Calculating the cost of a war is a little like finding the true cost of a car
Amid the revelry, did you notice that the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan ended New Year’s Eve at midnight? Now that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are officially over—or merely “paused” as many in the Pentagon believe—it’s a fair time to check the meter to see how much these two conflicts cost the nation.
First rule: there are as many ways to measure the cost of a war as there are to measure the cost of a car.
Suppose, for example, you were a Pentagon war planner with a hankering for a GM Hummer back in 2009 when both wars were rumbling along. That’s the nifty, if not nimble, civilian variation of the U.S. military’s High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (Humvee, for short).
A quick check of Edmunds.com’s True Cost to Own calculator (after plugging in one of the Pentagon’s six Zip Codes) shows you’d pay the dealer $35,752 for the behemoth. But its true cost to own—depreciation, financing, fuel, insurance etc.—would more than double, to $78,616, over five years of ownership.
The analogy’s not precise, but it’s close enough to show that paying for wars doesn’t end when the fighting does. (And not only then: the nation won’t be paying for these wars only over the next five years, but for more than a generation). And while you can no longer buy a new Hummer, there’s always a new war sitting on out the lot, waiting to be waged. But it’s critical to be aware of its total cost.
The Congressional Research Service, for example, just fired up its calculators and concluded that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost U.S. taxpayers $1.6 trillion. That’s a fine figure, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough, and anyone who cites it as the conflicts’ cost is more Hummer salesman than steward of taxpayer funds.
A truer measure of the wars’ total costs pegs them at between $4 trillion and $6 trillion. This fuller accounting includes “long-term medical care and disability compensation for service members, veterans and families, military replenishment and social and economic costs,” Harvard economist Linda Bilmes calculated in 2013.
The Pentagon and its civilian overseers don’t like to talk about war costs, either before or after the shooting. That’s because a high price tag beforehand acts as an economic brake, making war—assuming that’s the goal—less likely. The nation may no longer draft soldiers, but when it wages war it has to draft dollars (borrowed or otherwise). Far better to try to sell a war with a low-cost estimate to mute possible public opposition.
And after the war—especially when victory is MIA—toting up the bottom line is just too depressing.
There are downsides to straying from such dogma. The George W. Bush Administration, for example, forced Lawrence Lindsey to resign as head of its National Economic Council shortly before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, after he said the cost of a war with Iraq might reach $200 billion. A month later, just before the U.S. invaded Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested the war’s total cost would be “something under $50 billion.” And the U.S., he added, would share that bill with its allies.
The new CRS report says the war in Iraq ended up costing $814.6 billion. Afghanistan has cost $685.6 billion.
Bilmes, in her 2013 study, said the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have been “the most expensive wars in U.S. history.” That, of course, was before the U.S. entered its third Iraq war in August, and before the U.S. decided to keep troops in Afghanistan through 2016.
But just because those U.S. troops in Afghanistan no longer have a combat mission doesn’t mean they’re a bargain: the CRS report says the cost of keeping a single American soldier there this year is an eye-watering $3.9 million.