Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen has argued repeatedly that debts and deficits pose the greatest threat to our national security. The national debt currently stands at $18 trillion, and the federal government has been running budget deficits for well over a decade. One significant contributor to the rapid growth of the national debt has been the United States’ perpetual engagement in military activities around the world.
The exact extent of that cost can be difficult to calculate, and it depends a great deal on who you ask. As Mark Thompson clearly explained in an article for Time magazine, “The Pentagon and its civilian overseers don’t like to talk about war costs, either before or after the shooting. That’s because a high price tag beforehand acts as an economic brake, making war—assuming that’s the goal—less likely.” After a war is over, there can be incentives not to count the true cost, ranging from the desire to avoid accountability to the fact that the numbers are simply too depressing.
Estimates can differ for legitimate reasons, so it is important to look closely at what is included in anyone’s measure. In determining how to account for the cost of war, individuals and organizations can choose whether or not to include costs such as: interest incurred on the war debt or future health care costs for wounded veterans. In other cases, early planning estimates about how difficult and expensive the war will be can also simply be wrong, as was the case in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
As stewards for and representatives of the taxpayer, officials have a responsibility to listen to alternative views and estimates when making their plans, which is not always done. When the George W. Bush administration was preparing to invade Iraq, officials disagreed publically over their estimates for the war’s total cost. Lawrence Lindsey, the head of the National Economic Council, predicted the war would cost as much as $200 billion, which was then a figure considered far too high but is now a figure known to be far too low. Lindsey was forced to resign, and the invasion went forward.
The Costs of War project at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University has published some of the most thorough research on the costs of the wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. (The war in Pakistan refers to U.S. counterterrorism efforts there, such as drone strikes and other efforts against al Qaeda). The Costs of War project calculated the total cost of these wars to be $4.4 trillion. These costs include: “direct Congressional war appropriations; war-related increases to the Pentagon base budget; veterans care and disability; increases in the homeland security budget; interest payments on direct war borrowing; foreign assistance spending; and estimated future obligations for veterans’ care.” By 2053, interest payments on the debt alone could reach over $7 trillion.
Finally, there is another, more important, cost of these wars: human lives. This includes both the lives of the brave American men and women who fought in them and the lives of the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. Nearly 7,000 U.S. military personnel and Department of Defense civilians lost their lives in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; an additional 52,000 were wounded. As of March 2014, according to the Costs of War project, there were 970,000 disability claims filed with the Department of Veterans Affairs as a result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Cost of War project reports that, “as of March 2015, approximately 210,000 civilians have died violent deaths as result of the wars.” Many more have died from nonviolent or indirect causes such as infrastructure destruction, a lack of medical resources, disease, or malnutrition.
Accounting for the cost of war is difficult and painful. But it is something that has to be done so that political and military leaders can make better choices in the future.
In a few short weeks, the Charles Koch Institute will host top political and military leaders, along with other national security experts, for a conversation about our country’s foreign policy future. Advancing American Security: The Future of U.S. Foreign Policy will be held in Washington, DC, on May 18. We invite you to join us to hear from panelists such as Colonel Gian Gentile, author of the book Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency; Ambassador Chas Freeman, senior fellow at the Watson Institute; and Professor John Mearsheimer, who took a vocal stand urging the Bush administration not to invade Iraq.