The Costs of War (to You)

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Yves here. This post comes out of the Costs of War Project at Brown. One of its striking findings isn’t simply the magnitude of spending but the lack of any controls. A key statement:

As we were soon to discover, the Department of Defense routinely failed even to keep track of whom it owed money to, no less how much.

Understand what this means. For instance, all sorts of Tom, Dicks, and Harrys could bill multiple times for the same work with impunity and just claim it was an innocent mistake in the unlikely they were caught out. And it’s also perfect for fraud and covert payments. This level of sloppiness is almost certain to be a feature, not a bug.

As a Navy spouse of 10 years and counting, my life offers an up-close view of our country’s priorities when it comes to infrastructure and government spending.

Recently, my husband, a naval officer currently serving with the Department of Energy, spent a week with colleagues touring a former nuclear testing site about 65 miles north of Las Vegas. Between 1951 and 1957, the U.S. conducted more than 1,000 nuclear tests in those 680 square miles of desert and only stopped when scientists began urging that the tests be halted because of soaring cancer rates among the downwind residents of Arizona, Nevada, and Utah.

My spouse’s trip was a kind of ritual Department of Energy personnel undertake to learn about nuclear weapons as they maintain our country’s vast and still wildly expanding arsenal.

Meanwhile, unable to afford to take time off from my job as a therapist, I found myself once again working double shifts. After all, I was also watching our two young children (ages four and six), shuttling them to appointments and activities along the narrow roads of our rural town, handling a sudden school shutdown due to flooded roads that halted school buses, while working. And mine is really the usual story for so many of the partners of this country’s 1.3 million active-duty military personnel when they are sent elsewhere on assignment.

My six year old typically woke me at night to ask whether his dad was shooting at people and started throwing the sort of tantrums that had become uncharacteristic since his father stopped serving months-long deployments on submarines. Once recently, he even conned his already overworked bus driver — our county, one of the richest in the country, has a deficit of such drivers, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic — into taking him home rather than to his after-school program. He let himself into our house and appeared at my office door to “make sure you haven’t left, too.”

It was hard to miss the irony of being overstretched at home by poor infrastructure and gaps in care (even as I went into debt to pay for the most affordable childcare center in the area) at a moment when the government was perfectly happy to fund my spouse to tour a mothballed nuclear testing site. His trip came on the heels of two 14-hour days he spent at the Capitol displaying a collection of model warheads to members of Congress. They then chatted with one another and him in a rare bipartisan moment that we as a couple witnessed.

At that time, members of the House of Representatives had yet to even vote on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill to fund our country’s roads, bridges, buses, and electric grid, which to our relief would pass two weeks later. And when it comes to President Biden’s shrinking Build Back Better bill, who knows if it will ever be passed?

It’s about time! was all I could think when I heard that the first bill was about to be signed into law. I couldn’t help imagining how useful so much of what’s packed into both of them would be for people like me — not least of all things in the Build Back Better plan like universal pre-K and some paid family leave, four weeks of which I could have used over the past two months of my husband’s military travels and my own late nights. And mind you, as someone with a great job and a relatively high family income, I have it much better than the vast majority of Americans, military or not.

20 Years of War

Meanwhile, as I’m sure you know, Congress has been blindly supporting wars and counterterror operations in dozens of countries globally from Afghanistan and Iraq to Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and beyond for two decades now. Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, and other congressional representatives in the House and Senate have been quibbling for months over whether to allow Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices or pay for dental and vision benefits on the premise that such expenditures might add to our high national debt.

Yet they’ve voted repeatedly and without quibble or question to fund a Pentagon that has run a failing $8 trillion (and counting!) war on terror financed on just such debt. In fact, both of our recent infrastructure bills could have been paid for at their original higher funding levels with money to spare, had we not decided to go to war after 9/11 in a big-time fashion or even stopped the fighting after killing Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Finally — can you hear my sigh of relief? — President Biden actually cited the more than $2 trillion cost of the Afghan War in his defense of his administration’s decision to pull out of that country. That the cost of such a failed war wasn’t common knowledge, even then, should be (but isn’t) notable.

How could that be when “a trillion dollars” for infrastructure work here at home is a commonplace figure in debates everywhere, regardless of which side you’re on?  How can the cost of that bill be labeled as the “communist takeover of America” by Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and resisted tooth and nail by so many others like her when they say nothing about the costs of war?

The good news is that, whether you know those war figures or not, the difficult legwork of tracking down where those trillions of federal dollars have gone has actually been done and is available to anyone. In 2010, I was one of about two-dozen people — including social scientists, an Iraqi medical doctor, a journalist, and two human-rights lawyers — who started the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. We were nearly a decade into the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, initiated in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks by President George W. Bush and being carried on at the time by President Barack Obama. Anthropologist Catherine Lutz, political scientist Neta Crawford, and I were then concerned that Americans weren’t paying enough attention to what those wars were costing in lives and dollars.

Nor was the government helping. Costs of War economist Winslow Wheeler found that the Pentagon frequently failed to keep track of the money it spent, while its officials often entered made-up numbers in logs supposedly tracking supplies (like weaponry) to make budgets balance more comfortably and so influence future congressional funding. As we were soon to discover, the Department of Defense routinely failed even to keep track of whom it owed money to, no less how much.

What’s more, congressional funding for additional expenses unrelated to overseas wars, while stuffed into the Pentagon base budget, was regularly justified by this thing called “terrorism” that was everywhere (and nowhere) at once. Those terror wars of ours increased that base budget by at least $884 billion from 2001 to 2022.  

We relied on all kinds of sources from government watchdog agencies like the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) to local doctors and journalists in the distant lands our country was disrupting to fill in our gaps in knowledge until we gained a clearer picture of just how much those wars of ours had cost.

Some 10 years after the Costs of War Project’s initial launch, the project, now led by Stephanie Savell, Catherine Lutz, and Neta Crawford, is 50-people strong and has tracked so many things, including the more than 929,000 people killed in those wars of ours, almost half of them civilians, and the $8 trillion spent on them. That figure, however, doesn’t even include future interest payments on war borrowing, which we have estimated may total $6.5 trillion by the 2050s.

Yep, you got it! The interest alone that this country will fork over for those wars would have undoubtedly been more than enough to fund both infrastructure bills in their original forms.

Spent on America?

But it’s all for a good purpose, right? After all, in a Congress in which the two parties are now eternally at each other’s throats, the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act managed to pass in January by an overwhelming margin of 377-48 in the House and 86-8 in the Senate. That act authorized $731.6 billion, including $635.5 billion for the Department of Defense, $26.6 billion for Department of Energy national security programs (which presumably includes pilgrimages to ancient nuclear testing sites), $69 billion for overseas military operations, and $494 million for other “defense-related” activities. Included in that bill, to be sure, were some modest increases in military health care for families, including a few hours of “respite care” for military family members supporting someone with a developmental disability. But essentially none of that money went to improving the American quality of life. Want to guess if Senators Manchin and Sinema supported it? No need to even ask, is there?

Under the circumstances, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that the Pentagon’s total assets, as measured by its ships, aircraft, buildings, vehicles, computers, and weapons, have risen steadily since 2000 even as government investment in non-military infrastructure continued at a paltry rate — unchanged since the 1970s. Of course, those hundreds of billions of dollars “invested” in military infrastructure during just the first decade of the war on terror would have led to strikingly greater capital improvements if invested in education, health care, and green energy at home.

If you take a closer look at how our money has been spent on infrastructure in these years, everything just gets uglier and uglier. For example, more than half of the money the U.S. government spent on what were called “reconstruction efforts” in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan actually went to funding and arming local security forces. In Afghanistan, we recently saw just how well that turned out.

Beyond that, examples abound of so-called development money poorly spent or not accounted for. As a 2011 SIGAR report made all too clear, for example, one federally funded project in Afghanistan, the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, was tasked with building roads in that country. The investigation found that of 11 road projects surveyed, nine lacked plans or resources for future maintenance.

Similarly, according to a paper by Costs of War Project co-director Lutz and grassroots organizer Sujaya Desai, a 2012 SIGAR report revealed that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could not account for 95% of the materials it purchased that year to construct roads and other infrastructure in Iraq, including, for example, $1.3 billion in fuel that it had theoretically paid for. In 2011, the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan estimated that $31 billion to $60 billion were squandered in both war zones in incidents of waste, fraud, and abuse. Even the lower estimate would have covered about a year of paid family leave for working Americans.

Nor has all of this war spending made us safer. Stephanie Savell, for instance, did a case study of the U.S. war on terror security assistance to the African country of Burkina Faso. What she showed was how our ongoing security operations in the name of counterterrorism actually tend to do just the opposite of keeping us or anyone else safe. According to Savell, security assistance to foreign governments in just 36 of the 79 countries where we’ve recently conducted such operations cost the U.S. a total of $125 billion between 2002 and 2016. Yet the effect of such assistance, as she made all-too-vividly clear in one country, has been to bolster an authoritarian government, repress minority groups through violence, and facilitate war profiteering, while failing to provide needed humanitarian aid of any sort in the contested areas.

$8 Trillion (And Counting)

Our problem in this country, folks, isn’t lack of funds, no matter what the Republicans, Manchin, and Sinema may claim. Our problem is that we’re not paying attention to where our money actually goes or truly thinking about how it might be better spent.

As Pentagon experts William Hartung and Mandy Smithberger explained recently, even an exceedingly modest reduction in Pentagon spending of $1 trillion, or 15% of total current expenditures over the next decade (as recommended recently by the Congressional Budget Office), would still leave the Pentagon with a staggering $6.3 trillion to spend in those same years. Unfortunately, everything’s moving in the other direction. As those two authors remind us, only recently the Biden administration requested $750 billion for the next Pentagon budget and for nuclear weapons development at the Department of Energy. The Democratic-controlled House promptly responded (with, of course, strong support from the Republicans there) by voting to add $25 billion to that already stunning sum, even as the arguments only continued about how little to spend on us here at home.

If there’s one thing that’s reminiscent of overseas adversaries like Russia from which we theoretically seek to defend ourselves, it’s a tendency to spend increasing amounts of money on military assets at the expense of the general population, while demonizing those who would dare challenge that way of cutting up the national pie.

Every American should check out the Costs of War Project website to see how much money we’re still spending on military operations and decide for themselves whether it might not be better spent domestically. And if you think it might, Hartung and Smithberger’s article on cutting fat from the Pentagon budget is an excellent place to start. Send it to your elected representatives and ask them why we’ve spent $8 trillion on these endlessly failing wars of ours when we could have been building a social safety net here at home instead.

In the meantime, let me tiptoe into my son’s bedroom and make sure he’s truly sound asleep and then catch a few winks myself.

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  1. William Hunter Duncan

    I got a questionnaire from the ACLU asking a series of questions about how important I think systemic racism is, whether or not I think it is the most important issue facing America, and of course asking for money. I wrote all over in the margins, how important do you think an empire in a state of collapse is, with every institution deep in corruption, a totally unaccountable war machine in a world of ecological toxicity in the 6th great extinction?

    I assume when they get it and see that it doesn’t include a donation it will go straight into the trash.

    1. TimH

      I got a similar letter from DCCC (forget to flip back to Ind. after primaries) and the thought occurred that the people opening the replies are not the people that have anything to do with policy…

      1. Bob

        Please don’t hold your breath.

        Many replies sent to DCCC and to individual congress critters and never ever a reply. Not even a note to say thanks.

    2. Altandmain

      I think that as a whole, the ACLU has gone from a once very principled organization to one that has become a partisan arm of the Democratic Establishment.

    1. N. N. Paul

      No effect on her husband’s career. The author is co-founder of the Costs of War Project at Brown University. She has published a considerable number of articles like this over the years. It is hardly likely that her husband’s employer is unaware of this. The fact that is does not matter to them suggests to me that they know themselves to be untouchable. You are right–they just don’t care. They don’t have to.

      1. JEHR

        From the article:

        “That figure, however, doesn’t even include future interest payments on war borrowing, which we have estimated may total $6.5 trillion by the 2050s.”

        According to Michael Hudson, the Pentagon doesn’t have to worry about “borrowing” because the US has the world’s reserve currency, always has a current account deficit in trade which means other countries have surpluses in trade which means they pay for the American military abroad through those surpluses.

        The proposal would establish a virtual perpetual motion vehicle for the U.S. federal
        spending. The government would run a domestic budgetary and balance-of-payments
        deficit to finance its military and related spending. These dollars would accrue to foreign
        central banks, which would re-lend them to finance America’s development rather than
        that of their own economies.

        p. 303=””>Super Imperialism The Economic Strategy of American Empire by Michael Hudson

  2. The Rev Kev

    Sometimes you have to make the obvious conclusions. So trillions of dollars go to the Pentagon without any financial accountability and dubious results. But the basic infrastructure of America is being run down to turd world standards and you have additional problems like with childcare as mentioned in this article. So the government could turn this spigot of endless money to make America a premium country as far as infrastructure is concerned such as with roads, bridges, dams, communications, internet, etc. But here is the problem. Yes, the government could pay to have this all done but is refusing to unless it is arranged that public infrastructure is turned over to the private sector. The obvious conclusion then is that it is the private sector that is blocking rebuilding infrastructure in America unless it can be arranged that they achieve control of that infrastructure as part of the program of turning America into Rentier America.

    1. JohnA

      Surely, the private sector expects the government to upgrade everything and then privatise it to rentiers at a knockdown price? Isnt that the way it is supposed to work, socialise the costs, privatise the profits?

  3. LowellHighlander

    This is a brilliant public service, Ms. Smith. Thanks for publishing.

    As a veteran myself, I think of the arguments against having a Federal standing army that many in the 1780s were voicing while the U.S. Constitution’s adoption was being debated. (I read about these debates many years ago, so please forgive me for failing to speak with much specificity or any citations.) But many of those who fought in the Revolution did not want to re-create an Empire here because they knew how many of the country’s resources would be tied up in war, let alone the cost in lives. And a book I read on the Anti-Federalists talked of the political considerations in adopting the proposed Constitution because people (well, Whites) on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, such as poorer farmers, would have to pay new Federal taxes to help pay off the debts from the war.

    What galls me (and I learned this first-hand from living so many years in the Imperial Capital) is that if you raise these points, you’ll open yourself to charges that you’re unpatriotic or un-American. I suspect these ridiculous rejoinders could be put to bed if an American President had the courage to show the wealthy lifestyles of executives at the likes of Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin. That would make a nice Holiday gift, at least for Veterans.

  4. NotTimothyGeithner

    Not that Team Blue elites would go for it, but I always thought the “Cost of War” people had great arguments and clear graphics, which isn’t always true of groups.

    1. Questa Nota

      Interesting website, and those graphics are attention-getters. Imagine time series data overlaid with wars, budgets, administrations, unemployment, balance of trade and further categories. Then look at the old standby US economy graph from 1970 to present showing the shares to flatlined labor and increasing capital. May be intermingling a bit much but that is a point of entry to the issues.

  5. mistah charley, ph.d.

    Earlier today I was re-reading this Urban Dictionary definition:


    The Military-Industrial-Counter-Intelligence-Media-Academia-Think Tank complex – a term coined by CIA officer turned political activist Ray McGovern.

    Pepe Escobar: The “forever war” may have been a disaster for the bombed, invaded and impoverished “Afghan people,” but it was an unmitigated success for what Ray McGovern so memorably defines as the MICIMATT (Military-Industrial-Counter-Intelligence-Media-Academia-Think Tank) complex. Anyone who bought stocks of Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and the rest of that crowd made – literally – a killing.

    My own acronym MICFiC has never caught on, it seems.

  6. Susan the other

    I, we, have no way of knowing where the money actually went. Over 1 trillion a year for almost 20 years. War really is impossible to account for, but so many trillions gone without achieving anything whatsoever is hard to understand… how can that huge amount of money just disappear in “nation-building” or other nonsense. Money-better-spent really is the question here, as Andrea Mazzarino clearly outlines. But that’s hard to do when you don’t know how the money is allocated in the first place; and secondly what are some of the secret expenses besides outright embezzlement. Certainly a lot of money has gone into space science and basic science/physics/NASA over the last 2 decades. Money that we will never hear about. It is almost as though a noisy, chaotic war is needed to cover the actual use of the money. We can’t just publicly account for anti-gravity propulsion boondoggles, or neutron bombs on stealth drones – and all the other nonsense we imagine… We could, in fact, account for money-well-spent. But that would be a much larger budget – in addition to all the money locked down in the military insane asylum. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to demand that the money be well-spent and that we have something good to show for it at the end of the day. How do we do that?

    1. Stan

      I, we, have no way of knowing where the money actually went.

      Query folks in rich neighborhoods of Northern Virginia and lower parts of Maryland. Doing so would invite considerable personal risk, but you would find out exactly where a large chunk of that money went, even if you could not get past the public and private sector goon squads.

  7. JEHR

    From the article:

    “That figure, however, doesn’t even include future interest payments on war borrowing, which we have estimated may total $6.5 trillion by the 2050s.”

    According to Michael Hudson, the Pentagon doesn’t have to worry about “borrowing” because the US has the world’s reserve currency, always has a current account deficit in trade which means other countries have surpluses in trade which means they pay for the American military abroad through those surpluses.

    The proposal would establish a virtual perpetual motion vehicle for the U.S. federal
    spending. The government would run a domestic budgetary and balance-of-payments
    deficit to finance its military and related spending. These dollars would accrue to foreign
    central banks, which would re-lend them to finance America’s development rather than
    that of their own economies. p. 303=””>Super Imperialism The Economic Strategy of American Empire by Michael Hudson

  8. upstater

    I think the Cost of War project is great… however, I believe it is looking at the marginal cost of these violent misadventures and not a fully allocated cost. If 100,000 troops are deployed, there are an additional 100,000 in training and another 100,000 the have just gotten back. So 300,000 are required , with 2/3 in the US. Roughly 25% of military personnel are directly involved plus all the support required to support deployment. Maybe one third of the DOD was dedicated to supporting forever wars?

    One could assume that without the GWOT, NATO expansion and incessantly provoking China, the military would be far smaller.

    Imagine the opportunity costs of having perhaps half of all degreed engineers and huge numbers of other STEM types supporting the the DOD and associated national security state programs.

  9. scott s.

    The core problem is developing a strategy that is achievable within the resources we are willing to devote to it. If that strategy is to create a “new world order” or “rules-based international order” all underpinned by overwhelming American military power then you are going to have to increase the defense budgets to execute that.

    And while we can always bring up travel budgets or hammers, the Navy’s top priority is the Columbia class submarines. We either need these and the strategic weapons they will carry or we don’t. Of course, it doesn’t help when prior administrations engaged in wishful thinking of “transformation” that resulted in massive mis-direction of resources into things like littoral combat ships and stryker brigades. Now we have the problem of hyped AI and unmanned systems as magic solutions.

  10. David in Santa Cruz

    The Costs of War Project has been at the top of my “Favorites” tab for a few years.

    The Pentagon money machine is simply the engine of class warfare — a mechanism for unfettered wealth transfer to the rentier class similar to the CalPERS Private Equity and Real Estate programs. It has become an article of faith — and flag-wrapped patriotism — for our Congress-critters to simply turn-on the money hose and then gaze in the opposite direction while their oligarch benefactors gorge themselves, splashing spare change into congressional campaign accounts while turning brown people all around the world into tiny droplets of red mist.

    Then those same Congress-critters wag their fingers and tell the 90 percent of the population other than oligarch rentiers and their PMC courtiers and courtesans that, “you can’t have nice things.” It is an unconscionable state of affairs which our national media — across the limited ideological spectrum in which they operate — are as much to blame as anyone. Lovely and compelling writing like this from the CWP makes fools of them.

  11. Adam Eran

    Human software is defective (see Supernormal Stimulus). It permits infinite tolerance for some things…for example, sugar. You can suck down one of those “Big Gulp” drinks all day long, and your digestion will never send the signal that you’ve had enough calories. All of the seven deadly sins qualify as buggy software, but there’s certainly more.

    For example, who has enough safety, or justice? The quest for infinite safety is ridiculous, but it’s what makes this spending on warfare so palatable.

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