Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies just released an ambitious study that attempts to quantify many of the complex costs of America’s last decade of wars. Drawing on the expertise of economists, political scientists, legal experts, anthropologists, and others, the group has mapped out the “soft” price of these wars–including the human, social, and political impacts on the United States, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The group also put a price tag on more traditional economic costs of war.
Their conclusions are startling:
While most people think the Pentagon war appropriations are equivalent to the wars’ budgetary costs, the true numbers are twice that, and the full economic cost of the wars much larger yet. Conservatively estimated, the war bills already paid and obligated to be paid are $3.2 trillion in constant dollars. A more reasonable estimate puts the number at nearly $4 trillion.
Such huge numbers are difficult to comprehend. The group’s estimate puts the price somewhere around one of every four dollars of America’s 2010 GDP. Such a massive financial commitment to our national security should be evaluated alongside investments of a comparable scale (the healthcare industry, by contrast, represents close to one of every six dollars in the US economy). However, the price of these wars must be measured not only in their human, socio-political, and economic dimensions, but also in terms of opportunity cost. It is appropriate, then, that the group from Brown University is called the Eisenhower Research Project.
While President Eisenhower’s warning to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence… by the military-industrial complex” is well known, a less quoted speech may be more appropriate in this case:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people…
This is one of those times in the affairs of nations when the gravest choices must be made, if there is to be a turning toward a just and lasting peace. It is a moment that calls upon the governments of the world to speak their intentions with simplicity and with honesty. It calls upon them to answer the questions that stirs the hearts of all sane men: is there no other way the world may live?
These words echo as a question and a challenge to be answered by the United States as we continue to balance our competing commitments to freedom, prosperity, and security. As we continue to operate in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, Eisenhower’s warnings serve as an important reminder to weigh all the costs of war against its benefits before committing to an uncertain future.
— Jordan D’Amato