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Cost of war


May 22, 2019

I recently attended a presentation in Washington DC by Dr Catherine Lutz, a professor at the prestigious Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. Among her areas of expertise are ‘war and security’. Dr Lutz has just completed a study of the costs of American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, launched in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks of 2001, and which continue to this day.

She has estimated, using very reliable data, that to-date these wars have cost American taxpayers $4.9 trillion, with an additional $1 trillion in future liabilities stemming from these wars. The magnitude of these figures boggles the mind. Especially so because successive governments from George W Bush to Barack Obama to the present Trump administration have somehow managed to keep these numbers from being debated and discussed in public forums and mainstream media. And, funding for these wars has been approved by Congress in ways that require a lot of digging, such as Dr Lutz has done, to actually come up with the total.

During her presentation, Dr Lutz was asked why she has chosen to spend her time adding up the costs of these wars. Her response was interesting. She said that these wars are doing tremendous damage to the US and to various parts of the world. However, the American public seems to have little care for the damage being done. People have made the case against war from a humanitarian perspective and from the perspective of geopolitics, but nothing seems to move the public sentiment. She said that she had decided that maybe showing the American people what these wars are costing them would help change their minds.

In fact, over the last 15 or more years sentiment about these wars has changed. Most Americans believe that the Iraq war particularly was a ‘mistake’. Yet sadly, one hardly hears any sense of regret or remorse about the tens of thousands of people killed and millions of lives uprooted and destroyed.

As far as the cost goes, Dr Lutz may have a valid point. Today, the American people are increasingly aware of and frustrated with the high cost of healthcare and lack of funding to help them with it. Similarly, the country is realizing more and more how dilapidated American infrastructure has become. I recently heard that a water pipe bursts somewhere in the US every few minutes. It is estimated that fixing existing infrastructure in America would cost over $10 trillion.

But the government continues to insist there is no funding available to do this work, even as President Trump repeatedly talks about the need to fix and upgrade the nation’s infrastructure. And of course he has continued to talk about creating a healthcare programme that will be affordable for all Americans, without actually proposing anything concrete. Discussion in Congress about fixing healthcare and infrastructure has led nowhere. It appears that the Republican Party, which controls much of the government, will happily spend money on spurious wars but not on helping citizens at home.

Even as the cost of wars of the past couple of decades is being added up, the government is once again beating the drums for a possible new war with Iran.

While in the lead up to the Iraq war of 2003 there was hardly much discussion about the costs, this time many people in Congress and elsewhere are cautioning against a war with Iran. Maybe, Dr Lutz was right after all – while humanitarian and geopolitical arguments may not resonate with the average citizen, matters of money may finally convince them against wars.

The writer is a freelancecontributor based inWashington DC.

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