Calculating the Real Costs

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What does — and will — the invasion and occupation of Iraq really cost the people of this country?

Dollar figures are not hard to find. Even the low-ball figures are bad enough. And, as anyone who has taken on a multifaceted task of any sort knows, it will always cost much more, and take more time, than planned. Even if we triple or quadruple the worst-case estimates we’ve seen, we can still at least have some idea of what we may have to pay, now and in the future. And, of course, if enough people had the will to end the war, all Congress would have to do is cut off the funding, and eventually — if in the distant future — it would cease to extract our hard-earned money.

But another cost of the war may be more difficult to calculate. I’m talking, of course, about the human cost. Lives lost cannot be recreated; lives disrupted and families and communities fragmented may not be made whole again. And even if it were possible to re-construct the communities broken by the war, they would never be the same cities, towns, farms or other social constructs the people remember. Those affected will need to cope in new ways yet have fewer resources for doing this.

Perhaps the best we can do is to try to find out, however inexactly, how many people have been killed or wounded (whether physically or psychologically) by the fighting, and what it has cost them, their loved ones and their communities not only in terms of money, but in their overall well-being.

Even if we add the number of Iraqi civilians (anywhere from 83,000 to 91,000) killed as a result of the invasion and occupation to all of the military personnel (4000+ for the US, 200+ for the rest of its coalition and 100,000 for Iraq) who were slaughtered on both sides of this immoral conflict, we still wouldn’t have anywhere near an idea of what the death toll really is. We could also add the number of contractors, journalists and others who have been killed in the combat zone, and we still wouldn’t have any idea of how many lives have been lost, let alone what the loss of those lives means.

For starters, let’s consider the 18 veterans who commit suicide every day. (Mental health professionals estimate that for everyone who actually manages to end his or her life, fifteen others attempt to do so.) And let’s add all the people who will die, not only from injuries, but also from the after-effects of chemicals and such. And what of the family members, friends and others who fall victim to those who return home enraged and with no other means of dealing with their anger but to kill and destroy. And, I’m sure there are shell-shocked Iraqis who are doing similar things, even if they’ve escaped to the relative safety of other countries.

And let’s not forget the ones whose experience initiates or exacerbates their substance abuse problems. How many of those will turn to deaths that will come much too early, whether to themselves or their loved ones?

But, as terrible as it is to lose any life to this war, the body count is only the beginning of what official lying has cost, and will cost, this country. Worst of all, I think, is what it’s doing to this country spiritually.

I’m not a religious person, but I believe that the venal sin of lies have led to a terrible cardinal sin (OK, I was raised as a Catholic) from which this country may not ever be redeemed. Even though I haven’t believed politicians or many other public figures for a very long time, I still thought that there was at least some basic level of morality that guided this country, whatever or whether its people believed in. Now I feel we may have lost that, and I don’t think it’s possible to recover it once it’s lost.

The mere fact that so many lives were thrown away for the mendacity of plutocrats is, in itself, an indictment of where the morality of this country has gone. The decline didn’t start with this war, of course, or even with Bush the Elder’s Excellent Iraqi Adventure, the Vietnam War, Roe v Wade, or any of the coups and insurgencies this country fomented in Iran, Nicaragua and any number of countries. Each of them was like another one of Dante’s circles of Hell through which the narrator of The Inferno descends before reaching the pit. Dante populates the Eighth (penultimate) circle with seducers, flatterers, false prophets, corrupt politicians, thieves, alchemists and counterfeiters, among others. Does that sound like a familiar cast of characters?

And don’t get me started on Pelosi and the others who enabled all of them! They have cost us too much already. I hope only that as individuals, and as members of our families, communities and circles of friends, we may still be able to redeem what this war and its antecedents have leeched out of our country and culture.

Justine Nicholas [send her mail] is the deputy director of the Office of Academic Achievement at York College in Queens, New York.

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