The most expensive thing you’ve ever bought

HOW MANY tax dollars are being used up to fund the destruction and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan? The answer to this question is not found in the White House checkbook or in open discussion in the halls of Congress or on a corporate-sponsored news broadcast. The true cost was assembled by the skillful sleuthing of a Nobel Prize-winning economist and his associate. At the bottom of one of the longest and bloodiest receipts in U.S. history is a number that is truly hard to grasp. The Three Trillion Dollar War, by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, assembles the balance sheet for what is becoming the most expensive thing that you’ve ever bought.

While it is difficult to quantify immense human suffering, the estimated budgetary cost of the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan is $3 trillion. This number is so large that it is difficult to comprehend. The best way to understand the implications of $3 trillion may be to look at what the money could have bought instead of the destruction of two countries. The book cites numbers from the National Priorities Project. Just $1 trillion could have provided 43 million four-year scholarships at public universities so that millions of students like myself are not burdened with tens of thousands of dollars of debt. How about—instead of placing millions of children at risk of deadly disease and malnutrition as the U.S. government has done—using $1 trillion to provide health insurance for 530 million children?

But is it really $3 trillion? Actually, it could be much more than that.

This number comes from taking the current cost of official war expenditures, which is at $645 billion, along with several conservative estimates of other costs. These include expenses not included in the war-funding bills passed each year, such as benefits for hundreds of thousands of veterans, funds for military recruitment, private contractors, their full insurance and death benefits, and the interest on the debt amassed to pay for everything.

In calculating this total, the authors created two scenarios: one, a “best case” with complete withdrawal of all but 55,000 non-combat troops by 2012, and another, deemed “realistic moderate,” which would end with 75,000 combat troops by 2012. These are both conservative estimates that exclude certain costs, and the $3 trillion estimate is generated as a sort of average between them.

The book does an excellent job of describing the difficulties that veterans experience trying to get benefits—in addition to the cost. The system is underfunded and understaffed, with a six-month waiting period for benefits that can prevent returning veterans from reentering society on a solid footing. This is the period when soldiers with mental health problems are most at risk for suicide and homelessness. In fact, 38 percent of veterans treated so far have had a mental health condition, an unprecedented number.

One thing not included in the budget, because the U.S. government pays nothing towards it, is the amount of suffering and sacrifice that families of disabled veterans experience. It is estimated that in 20 percent of families with injured vets, someone has to give up employment to become a full-time caretaker. This cost and others, such as the quality of life that is lost, and injury compensation and health care beyond what is covered, fall disproportionately on the working class and account for at least $415 billion more.

This is not to mention the total effect of the war on the U.S. economy. Oil prices have soared since the onset of the war, and this has had a serious impact on the cost of essential goods like food and fuel while reducing consumption of other goods. Taking just $35 per barrel of the increase to be attributed to the war and calculating through to 2015, the direct cost is more than $1.6 trillion to the U.S. economy. The rise in fuel and food prices has had the greatest impact on workers and the poor, since these necessities take up a disproportionate share of ordinary people’s incomes.

All this damage truly pales in comparison to the devastation of Iraq. Its people are dying—or struggling to survive—its infrastructure is in ruins, and its economy leaves anywhere from 25–40 percent of people unemployed. If the financial value of injury and loss of life resulted in reimbursement based on the formula used for Americans by insurance companies and government agencies, Iraqis would be owed $8.6 trillion dollars.

After providing this skillful indictment of our government’s skewed priorities, rank incompetence and seeming endless corruption, Stiglitz and Bilmes end up recommending a list of reforms that seem wholly inadequate because they do not challenge the root cause of the war. Instead, the suggestions are aimed at increasing the efficiency and transparency of the process of war making. While it would be great to see the problems with veterans benefits resolved to provide seamless and total coverage, there is no reason to support the authors’ implicit assumption that it is legitimate for the working class to ever again fight wars for U.S. imperialism.

The burden of this war is enormous without even assigning a dollar amount, but when it is done we can understand even more explicitly our collective interest in ending this war for oil and empire and putting our resources where they are needed most.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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