Research on Cost of War cited in British Newspaper

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Recently, Linda Bilmes spoke at the prestigious Hay-On-Wye Festival in Wales, UK. The following is an excerpt from this article, written shortly after Bilmes’ keynote address.

The Guardian (UK)
May 25

It’s shaming to have to come to an American to get the most probing analysis of the cost of Britain’s involvement in Iraq. …

Here at Hay we had Linda Bilmes, a former senior official in the US Department of Commerce, telling us that it was “striking” how the British government had concealed the war’s cost, and was still hiding it.

Of course, the Bush administration has done the same. Bilmes and co-author, Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel prize-winning economist, were discussing their book, the Three Trillion Dollar War. Some of their key data had come from searches done under the Freedom of Information Act, Bilmes said. She urged British journalists to use the same approach in the UK. The British government had admitted to a cost so far of £22,000 millions, but the true cost was much higher. The difficulty was that no figures were given on how much of the Treasury’s special reserve funds go to the war.

The New York Times, May 21
Timothy Egan

Landing in Seattle after a long flight from Texas, I was about to join the exit scrum when the pilot informed us there were five soldiers on board, ending a three-day odyssey home from Iraq. Could we let them pass?

What followed was prolonged applause by all, and a startling reminder to some – oh, are we still at war?

Not only still at war, but deeper than ever. It was one thing for the Iraq war to pass an inglorious five-year landmark in March, longer than any other American conflict except the Vietnam War. But the cost now looks like it will exceed all wars except World War II — with a price tag that could near $3 trillion.

The Iraq war has already cost twice as much, in inflation-adjusted dollars, as World War I, and 10 times as much as the Persian Gulf war, according to a new book by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes. This is in addition, of course, to the more than 4,000 American lives lost, 30,000 wounded and the psychic blows that will ripple through every town that sent a young person off to fight.

Yet, for its prolonged clutch on our treasury and blood, no war as been so out-of-sight, so stage-managed to be painless and invisible. We’re supposed to shop, to spend our stimulus checks, to carry on as if nothing has happened — or is happening. Every now and then we get to rise at a stadium or pause on an airplane. Some sacrifice.

It would have been more fitting for us on that plane to stand aside while a flag-draped coffin was unloaded. At least then, we would get a moment to wonder what it’s like to put a 19-year-old son in a grave, to lose a sister, a spouse, to see war as something more than a parlor game of neo-cons.

In a democracy, wars should be felt by the decision makers — all of us. It starts at the top.

So, in 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt said, “This will require, of course, the abandonment not only of luxuries but of many other creature comforts.” President Bush made a sacrifice – he gave up golf as an act of solidarity with families at war. The man who has probably taken more vacations than any other American president, who goes on showy mountain bike rides while his Veterans Administration shamefully mistreats broken warriors, who cut taxes while burdening a generation with this overseas cancer, is at ease with his conscience.

“I don’t want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander in chief playing golf,” he said in a bizarre interview with Politico last week. “And I think playing golf during a war sends the wrong signal.”

He then went on, in the same interview, to do his imitation of Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies. No wrong signal there.

In every way, this president has tried to hide the war. The press chafes because photos of flag-draped coffins are forbidden. But that’s nothing compared to how this administration is trying to turn the public’s eyes away from the pain of the people who feel it most directly, the soldiers and their families.

Suicide rates among returning veterans are soaring. And the administration’s response? Cover up the data. An e-mail titled “Shh!” surfaced earlier this month from Dr. Ira Katz, a top official at the V.A. The note indicated that far more veterans were trying to kill themselves than the administration had let on. It speaks for itself.

“Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see,” Katz wrote, in a note not meant for the general public. “Is this something we should address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles upon it?”

Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat of Washington, who has made veterans affairs her specialty, was furious. “They lied about these numbers,” Murray told me. “It breaks my heart. Soldiers tell us that they were taught how to go to war, but not how to come home. You hear about divorces, binge-drinking, post-traumatic stress, suicide. And the reaction from the president is part of a pattern from the very beginning to show that this war is not costly or consequential.”

Murray is the daughter of a disabled World War II veteran. During her college years, while other students were protesting, she volunteered at a veterans hospital. The odds are, she said, at least one of those five soldiers we applauded on my return plane will suffer severe mental trauma from the war. A recent Rand Corporation study said as much, noting that that 300,000 veterans who served in either Iraq or Afghanistan are plagued by major depression or stress disorder.

“Look what we do when there’s a natural disaster — we show the pictures of the victims and open our hearts,” said Murray. “President Bush should do the same thing with the war.”

But that would require bringing out in the open something that has been hidden since the start of this long war — the truth.

By Linda J. Bilmes and Joseph E. Stiglitz

One of the sharpest distinctions between the Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls is their stand on increasing educational benefits for veterans. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton support new legislation that would boost college benefits to levels comparable with the original GI Bill of Rights, enacted more than 60 years ago. They argue that our troops deserve this investment and that the cost – at $3-4 billion annually – is less than the US spends on combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in a single week.

The original GI Bill enabled 8 million returning World War II veterans to afford an education. The law was simple and democratic: all troops who had served for at least 90 days and received an honorable discharge were eligible. The benefits paid for tuition, lab fees, books, vocational training, housing and a living stipend. Dependents of servicemen killed in action could also qualify. Historians have written about how the bill “reinvented” America after the war – making it possible to cope with the flood of demobilized young men who would otherwise have been desperately looking for work. The bill had far-reaching implications for the country: the number of people earning college degrees tripled; private elitist colleges and universities were forced to open their doors to minorities, Catholics and Jews, and American higher education became a gateway to the professions for the whole population instead of just a finishing school for the upper classes. In the 11 years following the passage of the bill, the GI bill had produced 450,000 engineers, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 25,000 dentists and a multitude of other professionals.

The GI bill also provided a big shot in the arm for the US economy. A study by the congressional Joint Economic Committee in 1988 calculated that the US economy grew by $7 for every $1 invested in veterans’ education. This “multiplier” boosted the economy nationwide: educational institutions all over the country expanded, built new dormitories, classrooms and housing for students. Newly educated GIs bought homes (using GI bill housing loans) which laid the groundwork for turning the US into a home owning society.

Veterans who served in Korea and Vietnam were also entitled to decent educational benefits. But the troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan today get a very raw deal. The soaring cost of education combined with a watering down of the benefits means that current veterans cannot even cover tuition fees at state colleges, let alone books and general living costs. The maximum education benefit today is supposed to cover 70% of tuition at a state institution. In practice the system has so many obstacles that most veterans cannot even obtain this. Each serviceman or woman has to pay a $1200- $1800 nonrefundable contribution when they join the military. But 30% never use any of the benefits – so the government pockets $230 million from enlistees without providing anything in return. Second, National Guards and Reservists – despite having contributed one-quarter of the fighting force in Iraq and Afghanistan – are not eligible for many of the benefits. Third, the application process is protracted and bureaucratic: more than 118,000 veterans are waiting for their education claims to be processed by VA.

The bill before Congress would cover full tuition and fees at state universities for those who have served at least 3 years, together with a modest cost-of-living allowance – essentially tripling the level of benefits. The bill would also insert some common-sense changes into the system, including allowing veterans to pay the opt-in fee over 2 years instead of one, and expanding eligibility for Guards and Reservists.

The proposal has attracted widespread bipartisan support. But Senator McCain has joined with the White House and the Pentagon to oppose the bill. Their main objection is that the measure is expensive, and would hurt our ability to retain experienced troops.

This argument – like many of our policies on Iraq — is completely myopic. We know that the number one reason young people sign up for the military is the educational benefits. The military is spending $20 billion this year on recruiting, yet even so it is obliged to accept 12% of new recruits with criminal records and 20% who lack a high school diploma in order to meet its recruiting goals. Boosting educational benefits would do more than any other single measure to increase the quantity and quality of military recruits – which is a prerequisite to retaining them in the long run.

Second, the revised GI Bill would help combat the epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression among Iraq veterans. Already some 120,000 Iraq and Afghan veterans have been treated for mental illness including 68,000 suffering from PTSD. One of the best treatments is to offer a way of integrating troops back into society and education benefits are an effective way to achieve this. The $4 billion price tag is low in comparison to the cost of medical care and disability compensation that would otherwise be paid out each year to these veterans.

Third, a new GI bill is exactly the type of measure we need to combat a deepening economic recession. Unlike money spent in Iraq, money spent on veterans’ education benefits goes straight back into the US economy here at home. During the past 20 years, the gap between the earnings of the college educated and those without a high school education has widened substantially. This means that the economic return from providing education benefits will be even bigger than it was sixty years ago.

The money we spend on a new GI bill should be considered a cost of war. But unlike most of what we are spending, this amount will be repaid many times over.

Linda Bilmes (whose father attended college on the GI Bill) and Joseph Stiglitz (winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics) are co-authors of “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict”.

The Nation article on Military Recruitment

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Dollar-Driven Recruitment
By Allen McDuffee

April 10 was a telling day for military recruitment in Washington, even if the words “military recruitment” were barely uttered.

The end of two days of intense Congressional testimony from General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, a speech from George Bush and testimony from Defense Secretary Robert Gates in front of the Senate Committee on Armed Services triangulated the point we subconsciously knew all along. The troops aren’t coming home.

They informed us that troop levels in Iraq won’t drop to 100,000 by the end of the year, that Petraeus will have “all the time he needs” to contemplate additional withdrawals and that there would be a reduction in tour time from fifteen to twelve months for those deployed in the future–not an offer for the troops currently engaged, many of whom are in Iraq or Afghanistan for their second, third or fourth tour.

Calculating this imbalanced equation of maintaining troop levels while reducing tour duration should have led to the question, Where will the troops come from? Instead, this three-front assault kept media and Congress primarily focused on the ethics of withdrawing from Iraq–an argument the Bush Administration is much more comfortable having than one on the human costs of invasion and occupation.

In the midst of that April 10 speech, Bush boasted that “recruiting and retention have remained strong during the surge.” Of course he neglected to mention how the Army, because of low numbers of new recruits, was forced to refashion its enlistment criteria over the course of the last few years, allowing them to say at this moment that they were meeting their 2008 recruiting goals of 80,000 in the active Army and 26,500 for the Army Reserve.

Read more here.

New York Times editorial on veterans cites Three Trillion Dollar War

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May 11, 2008
The Suffering of Soldiers

Several years into a pair of wars, the Department of Veterans Affairs is struggling to cope with a task for which it was tragically unready: the care of soldiers who left Afghanistan and Iraq with an extra burden of brain injury and psychic anguish. The last thing they need is the toxic blend of secrecy, arrogance and heedlessness that helped to send many of them into harm’s way.

“Shh!” said the e-mail in February from Dr. Ira Katz, head of mental health services for V.A., to a colleague. “Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?”
Dr. Katz’s hushed-up figure was nowhere near the number he gave to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee last year; he said there had been 790 suicide attempts in all of 2007, and denied there was a suicide epidemic. The veterans affairs secretary, James Peake, apologized for Dr. Katz’s “unfortunate set of words” and promised more candor and transparency.

Give some credit, anyway, to Mr. Peake for realizing that there is no hope of denying or wishing away this problem. As the economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes made clear in “The Three Trillion Dollar War,” their analysis of Iraq, the medical toll of a war rises in a swelling curve for many decades after the shooting stops. The current suicide figures include a large proportion of aging and ailing veterans of Vietnam. Suffering for that long, on that scale, will not be covered up.

A study by the Rand Corporation last month found that nearly one in five service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, or about 300,000, have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. About 19 percent reported having a possible traumatic brain injury from these bomb-afflicted wars.

Alarmingly, only half have sought treatment, the study found, and they have encountered severe delays and shortfalls in getting care. The V.A.’s inspector general has faulted the agency’s case management of brain-injured veterans, and a federal lawsuit by veterans’ groups in San Francisco seeks to force the V.A. to streamline and improve treatment.

Fortunately, the solutions are clear: more money for mental health services, closer tracking of suicides and more aggressive preventive efforts, more efficiency at managing veterans’ treatment and more help for their families. If this country gave back to wounded troops even a fraction of the commitment and service that it has received from them, they will be well cared for.

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