April 2003


The costs of war are not measured in dollars alone. When we spend money for one thing, we don't have it to spend on another. The human costs of war are staggering.

"Isn't it magnificent? Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance." George C. Scott as Patton.

War is a very special case in the catalog of human endeavor. All human endeavor is pursued because of some benefit -- a result that confers some improvement or advantage. But what is the return on investment (ROI) from this war? Our government just approved an appropriation of eighty billion dollars for the War with Iraq (and related expenses). By most estimates, this amount is just the tip of the iceberg. A conservative estimate for the total cost of rehabilitating Iraq -- of achieving the aims of this war -- is likely to be more than three times this amount. What are we getting for a quarter of a trillion dollars invested in this enterprise?

War is the only government sponsored activity that can very easily find funding as the result of vague promises of hypothetical benefit. War is an enormous and volatile undertaking. It is practically impossible to predict with any kind of certainty what the actual results will be, even when everything that was attempted is achieved. Remove the fancy catch phrases and the justifications because wars come down to a generalized promise that things will be better (for us) after the war is won. Wars are fought to solve problems. Think about it. We have in this country any number of real challenges, huge problems that will intimately affect every single one of us:

They deserve solving. This war with Iraq won't solve any of these. One would think that any one of these would be worthy of an investment of a quarter of a trillion dollars, but we have elected instead to take money away from these real and present problems and spend it on this war with Iraq. Why?

What real benefit will this war provide to ordinary people like you and me? The administration's answer is that by achieving a regime change in Iraq, we will all sleep more securely, knowing that Saddam Hussein will not be in a position to wage a terrorist aggression against us. Assuming that this is true, is the real benefit to the average person worth the price tag? And what makes us think that this war is going to make a real and substantial difference to the national security of the United States? What evidence do we have that waging a successful war on one nation out of dozens of nations that bear animosity toward us, is going to make a demonstrable difference in the balance of terror? The following chart contrasts different budget items that cost about the same.

War with Iraq Other Measures
Regime Change Job Generation -- lifetime job security for all citizens
Reduction of Terrorist Threat Elimination of most violent crime in the USA
Compliant Foreign Countries Free College Education for all citizens
Rebuild Iraq Free Health Care for all

What kind of a country would we have if we had made the choice to spend a quarter of a trillion dollars combating real emergencies in this country? Would that money have made the average person more secure if it had been spent to ensure that he or she had a good job for the rest of their working life, could count on having adequate and affordable health care, could see their children were better educated and prepared for useful and productive lives, or could stop worrying about pollution and the destruction of the Earth's ecosystem?

At best, the tangible benefits of this war are vague conjectures, but the costs are frighteningly real. Some people believe in the assumptions of tangible benefit for this war. Some people disbelieve in promises of real security from the overthrow of a single dictator. Most people don't know what to believe. But all of us get to pay for it.

Wars happen because people in power choose to go to war. Wars are extraordinarily expensive undertakings. A respectable expense factor is the profits of those who provide the means and material to conduct war (defense contractors and suppliers). To these suppliers of military means, wars are enormously profitable. Wars are in their best interest, provided that they are on the winning side. These same interests are very influential in determining executive and legislative policies -- they influence governments in the direction of warfare. If there were a country that...

  1. Decided to wage wars only when the nation was in danger.
  2. Resolved that it was evil for a person or a business to profit from defending the nation when it was in danger.
  3. Passed laws such that the moment a war was declared, all national enterprises must provide whatever is needed to prosecute the war, at actual cost.

For such a country, declared wars would be very rare.

Aside from the cost of arms for war and reconstruction for Iraq, there are many other costs to be borne from this war on terrorism. We have all lost a significant amount of civil rights. Through the Patriot Act and other legislation adopted in the wake of 9/11, our government has broad powers to ignore our freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. One need only to be suspected (not convicted) of terrorism (or conspiracy thereto) to be subjected to surveillance without judicial oversight, arrest without charge or right to legal counsel, or indefinite imprisonment without legal recourse. What price tag do we put on these liberties?

We should all look very closely at the results of this war with Iraq. We should all make a careful accounting of the cost of this aggressive war of prevention. When all is said and done, we need to hold our leaders accountable for the cost against the real benefits obtained by the sacrifice of our soldiers. Looking back, we should determine whether we think that the result was the bargain our leaders supposed it would be. And if we think the price might be too high for our liking, we should ask why a less expensive alternative was not chosen: were these less effective alternatives achievable for a price we could more readily afford? It is our money. It is our lives and livelihoods that are being defended. In a republic, we should have a lot of say as to how our government does this for us.

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