The Cost of War

Seth Kershner
Spare Change News

The late Howard Zinn, a long-time supporter of Spare Change News, once said: “We do not have democracy in this country when it comes to foreign policy.” While it seems straightforward, in a way almost simplistic, Zinn’s remark remains powerful, ironic (since so much of American foreign policy is promoted as a way to “spread democracy”) and easily verifiable. When was the last time your Senator or Congressperson held a Town Hall meeting to take questions about Iraq or Afghanistan?

What I think Zinn meant was that while there is some room for Americans to participate in a give-and-take with their elected representatives in the domestic sphere, when it comes to foreign affairs — to put it in former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s words — “stuff happens” without any input from the citizens.

So, it should not surprise us to learn that the information voters would need in order to form an opinion on Iraq and Afghanistan is often not easy to track down. For example, During this Great Recession, when Boston-area schools, libraries and housing advocacy groups have had to endure crushing cut-backs, how much money is the government diverting to Iraq?

Costs of War (, the outcome of a year-long collaboration amongst more than two-dozen researchers, provides answers to these kinds of questions. In what amounts to an online account book for post-9/11 foreign policy, the researchers examine three areas where one can accurately measure the costs of war: economic (How much have the wars cost so far?), human (How many have died as a result of the wars?), and social and political (What impact have the post-9/11 wars had on civil liberties?).

On the one hand, the researchers were motivated by a desire to do the work that the Department of Defense and other government agencies were not doing in accounting for the full costs of war. On the other hand, they had to acknowledge and overcome the difficulties of doing such an accounting. As Winslow Wheeler notes in his report, “Unaccountable: Pentagon Spending on the Post-9/11 Wars,” adding up the costs to the Pentagon of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is no simple task. Why? “Because the Pentagon and Congress have been sloppy, inept, and misleading in how they have managed and accounted for” the costs of war. The figure Wheeler finally settles on — almost $2 trillion from 2001 to 2011 — has to be considered the most accurate estimate available at this time.

If the U.S. were not at war, what could have been done with all that money? Anita Dancs, an economist at Western New England College and a Costs of War collaborator, told me in an email that “based on ‘fair market rent’ nationally, for every $1 billion we spend on war annually, we could provide housing for more than 80,000 families for a year.”
Recall Wheeler’s estimate on the economic costs of war: $2,000,000,000,000. Why aren’t we converting this into housing the homeless? (For a possible answer, refer to Zinn quote at the beginning.)

Project co-director Catherine Lutz, an anthropologist at Brown University, was most surprised by what she found while researching the human costs of war. “It surprised me that no one before had ever investigated how many in uniform had died,” she told me during a telephone interview. “From following the stories all along, I knew there had to be an incredibly high death toll among the Iraqi and Afghan police and military but the numbers I came up with were shocking.” As of April, according to Lutz, almost 10,000 Iraqi military and police forces and another 9,000 of their Afghan counterparts had been killed in action. Lutz thinks that these figures put the lie to American pundits’ claims that so-called “host country” forces have not been pulling their weight in war.

I have followed Lutz’s work ever since reading her award-winning study of the domestic costs of militarism in Homefront A Military City and the American 20th Century (2001, Beacon Press). She has more recently studied the rise of local resistance movements to U.S. military bases abroad. In The Bases of Empire (New York University Press, 2009), which Lutz edited, she brought together the testimony of anti-base activists from the Philippines, Europe, Turkey, and Latin America. I asked her if she felt that her work with the Costs of War project marked a return to the interests that drove her earlier work.

“Yes, in the sense that we have put most of our effort in to detailing a lot of the domestic effects of war and militarism.” After some consideration, she then added: “It’s in one way unfortunate that we didn’t get to document more of the costs of war that are borne by the people in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the data just isn’t there.”

“The other thing that surprised me,” Lutz continued, “was how little we know about the indirect costs of war: the biological and health effects of displacement and degraded water and sewer and electrical utilities, all the things that double or treble the number of people who die from violence. It’s disturbing to me that there haven’t been people paying attention to this, to adding that all up.”

Those who would like to see more democracy in American foreign policy, those who would like to see more housing units built and fewer bombs dropped, should be grateful to the researchers who came together for Costs of War. Now that people are adding it all up, hopefully there will be more who will pay attention and push for democracy in foreign policy.

SETH KERSHNER is a contributor to Spare Change News.

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