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Friday, Sep 23, 2011, 12:30 pm

‘The Costs of War’: A Must-Read Study

By David Szydloski

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The Watson Center for International Studies at Brown University published "The Costs of War" report.
Brown University

One problem of our 24-hour newscycle is that information that cannot fit into sound bites too often falls between the cracks.

Thanks to a post over at Small Wars Journal last week, I discovered one such important source of information in a fascinating study released in June of this year by The Eisenhower Study Group in conjunction with the Watson Institute of International Studies at Brown University, called “The Costs of War.” Below I have summarized a few of the dozen reports currently available on their website.

Total Costs

When the Bush Administration was selling the Iraq War to the American people, there were several estimates circulated about the total cost of the war, with the possibility of some, if not all of the money being paid back to the United States by oil revenue from a "free" Iraq.

So, nine years later, how much money have Iraq and Afghanistan cost us? Ryan D. Edwards points out in his report, “Post-9/11 War Spending, Debt, and the Macroeconomy”, that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) expects the spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to grow at a rate of 1% a year until 2020. Factoring in future costs and interest payments, these costs mean that the public will end up holding an additional 3.8-4.5 trillion dollars of debt—which does not include future compensation and benefits owed to wounded soldiers. “The Costs of War” Executive Summary emphasizes this estimate, indicating that, historically, war costs peak 30-40 years after the conflict itself. So, even if the U.S. could completely pull out of both countries tomorrow, most of us would still be paying for the war for the rest of our lives.

Defense Contracting

The 2000s have seen the highest level of defense spending since World War II, up to over $400 billion dollars. William D. Hartung’s “The Military-Industrial Complex Revisited: Shifting Patterns of Defense Contracting in the Post-9/11 Period” discusses where this money is going.

The merger of many defense companies in the early 90s means that a majority of the money is going to fewer major players, who in turn are reaping historically high profits. For example, in 2008, Lockheed Martin received more government money than the EPA, The Department of Labor, and the Department of Transportation. Halliburton infamously saw its government contracts grow from $483 million dollars in 2002 to over $6 billion in 2006, including many controversial no-bid contracts, such as one “open-ended, seven year contract for work doing everything from putting out oil fires to rebuilding and operating Iraq’s oil infrastructure in the wake of the U.S. intervention” which was awarded to the company before the U.S. even invaded Iraq.

The problems with defense appropriations go all the way to the top, as Winslow T. Wheeler shows in his excellent “Unaccountable: Pentagon Spending on the Post-9/11 Wars”.

One simple fact is that, despite the second largest budget of any department in the government, the Pentagon does not have an oversight structure in place that can keep track of all of its expenditures. Congress tried to address this issue in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010, which contained a provision that required the DoD to begin to implement better tracking and accountability for its budget beginning in 2017. Already the Comptroller for the DoD has indicated that he does not believe the department will be able to comply by that date.

To make matters worse, figures for cost and savings estimates are fluid—often times changing just by a simple redefinition of the terms involved rather than any actual change (a shell game also much loved by Congress). Wheeler illustrates this point with a discussion of the effects of the changing definitions of “reset”—the costs needed to repair and replace worn out, damaged, or lost equipment in units that are returning from deployment (emphasis mine):

Until 2006, the definition for what qualified as a “reset” cost and that could be charged to the appropriation accounts that funded the wars was somewhat restrictive. [The Congressional Research Service] points out that in 2006, Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England redefined what could be called “reset.” The criteria were dramatically loosened. As a result, CRS found the subsequent supplemental war funding request sought “an additional $14 billion for reset,” and requests following it appeared to “front load” reset requests (seeking more money than could be readily justified in a single year), even when previous appropriations had not been fully used.

Subsequent to the Bush administration’s expansion of the definition of reset, the Obama administration re-imposed stricter guidance in 2009. Subsequent to that change, war-driven procurement levels dropped from $61.5 billion in 2008 to $32.0 billion in 2009, to $27.5 billion in 2010 and to $21.4 billion in the 2011 request. By simply changing the criteria for reset funding, an administration can lower or raise the declared costs of the wars. CRS did not attempt to adjust its war cost estimate to account for the shifting definitions of reset; to do so would very probably have caused serious consternation in Congress, which like DOD, has enjoyed playing games with the accounts that support the wars (…).

(…)[Later reports by the Congressional Budget Office and CRS found] more than 40% of the Army’s spending for reset had nothing to do with reset and instead were to upgrade weapons, eliminate longstanding inventory shortfalls, reorganize ground units (in a long standing program called “Modularization”), and replenish stocks of “pre-positioned” equipment for other contingencies.


In the last 9 years of the Afghan and Iraq wars, there have been more than 1.25 million service members wounded, with more than 650,000 of these veterans have been treated in VA hospitals, and 5,000 of those veterans are receiving VA benefits. (See Update Below) The present value of medical liabilities for veterans who have served in either Iraq or Afghanistan are estimated to be between $118-168 billion dollars through 2055.

The physical, emotional, and psychological costs to veterans of recent wars are not mentioned enough in our discussions of the wars themselves. Alison Howell and Zo ë H. Wool’s article “The War Comes Home: The Toll of War and the Shifting Burden of Care” looks at the human costs incurred by the military community from repeated deployments.

The strain put on service members has revealed itself, in part, in increased rates of violent crime, including rape, among service members which have been steadily increasing since 2003. During the same period of time, sexual offences carried out by active duty soldiers has tripled. At home, domestic violence has increased 177%. The most sobering statistic the authors share is that suicides of service members outnumbered combat deaths in both 2003 (60) and 2008 (192).

Children of deployed service members suffer as well. In 2008, more than 2 million children had a parent who was currently deployed or had at one time been deployed in either Iraq or Afghanistan. These children are 11 percent more likely to use mental health services. In fact, outpatient mental health visits to these children have doubled between 2003 and 2008 to 2 million. Children of deployed National Guard and Reserve service members were the most effected group as they usually live outside of military communities and support networks.

The report also highlights deficiencies in how the military treats psychological and emotional problems: putting an emphasis on mental preparedness or ‘active’ solutions, which casts a negative light on therapy or ‘reactive’ solutions; the reliance on the unpaid labor of military spouses—predominantly women—to provide support services for other spouses and returning troops; and the reliance on civilian communities, charities, and NGOs to help manage family problems related to deployment. In one section of the report entitled “The Case of Fort Carson and the Problem of Statistics”, the authors discuss the series of 11 murders committed by 14 service members at Fort Carson, CO Army base—home of the 4th Infantry Division, which was part of the initial invasion force in Iraq and has been deployed multiple times to both Iraq and Afghanistan—to show how the lack of support for returning veterans contributed to the alcoholism, self-medication, and drug use which created conditions for the crimes.

The above summaries are only a small part of the information “The Costs of War” study put together. Because of time constraints, I only focused on a few reports addressing domestic concerns but there are other reports included in the study that look at the state of refugees, democracy, and women’s rights in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In our current climate of economic concerns, the budget information from these reports is certainly hard to read. But the human costs, which are obscured rather than clarified by such statistics, have a much greater impact on individuals and the country as a whole. More studies like “The Costs of War” are needed to remind present and future generations of the grim consequences of our governments’ foreign policy.


UPDATE: (9/25/11) Big hattip to my father--himself a 30-year veteran of the Army--who pointed out some problems with the numbers quoted in the text above that now appears struck out. When I reviewed his comments, I realized I had made a major mistake when typing up my notes for the post.

Here is the text that I was trying to reference, with the correct numbers, from Linda J. Bilmes' "Current and Projected Future Costs of Caring for Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars":

As of December 2010, 1.25 million service men and women had returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many have been wounded or injured in some way — over 90,000 seriously enough to require medical evacuation from the conflict. A much larger number suffer from other injuries, ranging from brain injuries to hearing loss. To date, 650,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have been treated in Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities for a wide range of medical conditions. Nearly 500,000 of these veterans are receiving compensation from the VA for injuries sustained or worsened during their military service. The US has already spent $31.3 billion since 2001 in providing medical care and disability benefits to these veterans.

Bilmes is also the author of the 2008 book The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict with fellow economist Joseph E. Stiglitz.

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