The $5 Trillion Wars
Boston Globe October 18, 2016
This October marks 15 years since American troops entered Afghanistan. It was a precursor to the occupation of Iraq and is the longest military conflict in US history. Yet the trillions of dollars and thousands of lives expended in these wars have rated barely a mention in the presidential campaign.
The most recent estimates suggest that war costs will run to nearly $5 trillion — a staggering sum that exceeds even the $3 trillion that Joseph Stiglitz and I predicted back in 2008.
Yet the cost seems invisible to politicians and the public alike. The reason is that almost all of the spending has been financed through borrowing — selling US Treasury Bonds around the world — leaving our children to pick up the tab. Consequently, the wars have had little impact on our pocketbooks.
In earlier wars, the government routinely raised taxes, slashed nonmilitary spending, and sold war bonds. Taxes were raised to pay for the Spanish-American War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and World War I and World War II. Top rates of federal income taxes climbed to 70 percent during Vietnam and to over 90 percent during the Korean War. These policies were all part of an explicit strategy of engaging the American public in the war efforts. In sharp contrast, the George W. Bush administration cut taxes after the invasion of Afghanistan, in 2001 and again, in 2003, when we invaded Iraq. Most Americans pay lower taxes now than they did 15 years ago.
Congress has also managed to avoid painful budgetary choices. Since 2001, Congress has employed a series of so-called “temporary special appropriations” to authorize hundreds of billions of dollars for war spending, bypassing the regular spending process. Despite President Obama’s pledge to end such “gimmicks,” they have continued throughout his presidency. Thus the money appropriated for the post-9/11 wars did not have to be traded off against other spending priorities. The war appropriation also gets far less scrutiny than the regular defense budget. Consequently, the war budget has become a magnet for pet nonwar spending projects that senators and congressmen want to slip in under the radar. As a consequence, the reported war cost per troop deployed has ballooned from $1 million per year at the peak of the fighting in 2008 to $4.9 million today.
Besides ducking the immediate financial burden, most of us are also shielded from the risks and hardships of military service. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were the first major US conflicts fought entirely by an “all-volunteer” military force. Less than 1 percent of the adult US population was deployed to the combat zones — the smallest percentage at any time since the short peacetime period between the two World Wars. Instead, our small volunteer army is supplemented by a large shadow force of private contractors. In Afghanistan, contractors outnumber US troops by 3 to 1, performing critical roles in virtually every area of military activity. More than two-thirds of them are recruited from other countries, including the Philippines and Nepal.
As a result, the post-9/11 conflicts have become a “spectator war,” as Andrew Bacevich of Boston University put it, in which most Americans are neither engaged nor involved.
All of this accounts for the absence of any real political discussion about how we will fund huge costs of the war that are still to be paid — for example, the $1 trillion in lifetime disability compensation that we have awarded to 960,000 recent veterans. Worse, no one is asking whether the current approach in Afghanistan is working. Last month the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, John Sopko, reported that corruption in Afghanistan is far more widespread than before the 2001 US invasion, due to US policies that “unintentionally aided and abetted corruption.” But his investigations get barely a mention in the media.
As long as the cost of the war remains hidden from public view, there is no pressure to reexamine our military strategy. Donald Drumpf says his secret plan is to “ask the generals.” But the Pentagon should be focused on tactics, not on deciding our national purpose. Assuming Hillary Clinton wins, she cannot lead a national conversation unless the public is paying attention.
This will change only if we are obliged to pay for war operations as we go, and to set aside money now to support and care for our veterans in the future. This is not simply about sound fiscal budgetary policy. Rather, it is about shouldering the burden of our wars and, in doing so, being open to learn from our mistakes. We all want to continue to “support our troops.” Sweeping the costs under the carpet is not the right way to do it.
© 2016 The Boston Globe
The long awaited report of the Chilcot Commission was made public on July 6th, after six years of investigation and testimony. The Commission had been strongly criticized for the lengthy delay. (Linda Bilmes spoke to the Chilcot Commission in 2012). However, the findings could not have been more devastating. The main finding of the report is that the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was NOT NECESSARY .
Key conclusions | The Iraq Inquiry
- There was “no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein” in March 2003 and military action was “not a last resort”
- The UK “chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted”
- Tony Blair’s note to George Bush on July 28, 2002, saying UK would be with the US “whatever”, was the moment Britain was set on a path to war
- Judgements about the threat posed by Iraq’s WMD “were presented with a certainty that was not justified”
- Tony Blair told attorney general Lord Goldsmith Iraq had committed breaches of UN Security Council resolution 1441 without giving evidence to back up his claim
- Ministry of Defence was “slow” to react to clear need for better equipment and it was not clear whose job it was to do so
- Planning for post-war Iraq was “wholly inadequate”
- Blair government “failed to achieve its stated objectives”
- The legality of the war can only be decided by an international court
Read the executive summary here along with the statement of Sir John Chilcot:
AND SEE THE GRAPHICS
October 27, 2015: In a wide-ranging interview with Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now”, Joe Stiglitz was asked about the costs of the wars. He notes that our estimate of the number of veterans who would be disabled in some way was far too low — its now 50% of those who served qualifying for lifetime disability benefits. This adds another $1 trillion to our estimates – leading to a minimum of $4 trillion for war costs, but probably much higher.