As we approach the 5-year anniversary of the US occupation of Iraq, one aspect of the war that gets little attention is the monetary cost of the war. Occasionally, we hear reports on Congressional voting for new war appropriations, but the nitty-gritty details rarely see the light of day. Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes have co-authored an important book that begins to look at the actual costs of the US occupation of Iraq.
The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict takes a methodical look at what the costs have been to the US. As one would imagine, there is a tremendous amount of data and numbers, which normally can overwhelm such an undertaking, but the authors do a good job of not coming across as researchers who have little interaction with the public. Both Stiglitz and Bilmes frame this information in such a way that most anyone could share it with their neighbor.
The book is broken up into sections that tackle various aspects of the cost of the US war in Iraq. First, they look at the Department of Defense budgets since the beginning of the war and come up with the figure that is pretty much indisputable. Most sources, like the National Priorities Project, put the current spending just above $500 billion dollars. This figure accounts for what has been budgeted in each fiscal year since 2003, however, it does not include monies from the annual Defense Budget since general funding for troops and equipment comes from that. These kinds of costs would include the increase in spending for military recruiters and signing bonuses.
However, there are additional costs with the increased use of private contractors doing reconstruction work, providing services traditionally performed by the military, and providing security for government officials. Once you get beyond the actual numbers for the use and deployment of soldiers and contractors, then you have to figure in the costs incurred from deaths and injuries, both physical and psychological. The longest section of The Three Trillion Dollar War is devoted to these costs, which the authors believe are grossly underestimated, since they are only going by the numbers that the Veteran’s Administration provides. There are hundreds of billions of dollars in hard costs to taking care of the men and women who have been wounded and/or suffer from the psychological consequences of war. What is not factored into to the cost are all the men and women who don’t “qualify” for medical benefits and those who do not pursue them within the government provided services. Not all of the men and women who are wounded, particularly those who suffer psychological trauma, are not factored into the costs of the war.
The authors then go even further to say that there are other costs that are never factored in. First, they mention that the amount of money that war veterans might have made as civilians in a stable job is in the billions of dollars. Add on to that the salaries lost by family members who quite their jobs to take care of veterans who suffer from chronic health problems, and that is another large cost. Another cost would be how the long-term care impacts communities, which the authors acknowledge is impossible to quantify.
Beyond the hard costs of troop deployment, equipment, and veterans’ care, there are also what are called macroeconomic costs. One of the most obvious is the increase cost of oil since the US occupation of Iraq began. According to the authors, the cost of oil as gone up, which means that US oil imports have cost us more. This would be not just at the gas pump, but the increased cost of other services and products that are oil dependent. This is certainly an exterior cost that many Americans can relate.
One aspect of the book that I really liked was that the authors were willing to look beyond the cost of the US Occupation of Iraq in US terms. The Three Trillion Dollar War devotes the last third of the book to what the cost has been to the Iraqis, both in human and monetary terms. The authors seem to agree with the figure of 655,000 Iraqi deaths from the US occupation that John’s Hopkins University came up with. The book also addresses the tremendous displacement of Iraqis since 2003, both internal to the country and those who have fled to neighboring countries. The authors make the point that these costs are not factored in to the figure given on what the cost of the war is, plus they acknowledge that the US has not even paid their fair share of costs for refugee relief, despite that the US Occupation is the primary factor in causing a refugee crisis.
Looking at the costs just from the US side, the figure that the authors come up with is $4.5 trillion dollars and that this figure is a conservative estimate. When factoring in the Iraqi costs, the number is more like $8.6 trillion. I purposely waited until now to mention the actual number, because numbers don’t seem to do justice to the human reality of these costs. It is always difficult to quantify human suffering, but The Three Trillion Dollar War does a pretty good job of helping us understand what the monetary costs are in human terms. The book is a valuable resource for those opposed to the US occupation of Iraq and an important contribution for the next generation of US citizens who will no doubt bear the burden of paying for it.
Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, (W.W. Norton, 2008).