The Cost of War

When assessing the cost to America of the war in Iraq, a blue-ribbon panel says President Obama is all wet
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  March 20, 2013


On August 30, 2010, Obama addressed the nation from the Oval Office for just the second time, declaring a formal end to combat operations in Iraq.

"We have sent our young men and women to make enormous sacrifices in Iraq, and spent vast resources abroad at a time of tight budgets at home," he said. "Now, it is time to turn the page."

Turn the page.

Two-and-a-half years later, the phrase still rankles Catherine Lutz, professor of anthropology and international studies at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies.

"That's just crazy-making," she says, sitting in her office on a recent afternoon. "It implies that we wrote this book — and we don't even know what's in it. How can you turn the page on something you never read?"

Sure, she suggests, we all have some general sense for the war's costs. We all know, as the president said, that our military made "enormous sacrifices" and our government "spent vast resources."

But that is a poor accounting. A vague and incomplete one. More easily forgotten, perhaps, than we'd care to acknowledge.

And so, with the tenth anniversary of the war upon us, Lutz and a team of 30 economists, lawyers, humanitarian personnel, and political scientists from Brown to Boston University to the University of London have developed something more robust: a comprehensive, by-the-numbers look at the human, financial, and social impacts of the conflict.

The "Costs of War" study, which follows a similar report detailing the toll of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars ten years after 9/11, insists on a more accurate count of the big numbers: the death toll and the blow to the US Treasury.

But it also examines the underappreciated impacts of the conflict: on the environment, on civil society, on Iraq's children.

Neta Crawford, a professor of political science at Boston University who co-directs the "Costs of War" project with Lutz, says the nation — time and again — has overestimated the utility of war and underestimated its toll.

And with tension building in Iran and other global hot spots, she says, it is vital that we have a clear sense for the costs of the Iraq War so we don't make the same mistake.

"I think basically, deep down, my personal motivation is that I believe in democracy," she says. "I believe that we should have informed conversation, informed deliberations."

But the Iraq War can already seem a forgotten conflict. And while Crawford wants to believe that a report like "Costs of War" can jog our memory — and expand our understanding — she's not entirely sure. "Mostly what we have here is bad news," she says. "And it's hard to listen to bad news."

Indeed, it's hard to listen to the story of what may be the greatest geopolitical blunder in American history. But here it is.


$100 BILLION–$200 BILLION The estimate for the "upper bound" costs of the war in Iraq, offered in September 2002 by President Bush's chief economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsey.

Overall, Lindsey said, "the successful prosecution of the war would be good for the economy."

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