Military responses to problems have a way of creating all sorts of new problems. The tenth anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy offers an opportunity to reflect on the costs and benefits of the wars the United States initiated against Iraq and Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks. A comprehensive new study, “Costs of War,” sponsored by Brown University (and with which I have been affiliated) suggests that the costs have been wildly out of proportion to the benefits. The study should be required reading for political commentators and national security policymakers across the country. Presidential speechwriters’ inspiring words about the courage of American soldiers and the success of the “surge” notwithstanding, it is hard to find any metric by which one can judge the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as successes. In money and in human suffering, the expense of the wars has been appalling — as the Costs of War website makes clear, with a mixture of snappy graphics and carefully sourced research.
The most obvious damage has been financial. Of all the nation’s wars, only World War II cost the United States more than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although leading neoconservatives from Paul Wolfowitz to Ken Pollack predicted that the war in Iraq would largely pay for itself, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and his collaborator Linda Bilmes estimate that, in funds already disbursed or committed, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have so far cost the American taxpayer a whopping $3.2 trillion — at least.
Given the current preoccupation with the deficit in Washington, it is noteworthy that this $3.2 trillion includes $200 billion in interest payments incurred on these wars since 2001. That’s because the Bush administration decided to pay for these wars by borrowing rather than by taxing the people on whose behalf the wars were fought. If Congressional Budget Office predictions are borne out, the United States will spend another $800 billion in war interest by 2020.
This hemorrhaging of money has collateral effects on the US economy. All that government borrowing makes it harder for consumers to borrow money, pushing payments on the average American’s mortgage up by $600 a year, for example. The wars have also driven up the price of oil, thus magnifying the recession, and they have siphoned off over $3 trillion that could have been invested in the renewal of US infrastructure. Or in jobs: $1 million spent on the military creates 8.3 jobs, whereas $1 million spent on education creates 15.5 jobs and $1 million spent on health care creates 14.3 jobs. If we estimate that the Pentagon spent $130 billion a year directly on the wars, that money, if spent at home instead, would have created 900,000 US jobs in education or 780,000 US jobs in health care.