The true costs of our wars — is anyone paying attention?

January 6, 2019

What goes largely unspoken in discussing our endless wars since 9/11 is the fact they are waged almost entirely on borrowed money. Sixty percent of the funding comes from U.S. investors, 40 percent from other countries.

In other words, these are credit card wars, and according to the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University, the total cost of the carnage in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria is a stupefying $5.9 trillion.

Setting aside the disturbing moral issues raised by these wars — over 480,000 persons killed as a direct result — the practical implications alone scream for more attention. Indeed, they make a compelling case that unless we make major changes in our unrelenting pursuit of military supremacy and global hegemony, what is left of American democracy will be swept away in a flood of debt.

The money has to be paid back, of course, and since we are not likely to see huge sums like $5.9 trillion paid back very quickly, it means that already, up to now, the interest payments alone have cost us more than $453 billion. Projecting ahead to the year 2053, if the principle is not paid, the magic of compound interest dictates that interest payments will ascend to a stratospheric $7.9 trillion.

By the way, if the figure of $5.9 trillion seems extravagantly high, don’t be surprised. According to the Watson studies, government appropriations for war and war-related activities are usually just the tip of the iceberg. That is because these expenses are scattered over different agencies, and no single amount over time is published.

For example, $717 billion was appropriated for the military budget in 2019. But that does not reflect the war-related activities of U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which, since 9/11, has exceeded $548 billion, or for future medical and disability benefits already allocated for veterans, which totals $1 trillion.

So what then are the practical ramifications for ordinary people?

First of all, huge sums of money will flow out of this country to foreign investors, diminishing funds necessary for solving devastating problems here and now, such as health care, poverty, homelessness, violence, infrastructure.

Secondly, the payback also means huge sums of money will flow to our already wealthy U.S investors — and therefore the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. The mounting rise of social and economic inequality, already at ignominious heights, will be driven even higher.

Recall also that although the U.S. is the wealthiest country in the world, it also has the second-worst child poverty rate among 35 developed countries, squeaking in at No. 34 ahead of Romania. A United Nations study for the Human Rights Council has concluded that 40 million people in the U.S. live in poverty — and more than half of those live in extreme poverty.

In any case, the Watson Institute studies are not fanciful figures, they represent hard empirical data. They make the case that to continue our perpetual wars, to maintain an empire of 800 military bases around the world, to conduct counter-terrorism operations in 76 different countries — as we are doing right now — the government cannot at the same time satisfy the legitimate needs and desires of a democratic citizenry. And a government that stops satisfying the expressed needs of its people also stops being a representative government.

Is anyone paying attention? Or are we simply slouching toward bedlam?

Jerry Delaney is a freelance writer living in Santa Fe.

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