The Costs of War

This March 19th marked the 10-year anniversary of the Iraq War, a debacle so enormous one would have thought its consequences larger here at home. Waged under false pretenses, the war against Iraq destabilized the region and dramatically eroded the United States’ influence and standing in the world, particularly in the Middle East and Central Asia, where it was seen as part of a campaign of aggression against Muslim countries.

The war devastated Iraq, exacting a heavy toll in death and destruction and creating three million refugees. A new study released by Brown University’s Costs of War Project reports the war killed 176,000 to 189,000 people, of whom 134,000 were Iraqi civilians, and has so far cost the United States $1.7 trillion. Add in future medical and disability payments to veterans, and the study estimates the war will cost the United States close to $2.2 trillion. Add in interest payments on the war debt through 2053, and the price tag rises to $4.4 trillion.


These costs have at least temporarily dampened the appetite for military adventurism in this country, though not entirely. Some of the same people who agitated for war against Iraq continue to have a forum and now promote war against Iran. The perverse hostility to Chuck Hagel from his own party during his confirmation hearing to become secretary of defense stemmed partly from his criticisms of the Iraq War, partly from his challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy regarding support for Israel and the need to impose draconian sanctions on Iran in Israel’s defense. The economic war now being waged against Iran calls to mind the ruinous sanctions imposed on Iraq between the first and second Persian Gulf War. The eagerness of some members of Congress to involve the United States in the tar baby that is Syria is even more astounding. Iraq remains such a mess that one would think Congress would be wary of diving into yet another Mideast conflict, especially one likely to be ugly for a very long time.

In mid-March the Pentagon announced plans to expand missile defense along the Pacific Coast. This is to show the North Koreans that we are not to be messed with, to show the South Koreans and Japanese that we will protect them and to show the Chinese that they should rein in their erratic ally. The New York Times article reporting the expansion of the U.S. ballistic missile defense observes that U.S. intelligence officials acknowledge that North Korea is not close to being able to execute a nuclear strike and is unlikely even to try. It also notes their missiles are only 50 percent accurate. The estimated cost of this agonistic display is $1 billion. Given the size of the deficit, this is peanuts, of course. Still, as the saying goes, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

One positive effect of the sequestration created by the impasse over the looming deficit is that the Defense Department is being cut back and this year faces deeper cuts than domestic programs. With military bases and defense projects scattered across the United States to keep everyone united about their necessity, the Defense Department has been an impregnable bastion of vast prodigal spending. Waste on a small scale arouses the ire of ordinary people and Congress alike. Waste on a monumental scale goes by the name “keeping America strong.” Since the United States spends more on defense than the expenditures of the next top-spending 17 countries combined, we can safely assume that the United States is, hands down, the muscle man of the world. Grotesquely so, in fact.

The opportunity if not to starve some of the sacred cows in the U.S. budget then at least to reduce them is the silver lining to sequestration. But pro-Israeli lobbyists and other special interest groups are clamoring to be exempted from the across-the-board budget cuts.

The United States doles out more than $3 billion in aid to Israel every year for the privilege of funding an occupation that everyone else in the world regards as immoral, illegal and provocative and then seeing Israel snub the U.S. request to cease building Jewish settlements on the West Bank. This is a “special relationship” one would think we could do without. At the very least, one might think it would lead us to wonder why we should expect China to be able to control its errant client state when we cannot control ours.

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C Walter Mattingly
5 years 11 months ago
Ms Patterson's essay calls to mind the metaphor of one hand clapping. Because it involves only one hand, no clapping whatever takes place. Here, missing that other required half, no genuine analysis takes place. True, misjudgements and the initial bungling of the occupation phase by the Bush administration led to much suffering by Iraqis and the US alike, unnecessary suffering. Yet to ignore Saddam Hussein, whose name is not so much as mentioned by Ms Patterson in an article that centers on the Iraq war, perhaps better known by the popular moniker extended by the Iraqis who enjoyed his beneficence, as the Butcher of Bagdhad, is to write not so much an analytic essay as to sketch a diatribe.. Although she is not specific, we can assume that by "waged under false pretenses" Ms Patterson references the widely held opinion that Saddam held and had the intent to further develop WMD in the future. The first part of that statement proved false. Yet the facts not disputed are that he sarin gassed a village of his own citizens, that he dammed off the water supply of a segment of his own population to ruin their crops and starve them into oblivion, that he invaded his neighbor unprovoked, that he created the greatest man-made environmental disaster in the history of mankind, that, inspired by Stalin and Roman generals, he decimated the male populations of his own villages, and the like. Nor were his 17 violations of UN resolutions and pot shots he took at US jets attempting to enforce those resolutions imaginary. 83% of Iraqis wanted Saddam overthrown. It was the botched first years of the US occupation, not Saddam's overthrow, to which they took umbrage. The costs of the Iraq war, perhaps as much as two years of Obamian-sized deficits, was indeed very high, as was the loss of 134,000 Iraqis as Ms Patterson references. And had President Bush had competent leaders such as Gates and Petraeus in charge with their sound judgment, they would have been far lower. Sadly, like Lincoln, good generals were initially lacking, yet fortunately they were belatedly appointed and prevented a major civil war by turning the situation around. Nonetheless, by its own admission, the UN-supported sanctions on Iraq, aggravated by Saddam's corruption of the Oil for Food program, resulted in far more Iraqi deaths, perhaps a half a million according to the UN, by itself. And that doesn't include the hundreds of thousands Saddam contributed to the body count. The one hand here is the 134,000 Iraqi dead over the US involvement, which included Al Qaeda and Sadrists fighting the US and Iraqi government troops; the missing hand, the multiples of that figure Saddam and the UN's attempt to control him that would have continued to pile up bodies at a far greater rate had we not replaced the man who so admired Stalin and aped his blood baths. Another question one would pose is why is the US, who under Barack Obama had removed all US combat troops according to the schedule his predecessor had negotiated with Iraq, subsequently viewed more unfavorably by key Middle Eastern countries than the US was at the end of the Bush administration according to the Zogby poll? Could it be due to other factors, such as the threat of values represented by the US and the west, such as women's rights, which conflict with Islamic preferences that women remain virtual chattel and not be allowed to drive cars or obtain the education that enable women such as Ms Patterson to express their viewpoint? And so it goes. While no doubt we as a people have to bring spending on defense under control--for example, how can we afford to pay life-long retirement benefits for 38-year-old retirees for 2/3rds of their adult life--there will be a price to pay for such cutbacks to which Ms Patterson here is either oblivious or negligent. A timely example would be a reference to what was considered Reagan's wasteful "Star Wars" expenditures on ABM systems such as the Aegis missile defense system. Following North Korea's threats to launch a missile against the US, do those living on the West Coast wish that system had not been developed? President Obama has just quietly authorized $2 billion to shore up that ABM system for California and environs. Do Californians want that cut? We do spend a similar amount on Israel each year, and a similar amount on Egypt as well. Is it in our interest to cut one or both? We need to involve both hands to get a feel for these complicated but crucial issues and events. The costs of war have to be considered in relation to the costs of no war.
Brian Nichols
5 years 11 months ago
The author's position would be sensible, if it weren't premised on what seems to be a preference for isolationism. Yes, Iraq was a debacle. Yes, we should be more cautious moving forward in the future. And, yes, some Republican hawks seem to think the extraordinary costs of war (both financial and human) are a worthy price for security. But the author falls into the pit of most people who think that strategic thinking is about ideology, not pragmatism: she views the world through a narrow set of binoculars, missing the forest for the trees. As noted above, she got one half of the picture correct: that Iraq was a catastrophic mistake whose effects linger on into the future. But she gets the second half wrong: that the lesson we learned from Iraq is less engagement with difficult situations abroad. The fact is, the United States is a global superpower. China may be on the rise, but it is still decades away from building the diplomatic and military capabilities it will need to transform itself from economic behemoth into a true global leader. That leaves us. Take, for example, the author's comments on the "tar baby" (by the way, who uses that term in modern day America? I hope the author is at least passingly familiar with the term's racist past) of Syria. An unstable Syria threatens peace in Iraq, Lebanon, and the overall security of the Middle East. Rather than bury our heads and say, "Not our problem," the US has (and should) be taking affirmative steps to provide aid to the Syrian rebels. I'm not advocating for actual intervention - I'm not even sure that providing arms would be wise. But I think that hiding from the problem, as the author would have us do, is an obviously erroneous approach. America after 9/11 was faced with a threat in the form of radical Islam. We faced that threat, and for the most part, have done our job dismantling the dominant international terrorist organization, Al-Qaeda. But now that we're moving into a post-Iraq, post-terror world, the new issues we'll face will be even more complex and likely more difficult to solve. If the lesson we take from Iraq & Afghanistan is isolationism, then I guarantee America's problems at home will become more intractable.
Vincent Gaitley
5 years 11 months ago
The Iraqi War was neither a debacle, nor waged under false pretenses. Though there is plenty to argue about the main objectives were achieved handily. Namely, the gruesome regime was destroyed, the ability to manufacture weapons of mass destruction was destroyed, the threat to Israel, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and ungrateful Iran was destroyed. In the administration of President Clinton the US announced the policy of removing the regime; after 9-11 the regime had to go. It mattered not a wit that Hussein wasn't behind 9-11, he was behind the continuing terror against Israel, and more. Hussein was not in compliance with the agreements that ended the first Gulf War. And so, President Bush said the US would attack Iraq, the Congress concurred. Did you think missiles were buried in the sand to discover? Hussein and his regime were the living weapons, and I shed no tears for them. To suggest that the war "de-stabilized" the region is almost laughable. The region hasn't been stable since before the First World War when it was under the Ottoman Empire--oops, those unhappy occupiers of the same ilk. So what stability do you imagine Ms. Patterson? We support Israel, yes. And send aid, yes. We also support Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, etc. Frankly, we support all the Arab countries of the Middle East with Cash or actual military forces and arms. We even support the Palestinians and their pathetic attempts at self governance. Gee, all this is easier without Hussein, and would be much easier if the Iranians didn't support Syria and the other factions in "Palestine" and Lebanon. Israel is entitled by conquest to hold the lands you claim are occupied. I say, return the West Bank the same moment the Turks return Constantinople to the Greeks (by your judgement occupied since 1453). What's done is done where war is concerned, and I am no cheerleader for battles, but there is absolutely no point to acting like any of this was caused by the removal of Saddam Hussein, or that unexpected outcomes are a surprise. Ask yourself again, why do the Arabs (or Muslims) despise Israel so? If Israel didn't exist, or if we didn't support our "client state" would the Middle East be paradise? I doubt it. Remember that the so called Palestinians are the last unrepentant allies of Adolf Hitler, and the geography of the sands was drawn twice, after WW1 and WW2, and we are paying for British blunders and betrayals far more than any mistakes made by both Presidents Bush and Clinton and Obama. The "Jewish settlements" on the West Bank? Those are Israeli settlements.


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