The Human Cost of War

The whole world is watching a human drama that is both tragedy and travesty. As if the lessons of Vietnam had been presented to dull students and needed repeating, Americans and peoples of all nations watch as President George W. Bush’s preemptive and unconstitutional war in Iraq continues. The cradle of civilization is being turned into its grave by a president whose undefined “noble cause” has thus far cost the lives of almost 3000 American soldiers, wounded and maimed almost 20,000 more, and killed tens of thousands of Iraqis. The land that nourished the first written language and the roots of civilized political order has become a charnel house.

The defeated Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein is no longer the enemy in George Bush’s unjust war; its place has been taken by insurgent forces, as well as by al Qaeda and other groups who use the country as a battlefield and guerrilla training ground for their own troops. Added to the tragedy in Iraq is the travesty of Bush’s “War on Terror” — a formless justification for the growth of federal government power and the steady erosion of our Bill of Rights through warrantless searches, illegal spying, kidnapping and torture, and imprisonment without either trial or conviction.

American soldiers — courageous, dedicated and trained to fight to preserve our freedoms, and raised to believe in the importance of a virtuous life — are fighting under Rules of Engagement that permit the use of such destructive retaliatory force that they cannot avoid the commission of atrocities against helpless civilians. American Marines — always prepared to be “the first to fight” and whose motto is “semper fidelis” — are being used for immoral ends by an administration that has proven faithless to the people of the country it pretends to represent.

And what has this corruption of the best of our youth in an immoral military debacle cost? In trying to answer this question, we submit that the least significant costs are those that can be quantified. The most recent and most general attempt to estimate both the direct and indirect costs of George Bush’s war is that of economists Linda Bilmes and Joe Stiglitz, who summarized their estimate in a paper presented at the January 2006 meetings in Boston of the American Economic Association.

Bilmes and Stiglitz present a “moderate” estimate of $1.3 trillion for past and expected federal budget outlays related to this unnecessary war. This includes military operations, reconstruction, foreign aid and enhanced base security for the military bases in Iraq. Currently, the monthly average cost of military operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan is $7.1 billion — enough in one year of expenditure to rebuild the city of New Orleans, including levees that would withstand category 5 hurricanes.

In calculating their estimate of the total of direct and indirect costs of the war, Bilmes and Stiglitz include an estimate of the economic value of American soldiers killed and wounded, and the estimated future costs of caring for those wounded, while excluding any calculations of similar costs for other countries, including Iraqi soldiers, civilians and insurgents killed or wounded. They include the direct and indirect costs of the American military arms and equipment used and destroyed, but not that of the destruction to the land and economy of the Iraqis. They include the increased costs of providing greater security for military bases, but not the costs of increased counter-intelligence activities by the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Bilmes and Stiglitz admit that they were unable to include most of the economic costs associated with Bush’s war; for instance, they omit the damage to international trade and the standard of living in the world as a consequence of the increased trade barriers imposed in the “War on Terror.” They omit the economic damage caused by higher prices for oil because of decreased production in the Middle East, and the consequent lower production of other goods and services as energy expenditures replace others in budgeting. They omit the loss of investment expenditures in the American economy as military spending replaces domestic spending and interest payments on debt from deficit spending on the war crowd out business borrowing.

If all economic costs could be included, Bilmes and Stiglitz speculate that their estimate of the Iraq war costs would rise to $2.2 trillion. We submit that this is still too low because it fails to allow for the fact that military expenditures are expenditures for destruction, not for the creation of value and increases in the standard of living. Resources wasted in the destruction of human life and property, are resources that cannot be used for building houses or feeding the hungry. It also fails to allow for the demoralization and destruction of the whole American military establishment that is one of the seldom-mentioned results of fighting this immoral, pointless and savage war.

To reach their cost estimates, Bilmes and Stiglitz had to make a number of restrictive assumptions, a change in any one of which would greatly change the results of their calculations. The only unimpeachable fact and undeniably true statement in their entire paper is a concluding remark that “the most important things in life — like life itself — are priceless.” And what do they recommend for the future? Like a slap in the face of all that is moral and good in humankind and its potential for greatness, Bilmes and Stiglitz urge BETTER COST BENEFIT ANALYSIS before undertaking future wars!

How does one react to the recognition that life is priceless, but a price should be put upon it for the purpose of deciding whether to make war? It can only be with outrage. We are outraged that a war should be considered as anything but a last resort, fought in defense and after an attack by an organized and dangerous enemy bent on our destruction or conquest. We are outraged that a pre-emptive and poorly thought-out invasion of a foreign country was undertaken under a pretense that was subsequently revealed to be a pack of lies. We are outraged at the incalculable human cost of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. We are outraged that human and other resources desperately needed to respond to the Gulf Coast disaster last fall were instead in Iraq, being used for the wasting and occupation of that country.

Outrage is what Cindy was feeling when she toured the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans in mid-February. Outrage, sorrow, horror and sickness over the destruction she saw there. A destruction that is both complete and profound. A destruction that was made worse by poor preparation at all levels of government. Miles and miles of collapsed houses, overturned cars and toys alike flung far and wide: miles and miles of proof of the incompetence and callousness of government.

Cindy was in New Orleans as people were being kicked out of their subsidized FEMA housing while hundreds of millions of dollars of “FEMA trailers” sat in lots and on railroad cars waiting for a place to be parked. She listened to Richard Skinner of Homeland Security say on CNN that FEMA is spending “eight to ten million dollars” to spread gravel on a lot in Arkansas so that the 11,000 trailers that should be in the Gulf States, but are parked on that lot, won’t sink into the mud while they sit. She saw hundreds of units of low income housing in St. Bernard’s Parish that could be rehabilitated with some sheetrock and paint, but are sitting empty and useless. Hundreds of residents could return to their homes for what it would cost for 18 months use of two of those empty trailers — each of which is estimated by the Times-Picayune to cost as much as $120,000.

Cindy left New Orleans depressed and missing her son, Casey, even more. Like other American soldiers, Casey was raised to understand the importance of a virtuous life. He neither sought, nor wanted, to kill innocent people in Iraq, and he voiced this often during his last visit home at Christmas, 2003. On April 4, 2004, he was killed while on a rescue mission to retrieve wounded comrades in arms. Casey came home to be buried, as have almost 3000 others in the last three years.

But, what of those soldiers who come home wounded or unscathed? To what do they return? They come home to a Veterans Administration that is inadequately funded for the job it has to do. Too many come home to divorce, to become homeless, to die by their own hands. Iraq War veterans come home to a VA that has failed even to provide the benefits due veterans of the Vietnam War — a war that has since claimed more veterans through suicide than were killed fighting.


Like the water that poured over the weak and compromised levees in New Orleans, the human lives and money that are being poured into the sands of distant Iraq are harming our very humanity. Rather than accolades, the American people are receiving worldwide hatred in return. Rather than greater security, they are receiving less. Rather than expanding freedom in the world, they are losing their own to a mindless expansion of federal government power.

Life is priceless. The present value of all the future income Casey Sheehan might have earned is miniscule compared to the value he had to himself, to Cindy, to his father, to his brother and sisters — to all his family and friends. Multiply that way of valuing Casey by 3000 killed, 20,000 wounded, and thousands mentally damaged or embittered for life and you get an obscenity. This is the human cost of war.

February 17, 2006