Recently I debated on television the cost and impact of the U.S. military budget. Predictably, the other panelists, an analyst from the American Enterprise Institute and a veteran Republican consultant said all is well and that there is nothing to worry about. In their view any complaints are just the whining of disaffected, unpatriotic liberals.
Well, perhaps not. In that regard let’s take a look at a new book, The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict by Nobel Prize winner Joseph E. Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda J. Bilmes. They have built on working papers they previously published in 2006 and this one in 2007.
Assuming that people are not yet totally jaded about Iraq their book should open some eyes. Beyond looking at the predictable, such as the incremental operating costs of the war, they detail expenses that the military likes to downplay, such as replacing military equipment (being used up at six times the peacetime rate), and, more importantly, speaking as a veteran, the cost of caring for thousands of wounded veterans—for the rest of their lives.
Trying to grasp the sheer enormity of the U.S. military budget is always difficult, given most news coverage of it is done haphazardly but let’s consider this excerpt from a recent TomDispatch:
In the week that oil prices once again crested above $100 a barrel and more Americans than at any time since the Great Depression owed more on their homes than the homes were worth; in the year that the subprime market crashed, global markets shuddered, the previously unnoticed credit-default swap market threatened to go into the tank, stagflation returned, unemployment rose, the “R” word (for recession) hit the headlines (while the “D” word lurked), within weeks of the fifth anniversary of his invasion of Iraq, the President of the United States officially discovered the war economy. …
In other words, in honor of the soon-to-arrive fifth anniversary of his war without end, the President has offered a formula for economic success in bad times that might be summed up this way: less houses, more bases, more weaponry, more war. This, of course, comes from the man who, between 2001 and today, presided over an official Pentagon budget that leapt by more than 60% from $316 billion to $507 billion, and by more than 30% since Iraq was invaded. Looked at another way, between 2001 and the latest emergency supplemental request to pay for his wars (first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq), supplemental funding for war-fighting has jumped from $17 billion to $189 billion, an increase of 1,011%. At the same time, almost miraculously, the U.S. armed forces have been driven to the edge of the military equivalent of default.
But that is the past. Let’s look at the future. Here is what Gordon Adams, a former Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget the senior White House official for national security budgets, recently wrote
For the last seven years, emergency supplemental appropriations were the way out of the budget squeeze. In 2009, approximately 25 percent of defense spending will be classified as “emergency” funding. Now, the Department of Defense (DOD) wants to make this emergency spending part of the base budget, regardless of what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has asked that the Pentagon be guaranteed at least four percent of U.S. gross domestic product. He has done so without strategy statement, mission description, or statement of requirements. He simply asserts that defense deserves a set share of the economy.
Here are a few excerpts from Prof. Stiglitz’s testimony:
We have now published a book, The Three Trillion Dollar War, which estimates the true costs of the war, the veterans’ costs, and the impact on the U.S. economy. I want to point out that it required an enormous amount of work to write our book. We should not have needed to write it, and when we came to write it, it should have been a far easier task. The Administration and Congress should have provided these numbers to the American people. Five years after the beginning of this war, you should not be funding this war with emergency appropriations, which escape the normal budget scrutiny. We should not have had to resort to the Freedom of Information Act to find out how many Americans have been injured in this war. This Administration has said that it will provide everything that our troops need. We should not have had to use the Freedom of Information Act to discover that more than three years ago, senior officers in the Marines were already sending urgent requests for MRAPs—which would have saved the lives of a large fraction of those killed if we had provided them at that time.
Cutting to the bottom line:
When, of course, we add together all of these costs of the war, we are talking about budgetary impacts that are not just $12 billion a month (or $16 billion if we include Afghanistan), but greater than that by at least 40%. Our full cost of the war—our $3 trillion dollar tally—is twice the direct operational budget. We should remember that every month we stay in Iraq and Afghanistan is really costing us some $22 billion; every year, more than $250 billion. In another two years, the tally will exceed another half trillion.
The budgetary costs of this war have been huge. But the costs that go beyond the budget are at least as large, and the meter is still ticking. Every year of this war has seen the costs rise. But even if the troops stay where they are, two more years will add, conservatively, another $500 billion to the total tally. No one can know for sure whether, when we depart, things will get better (as more Iraqis seem to believe) or worse. No one can know for sure whether staying an extra two years will make the chaos that might follow less—or greater. But it is your solemn responsibility to make the judgment: is this the best way of spending $500 billion? Is it the best way to strengthen America’s capacity to meet future challenges, to promote democracy around the world, to help create the kind of world, here and abroad, that we would like our children to inherit? For too long, this Congress and this Administration has approached the problem by dribs and drabs: a little more today might just do the trick; a little more later will help us turn the proverbial corner. But as the late Senator Dirksen said, “a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” Today, we would have to say, a trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.