The Price of War
Estimated U.S. cost: $4 trillion| From Explorations | By Susan Seligson
“These wars have been financed mostly by borrowing, so they are like no other war in U.S. history,” says CAS’ Neta Crawford. Photo by Cydney Scott
Neta Crawford hopes to deepen the public’s understanding of the staggering ripple effects—human, economic, and environmental—of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the counterinsurgency efforts in Pakistan. The College of Arts & Sciences professor of political science is the coauthor of a far-reaching study that pegs the cost of these wars to the United States at $4 trillion.
Launched under the auspices of the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College, a center for leadership and public policy, the Costs of War study took more than a year to complete. Crawford, who directed the study with Catherine Lutz, a Brown University professor of anthropology and international studies, says it pooled the efforts of economists, anthropologists, lawyers, and political scientists. Crawford’s scholarship focused on the civilian death toll, which stands at 137,000. The report puts the total war deaths of those in and out of uniform at 225,000, and notes that the conflict in Pakistan has cost as many lives as that in Afghanistan. Since September 11, 2001, the wars have claimed the lives of 6,000 U.S. troops and 2,300 contractors, and the number of displaced Afghans and Iraqis is eight million.
In calculating war costs, the study attempted to go where other studies had not and included estimates of federally funded domestic jobs lost to war spending and data reflecting the post-9/11 toll on Americans’ privacy. For example, a 2006 audit of the FBI found that the agency had collected communications of more than 3,000 people without satisfying even the minimal certification requirements under the USA Patriot Act.
The report even charts the conflicts’ effects on bird migrations and endangered species. One example: U.S. military bases have become lucrative markets for the skins of the exotic snow leopard, peddled by impoverished Afghans despite a 2002 hunting ban on the rare animals.
War bills already paid and obligated to be paid amount to at least $3.2 trillion in constant dollars, and the report concludes that $4 trillion is “a more reasonable” overall estimate. The researchers worked to arrive at verifiable conservative estimates of the wars’ costs in human and economic terms, as well as long-term economic effects that range from lost wages to medical care to veterans’ benefits to homeland security expenditures. As of last fall, the number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans filing new disability claims surpassed 550,000. Less obvious is the environmental toll of the wars, from the dangerous level of toxic dust caused by military base garbage-burning pits to deforestation to fuel consumption.
The report is also startling for its mention of costs that could not be counted, including so-called condolence payments to the survivors of civilians killed in U.S. operations, the costs of CIA-run Predator and Reaper drone surveillance and strike programs in Pakistan, and the portion of the national intelligence budget devoted to the wars. While the director of national intelligence releases its topline figure—the 2011 request was for $55 million—the department does not disclose any budget details, claiming national security concerns.
Crawford and Lutz go beyond damage assessment, offering recommendations for greater transparency and accountability, as well as alternatives to violent conflict. Even in the face of terrorism, war isn’t the only answer, the authors say, citing a Rand Corporation report comparing 268 groups using terror tactics worldwide from 1968 to 2006. Of these, 40 percent were eliminated through intelligence and policing methods, 43 percent ended their violence as a result of political accommodation, and 10 percent ceased violent activities because they had achieved their objectives. Only 7 percent of the groups were defeated militarily.
Bostonia spoke with Crawford, editor of Soviet Military Aircraft and author of Argument and Change in World Politics: Ethics, Decolonization, and Humanitarian Intervention, about the challenges presented by the study, its most surprising findings, and the impact she hopes it will have on decision makers.
Graphic by Joseph Chan
Bostonia: How did the Costs of War study come about?
Crawford: Some scholars began the Eisenhower research project; the mission is to call attention to the role of the military and the effect of taking resources and putting them into the military from other places. Eisenhower spoke of this. We decided the study would commemorate the 50th anniversary of his presidential farewell speech, in which he acknowledged that another war could destroy civilization.
What are some of the ripple effects of wars that can’t be counted?
These wars have been financed mostly by borrowing, so they are like no other war in U.S. history. In every other war we increased taxes, sold war bonds—we paid for those wars in relatively short order. But these wars began in a time when tax cuts just went into effect. By borrowing to pay for them, we have not only an increased deficit, but we have to pay interest. If you pay interest for 5, 10, 20, and more years, it adds up to a sum so enormous we didn’t include it. We put it off to the side because it would overwhelm every other thing. And we didn’t include other ripple effects. We know, for example, that veterans will have to replace prosthetic devices for limbs; there’s an ongoing cost we didn’t include. And we didn’t look at costs incurred by the Red Cross, or NGOs, or hospitals.
In collecting all the data, what costs surprised you?
One of the things is how this war comes home in the higher interest rates that you and I might pay to buy a house. There are significant macroeconomic effects.
Tell us about calculating the civilian toll in these conflicts.
I wrote the sections about civilian killings, and what I wanted to do is describe how it is that people not only die when they’re bombed, but they die because infrastructure is destroyed or because they can’t get health care or vaccinations as a result of that destruction. In political science we call this structural violence. There’s been some effort to quantify this, but you need much more detailed work on conditions prior to war, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One of the things I was trying to get across was that when the fighting stops, the dying continues, and the dying is this indirect debt. Also, when you kill innocent civilians, it creates resistance and promotes insurgency, fueling a semicovert war.
Was there debate about including Pakistan in the study?
I had argued from the beginning that we should include it, and everyone agreed. My reasoning was that the United States thinks of Pakistan as essential for winning in Afghanistan, channeling most of its war material through Pakistan, and U.S. military aid to Pakistan has increased. Pakistan is crucial to thinking about Afghanistan, but it is a war zone in its own right. In Afghanistan, the United States went in with boots on the ground, but in Pakistan it’s attempting to skip that phase, and we have so-called Vietnamization, or indigenization, of that fight. We have military trainers, U.S. equipment, and of course the drone strikes, a novel and rarely spoken about feature of the war.
Would you call your conclusion that these wars cost as much as $4 trillion a conservative estimate?
This could be a high estimate, but we’re pretty confident that what we have is the right order of magnitude. We didn’t even include, for example, the new G.I. Bill.
How does the use of contractors affect war costs?
We had mercenaries in the past, but this use of contractors is beyond that. We have people cooking meals where army privates used to do it, and often these people are paid a greater amount. And there’s a human cost. The people in uniform don’t get a rest from being on patrol or driving trucks, so in the past, when soldiers went to peel potatoes because sergeants saw that they were fatigued, they had that outlet, and now they don’t.
Will the study be updated?
The website will be revised, and we hope to get resources to cover the areas of wars that we couldn’t research appropriately. There are things we still want to know about: for example, we need to know more about the effects of war on gender and gender roles, we need much more research on economic impact, we want to know more about environmental impact and the economic costs of war to U.S. allies. We have a lot of questions.