A decade of turmoil

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  September 7, 2011


Lutz, chair of the anthropology department at Brown, was co-director of the Costs of War project (costsofwar.org), an exhaustive look at the price we have paid — in human and economic terms — for the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The team, which included economists, political scientists, anthropologists, legal experts, and a doctor, released their report in June. Among the findings: there were 550,000 disability claims filed with the US Department of Veterans Affairs as of last fall — and many deaths and injuries among American contractors have not been identified; the total war dead, military and non-military, is roughly 225,000; the cost of the wars is about $4 trillion.

THE PROJECT IS, AT ITS HEART, A STARTLING COLLECTION OF NUMBERS. WHICH WAS THE MOST STARTLING TO YOU? Well, in some ways, what was most startling was seeing how difficult it was to get the numbers. This is the most important thing that's happened in the last 10 years, to the people of several countries, yet it's not been carefully reported. And it's kind of disturbing.

There's been very little interest on the part of the Pentagon [in sharing information]. They've been encouraged and asked and even demanded, by Congress, to be more forthcoming. There's really strikingly bad accounting processes and accountability for Pentagon spending, in general. But certainly the war has made it all worse.

That's the big story: not that we don't know, but that it's so hard to know.

WE KNOW THAT THE WARS HAVE ADDED SUBSTANTIALLY TO OUR DEBT. HOW HAVE THEY IMPACTED THE ECONOMY WRIT LARGE? In several ways. Borrowed money has a negative impact on economic growth through the process of raising interest rates — the government competes with the private sector for capital and it raises the cost of borrowing for home mortgages, for car loans. You say, actually they're pretty low right now. But they would've been even lower.

The invasion of Iraq had a negative effect on oil prices. Global oil prices shot up and have stayed high. That has affected economic recovery.

The third thing is the effect on employment. People see war as a stimulating activity. And all federal spending can be stimulative — increased jobs. But one of our economists assessed the relative effect of spending for these wars. Had the federal government spent that same money on other things, the effect on job creation would have been much more positive and for several reasons. Military spending tends to be less labor intensive compared to teaching, compared to health care, compared to home construction. It's a much higher ratio of very expensive technology. There are fewer higher-paid workers in that sector. And many of the dollars are exported overseas.

WOULD WE HAVE SPENT THAT MONEY ON HEALTH CARE OR EDUCATION HAD WE NOT GONE TO WAR? It depends on the political climate and the political will, which has been kind of absent, especially now, thanks to the Tea Party and all that effort to shrink the government rather than expand it.

YOU FOCUS IN YOUR REPORT ON THE NEGATIVE IMPACTS OF THE WARS ON IRAQI AND AFGHAN WOMEN. BUT SURELY WOMEN IN AFGHANISTAN ARE BETTER OFF THAN THEY WERE UNDER THE TALIBAN. The war is not good for women. There are a few more girls' schools. But there are many more widows, there are many more women who are refugees. The overall picture is not positive.

The situation was dire even before the Taliban. It's been a very poor country.

WHAT SHOULD WE DO TO CHANGE COURSE NOW? Not everybody on our team of 22 people have the same view of this. But I'll speak for myself. I think that the only thing to do here is withdraw and then a political effort — a multinational, political effort — to find a political solution to the kinds of contests for power [we see] within both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The costs we've identified are ongoing. The idea that the war in Iraq is somehow over and that the war in Afghanistan is winding down is actually not the way to look at it because there continues to be a large military presence in both countries, which is costing hundreds of billions for the next several years, just for the direct costs. And then other indirect costs that we've identified for the last 10 years have to be added on top of that.

And the death toll continues.

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