustaining a mere 148 of our own dead and another 467 injured. Combat operations lasted a month. What’s more, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait paid for most of it — it was practically a free war.
Except, as Stiglitz and Bilmes point out, in the aftermath of this quickie, yellow-ribbon-festooned war, vets started getting sick — started dying — of mysterious maladies that came to be called Gulf War Syndrome. Some 17 years later, “the United States still spends over $4.3 billion each year paying compensation, pension and disability benefits to more than 200,000 veterans of the Gulf War,” they write. “We have already spent over $50 billion in Gulf War I disability benefits.”
Almost two decades later, our tax dollars are still disappearing down the gaping maw of this monthlong war. Now, consider that the current Iraq war is five years old this month and counting (John McCain is ready to go at it for another hundred), and we’ve been in Afghanistan so far for six and a half years. The secret and terrible costs of these wars are growing, growing, growing; and they are exponentially greater than the still enormously expensive, and forgotten, Gulf War I.
Just the cost of care for physically and emotionally injured vets for these two protracted wars — in which our GIs are being forced to return for two, three and even more tours of duty — will run, the authors estimate, to more than $700 billion. And, they note, the care the government refuses to pay for doesn’t simply disappear as a cost. It falls on the families themselves. Someone pays it, so it’s part of the total.
Stiglitz and Bilmes do more than ferret out the operational, medical and other war costs hidden in various parts of the national budget. When they also factor in reasonable estimates of the macroeconomic costs (including interest on our staggering debt, the war-triggered increases in the price of oil), they are forced to add another $2 trillion to the cost of the war.
When they press on with their analysis and begin calculating the global costs as well — including such arcane and disconcerting calculations as the value of an Iraqi life figured, in terms of lost income generation, at 7 percent of an American life — suddenly there’s another $6 trillion. Add it up, if you dare, and you wind up in the neighborhood of $11 trillion. Helluva neighborhood.
But there’s more to the book than numbers. The authors are clearly aware that to a certain extent they are calculating the incalculable: the value of our lost national credibility (“We have become toxic”); the value of human life; the value of shattered hopes. For instance, “The majority of Iraqi children are not attending school,” they note at one point.
The authors move on, but this is where I’ll stop. If we truly face up to what we’ve done, we’ll never go to war again.
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