The True Cost of the War on Terror

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October 17, 2016; Boston Globe

Linda J. Bilmes, a senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard University and coauthor (with Joseph E. Stiglitz) of The Three Trillion Dollar War, offers an update to her 2008 book in this Boston Globe op-ed. After 15 years at war this month (the longest U.S. war), first in Afghanistan and now far beyond Iraq, the War on Terror is estimated to have cost $5 trillion and counting. The total 2015 U.S. federal budget was $3.7 trillion.

Bilmes’s intent is not to necessarily highlight the $5 trillion number, but to ask how the U.S. could have taken that number upon itself with no one discussing it, including and especially the 2016 presidential candidates. The answer is because this “spectator war” is being financed. By selling U.S. Treasury bonds to the world to finance the war debt, it’s for future generations to pay the obligation. The U.S. war debt is rolled into the total U.S. gross national debt of $18.96 trillion (U.S. GDP is approximately $18 trillion).

If these numbers are numbing, that is Bilmes’s point. These numbers should be openly discussed all the time. The cost of deploying one soldier in 2008 was $1 million; today that number is $4.9 million. The U.S. currently owes $1 trillion in lifetime disability compensation to 960,000 veterans.

Not only are most of us not conversant with these numbers, we are also not troubled by them. No one (except our all-volunteer military force) feels the burdens and risks of this war.

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.

One of the political benefits of obscuring the financial cost of the war to the point of invisibility is that the public has no reason to be critical of how the U.S. is prosecuting the war. There are other numbers, the human cost of the war, that most of us would also not readily know: It is estimated that the War on Terror has cost at least 210,000 civilian lives and the lives of 6,800 U.S. soldiers.

It’s difficult for the human mind to make sense of a figure like $5 trillion. The best way to understand the magnitude of this number is to try to imagine what that number might accomplish elsewhere, keeping in mind again that the entire U.S. federal budget is “only” $3.7 trillion. Affordable healthcare? Free college? The nation’s infrastructure? What could that number do to help mitigate existential threats like climate change? Suddenly, anxiety, if not anger, begins to rise when counting the ongoing and seemingly unending cost of the War on Terror.

Of course, this exercise in imagining what $5 trillion could buy is futile—not only is the $5 trillion already spent; it also remains as a debt still to be paid. Bilmes concludes her op-ed with this admonition:

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.

—James Schaffer

  • Janet Reasoner

    You may want to revise this a bit. The GDP figure of $17,946,996.is copied and pasted from the World Bank site the number links to; HOWEVER, it’s misleading in this context. The WB number is in millions. So the correct GDP is that number multiplied by one million. This makes me wonder if you’ve checked all of the other numbers and facts in this article or just copied and pasted them without question, as well. Evena cursory proofread should have caught this particular problem.