The Costs of War


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


4 comments on “The Costs of War

  1. David says:

    I was not at all surprised by the numbers. I am very glad someone authoritative put together what I already thought was roughly the case. I have shared this article with several friends. Would that it would go viral. Eisenhower seemed to have grown in the closing months of his presidency. He certainly made some very insightful, responsible comments. Would that his spirit and intellect could still be found in contemporary Republican machine thinking.


  2. JohnH says:

    Put another way: the cost of war equals half the national debt accumulated since 2000.
    The is the right way to look at it, since Bush 43 refused to raise taxes to fund his military adventurism.
    Without these pointless, expensive adventures, there would be no talk about cutting Social Security, Medicare, and gutting social programs and oversight of Wall Street.


  3. bob h says:

    The thing that is really sad about the last decade of war (and the coming five years or so needed to wind it down) is that a little vigilance on the part of the Bush administration could well have obviated the worst of it. They came to power fixated on big-power relationship and missile defense, and opened the door to the Al Qaeda attacks through negligence.


  4. Linda says:

    Thanks you for quoting from Eisenhower’s 1953 “Chance for Peace” speech, one of my favorites.
    Nine years before that in his 1944 State of the Union address, FDR set forth his economic bill of rights,as goals for the country after WWII:
    “In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.
    Among these are:
    The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;
    The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
    The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
    The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
    The right of every family to a decent home;
    The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
    The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
    The right to a good education.
    All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these.”
    Sadly in the last 60-70 years we have not heeded Roosevelt’s and Eisenhower’s wisdom.


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