Trillions on Destructive War

The staggering trillions of dollars that costs related to wars will cost U.S. taxpayers. This money could have gone to so many better uses, from investments in clean energy to quality education and healthcare. It is more than disturbing that the military-industrial complex has such a presence in the world today.

…October marks 15 years since American troops entered Afghanistan. It was a precursor to the occupation of Iraq and is the longest military conflict in US history. Yet the trillions of dollars and thousands of lives expended in these wars have rated barely a mention in the presidential campaign.

The most recent estimates suggest that war costs will run to nearly $5 trillion — a staggering sum that exceeds even the $3 trillion that Joseph Stiglitz and I predicted back in 2008.

Yet the cost seems invisible to politicians and the public alike. The reason is that almost all of the spending has been financed through borrowing selling US Treasury Bonds around the world leaving our children to pick up the tab. Consequently, the wars have had little impact on our pocketbooks.

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.

Congress has also managed to avoid painful budgetary choices. Since 2001, Congress has employed a series of so-called “temporary special appropriations” to authorize hundreds of billions of dollars for war spending, bypassing the regular spending process. Despite President Obama’s pledge to end such “gimmicks,” they have continued throughout his presidency. Thus the money appropriated for the post-9/11 wars did not have to be traded off against other spending priorities. The war appropriation also gets far less scrutiny than the regular defense budget. Consequently, the war budget has become a magnet for pet nonwar spending projects that senators and congressmen want to slip in under the radar. As a consequence, the reported war cost per troop deployed has ballooned from $1 million per year at the peak of the fighting in 2008 to $4.9 million today.

Besides ducking the immediate financial burden, most of us are also shielded from the risks and hardships of military service. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were the first major US conflicts fought entirely by an “all-volunteer” military force. Less than 1 percent of the adult US population was deployed to the combat zones the smallest percentage at any time since the short peacetime period between the two World Wars. Instead, our small volunteer army is supplemented by a large shadow force of private contractors. In Afghanistan, contractors outnumber US troops by 3 to 1, performing critical roles in virtually every area of military activity. More than two-thirds of them are recruited from other countries, including the Philippines and Nepal.

All of this accounts for the absence of any real political discussion about how we will fund huge costs of the war that are still to be paid — for example, the $1 trillion in lifetime disability compensation that we have awarded to 960,000 recent veterans. Worse, no one is asking whether the current approach in Afghanistan is working. Last month the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, John Sopko, reported that corruption in Afghanistan is far more widespread than before the 2001 US invasion, due to US policies that “unintentionally aided and abetted corruption.” But his investigations get barely a mention in the media.

And of course, as Bill Moyers and others have emphasized, the costs of war are more than money down the drain.

The so-called military-industrial complex has been bolstered by increased military spending, with hundreds of billions of dollars going to private companies. One company, Lockheed Martin, received $29 billion in Pentagon contracts in 2008 alone more than the Environmental Protection Agency ($7.5 billion), the Department of Labor ($11.4 billion) or the Department of Transportation ($15.5 billion).