The money flows out — from public and private coffers to military contractors, overseas partners and veteran hospitals. Territory is gained and lost, flags raised and lowered and bodies buried. The transactions — financial, physical and human — add up.
The total cost, determined by the Costs of War Project at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, paints the picture of an indefinite war predicated on appropriations without a delineated budget or defined costs. By bringing together an international cohort of scholars, human rights practitioners, lawyers and other experts, the Costs of War Project hopes to transform this approach to military campaigns.
Over the past two months, the project put out two reports defining certain costs from the past 15 years of post-9/11 conflict: a $4.8 trillion budgetary price tag, which includes past, present and future obligations as well as the 173,000 lives lost in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The reports are for “anybody who is interested,” said Neta Crawford, professor of political science at Boston University and one of three directors of the project. “I am interested in policy makers; I am interested in the average person. I try to write clearly … so that anybody from high school student to policy maker can have insights.”
Another audience targeted by the report is journalists, said Stephanie Savell GS, a doctoral candidate in anthropology and another of the project’s directors. “This astronomical figure is never calculated all in one place by anyone so the idea is that if we can get this information out to journalists, they can get it out to the public.”
The project’s reports are especially important in the context of the 2016 election, Crawford said. “Perhaps part of the impetus is the American public might want to think about” the policy proposals offered by this year’s candidates, she added.
The group’s efforts are also rendered important by the potential for a protracted fight against ISIS, said Catherine Lutz, professor of international studies and the third director of the project. “One of the dilemmas is following the violence — following the wars as they change and cross boundaries,” she said. “ISIS is in part a result of the war in Iraq. A very large part of its genesis comes out of the chaos that emerged when the U.S. invaded, so there’s going to be challenges like that.”
The first paper from the project, released in August, delineates some of the human costs of the war, updating a report on the same subject published in May 2015.
“Figures from the first six months of 2016 suggest that the trend in increased death and injury continues in Afghanistan, and that after a lull in 2015, Pakistan has become increasingly violent in the first half of 2016,” Crawford wrote in the paper. The number of Afghan deaths has started to increase even more than in previous years because the burden of fighting in the country is shifting to Afghan forces.
A sense of human cost in Pakistan is harder to put into figures because of targeted killings of journalists and the confidentiality of U.S. drone strike data. Using sources, including reports put out by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence and the Pakistan Body Count, Crawford estimates there were 62,000 deaths in Pakistan from 2011 to 2015. That figure is only expected to increase.
The consistently high rates of violence are the result of an assumption on both sides that force is the best means of success, according to Crawford. “The United States has a long history … of assuming that if somebody is not doing what you’d like them to do, and if they pose an actual threat, what you ought to do is threaten to use force. Now when we look at the other side, insurgents also assume that force works. We’re locked in a dynamic where both sides assume that force works, and we have to get out of that in order to stop killing each other.”
According to Crawford’s second paper, the U.S. system of funding the wars is also entrenched. The institutionalized costs of the wars consist of “increased weapons procurement, health care and active duty pay. There is little willingness in Congress to cut military spending, even on very expensive items that the Pentagon has said it does not want or need.”
Beyond the growth in annual Pentagon appropriations and the mushrooming of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs expenses is the astronomical costs of interest on U.S. debt. “Interest costs for overseas contingency operations spending alone are projected to add more than $1 trillion … to the national debt by 2023. By 2053, interest costs will be at least $7.9 trillion unless the U.S. changes the way it pays for the wars,” according to the report.
As of now, the wars have been almost entirely financed by loans, as tax increases or other regularized income sources have not accompanied increases in expenditures. Not since the Revolutionary War has an American war been financed so significantly by borrowing — and after that war, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton insisted the nation quickly repay the loans.
No such financial diuretic is in store this time, according to Savell. The cultural climate around military spending leads to a lack of critical questioning. “Fear is part of the political dynamics of the post-9/11 wars,” she said. This has “led to widespread Congressional support, not just for war funding, but also for broader Department of Defense and massive Homeland Security spending.”
“We have to think about the economic stability of perpetual war,” Crawford said. “I’m just trying to help people understand what’s going on. I really am a person committed to democracy, and democracy requires truth and information and a willingness to look at evidence.”