War Is Over Ending and Paying For the Iraq War

Terrance Heath

I heard one of my favorite holiday songs on the radio yesterday — John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” I’ve always loved it, but this year it holds special meaning for me — especially the children of the Harlem Community Choir singing “War is over, if you want it.” on the chorus .

This holiday season, I got someething that — as a progressive — I have wanted for years: an end to the war in Iraq. As it happens, this “gift” is like many given and received this time of year. You never really know what you’re getting until you unwrap it. Once unwrapped, it’s not to be quite what you thought or hoped it would be. And, even with price tag removed, you know it cost way too much.

In this case, there are multiple price tags, and the exact price is hard to calculate. In March, the Congressional Research Office put the cost of our latest misadventure in Iraq at $806 billion. President Obama has said that the Iraq war will likely end up costing over $1 trillion. Out of that, billions were wasted or stolen outright by private contractors, as Donald Rumsfeld’s dream of privatized warfare with virtually no oversight came true. Meanwhile, Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bimes say the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cold end up costing anywhere from $4 trillion to $6 trillion.

Then there is the cost that cannot be calculated: The human cost. Jim Wallis — who, like me, has a son who was born in the run-up to the Iraq war — calculated that cost back in October, when President Obama announced that .

Here are some of the costs of an unjust war:

  • 4,499 U.S. military killed
  • 32,200 wounded
  • 110,000 estimated Iraqi civilian deaths
  • 2.5 million internally displaced Iraqis
  • $800 billion in federal funding for the Iraq War through FY2011
  • An estimated $3-5 trillion total economic cost to the United States of the war in Iraq.
  • As many as 300,000 U.S. troops returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • 320,000 troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with traumatic brain injuries
  • The number of suicide attempts by veterans could exceed an earlier official estimate of 1,000 a month.

Such a list takes my breath away and should drive each of us to pray for lives that have been so painfully and irreparably changed.

The Center for American Progress published a report called “The Iraq War Ledger,” that includes a stark illustration of how much the war has cost the Iraqi people.

As devastating as these figures are, they’re still only a partial accounting of the unnecessary costs of a war of choice, and the price unnecessarily paid by American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. As I wrote back in September, after the audience at a GOP debate booed a gay soldier serving in Iraq, “supporting the troops” in Iraq since 2003 has included:

This doesn’t even include taking veterans’ benefits hostage to score political points or cutting veteran’s benefits to pay off the deficit, even as thousands of veterans are homeless, struggling to find jobs, or coping with traumatic brain injury and other devastating war wounds.

Some of the wounds of war suffered by our soldiers are shared with Iraqi civilians. Many soldiers are returning from Iraq with untreatable lung disease, believed to be caused by “unknown toxins in the middle east.” Many Iraqis suffered horrific wounds long-term war related sickness due to known toxins in the Middle East — known toxins, because we dropped them in Iraq and admitted to to doing so. Just as many Iraq veterans suffer from PTSD, more than any other mental problems as a result of their service in Iraq, so do many iraqis almost certainly suffer from PTSDabout 5 million, if rate of incidence parallels that of U.S. soldiers, including a huge percentage of Iraqi children — as a result of our government’s choice to go to war in Iraq.

iraq_war_games.jpg (JPEG Image, 800x533 pixels)The Iraq war is still defended in some circles. And the fact that Saddam Hussein no longer terrorizes his people and the world is a real gain. But the losses – human, financial, moral, strategic – vastly outweigh this welcome fact. And by loss, I don’t just mean fatalities or money. I mean the devastation of the thousands of wounded vets, men and women saved by miraculous medicine who deal with PTSD, and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians either dead or traumatized beyond my understanding by the years of murderous chaos unleashed by Bush and Cheney. How damaged can the psyche be of an Iraqi child who grew up in 2004 – 2006? How traumatized would you be if your brother or father or relative showed up one day beheaded at the end of your street? Or your cousin returns from brutal torture session? These things have a real cost and carry a heavy toll. One reason I remain a pessimist about the fractured country is that human beings simply cannot recover easily from that kind of massive trauma. It is a country with PTSD.

The war is not over for our veterans, and statistics from the Cost of War website show that it isn’t’ over for Iraqis either.

The Bush administration assured all before the war that great care would be taken to avoid harm to civilians. The use of precision-guided bombs was stressed. Despite this assurance, most of the coalition caused deaths were due to air attack. As killing by coalition forces declined later in the war, insurgent and sectarian violence increased.

Despite the billions committed to aid and reconstruct Iraq, the country remains devastated by the war. Many parts of the country still suffer from lack of access to clean drinking water and housing. Some numbers of people have died due to the war’s effect on Iraqi infrastructure and economy, in particular on the systems that provide health care and clean drinking water. As the direct war death declines, the indirect harm will continue until medical and other infrastructure is repaired.

Several million people remain internally displaced; several million others have fled the country. Unemployment is high. The health of women and children is the most vulnerable in Iraq and many Iraqis are hungry, and dependent on rations.

Iraq’s high devastated economy and resulting huh unemployment has many Iraqi women and children vulnerable to a burgeoning sex trade that has thrived in an Iraq destabilized by our war, and has expanded its reach to export Iraqi refugees to Syria and Jordan as sex slaves.

According to the site, our war in Iraq did a number on Iraq’s economy.

  • Neoliberal policies instituted by the US in 2003 have resulted in increased unemployment, raised insecurity and ultimately slowed the pace of reconstruction. Agriculture and manufacturing have stagnated.   
  • Manufacturing has been hard hit by loss of electrical capacity during the sanctions and war years.
  • Unemployment remains high, estimated by the Iraqi government at 23% in 2011, and by the UN at 28%

Our war in Iraq did a number on our economy too. As Richard Eskow and Ezra Klein pointed out, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the primary drivers of our current budget deficit and debt.

cbppdebtchart.jpg (350×432)Are you a fan of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ deficit chart, but you wish it focused on public debt instead? Well, wish no more. The Washington-based holding tank for superwonks has remade its deficit chart into a debt chart.

The takeaway hasn’t changed. “The Bush-era tax cuts and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — including their associated interest costs — account for almost half of the projected public debt in 2019.” If you’ve been reading this blog, you knew that already. What you might not have known is this: After you add the financial crisis and associated rescue packages to the total, “public debt due to all other factors fell from over 30 percent of GDP in 2001 to 20 percent of GDP in 2019.”

In other words, cut the financial crisis and the major initiatives from the Bush-era out of the picture, and we’d be in pretty good shape. In fact, we’d be in great shape. “Without the economic downturn and the fiscal policies of the previous Administration, the budget would be roughly in balance over the next decade. That would have put the nation on a much sounder footing to address the demographic challenges and the cost pressures in health care that darken the long-run fiscal outlook.”

That’s how we went from a $230 billion surplus in 2000 to a $15 trillion debt. As Andrew Lam wrote at the New American Media blog, that’s about $1.3 trillion going south every year.

Wherever he is right now, you can bet Osama Bin Laden is smiling.

Did Osama bin Laden actually win in the end?

That depends.

The question came to mind for me after reading Ezra Klein’s post about what he called bin Laden’s war against U.S. economy.

Did Osama bin Laden win? No. Did he succeed? Well, America is still standing, and he isn’t. So why, when I called Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism expert who specializes in al-Qaeda, did he tell me that “bin Laden has been enormously successful”? There’s no caliphate. There’s no sweeping sharia law. Didn’t we win this one in a clean knockout?

Apparently not. Bin Laden, according to Gartenstein-Ross, had a strategy that we never bothered to understand, and thus that we never bothered to defend against. What he really wanted to do — and, more to the point, what he thought he could do — was bankrupt the United States of America. After all, he’d done the bankrupt-a-superpower thing before. And though it didn’t quite work out this time, it worked a lot better than most of us, in this exultant moment, are willing to admit.

The thing is, if bankrupting the America was his goal, bin Laden got a lot of help along the way from the U.S. government itself. Maybe that’s what Ezra says is so hard to admit.

The superpower Ezra says bin Laden successfully bankrupted was the Soviet Union. Bin Laden wisely bet that engaging the Soviet Union on the battlefield, and keeping them on the battlefield, would cause Soviets to pour money into a long, expensive, not-really-winnable war. rather than admit defeat.

…And, America bought it. That, as Ezra says, is the story of how America went from surpluses to deficits. Well, part of it anyway. Choosing to get into two very expensive wars — the Iraq war cost us about $3 trillion or more, and Afghanistan is running us about $8 billion a month — along with tax cuts for the rich that cost us about $2.5 trillion in revenue, is what got us into this hole.

Here’s another awkward point. As Scheer pointed out, bin Laden was a monster of our own creation. So is the economic hole we find ourselves in. America dug it, and then fell it in. If bin Laden deserves any credit, then it’s for being smart enough to know that if he led us to it, we would jump in it by pouring trillions of dollars into a war with no clear “winning” strategy. Imagine his surprise when he got a “two-for-one” deal, with the Iraq war.

All that, for a war that — according to the CAP report — empowered Iran in Iraq and the surrounding region, created a terrorist training ground, cost the U.S. international standing, diverted resources from Afghanistan, stifled democratic reform, and fueled sectarianism in the region.

All that, because our government chose to go to war with a country that, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s confusion notwithstanding, had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, no ties to al Qaeda, and no weapons of mass destruction. Nor was there any humanitarian justification for the war in Iraq, as Human Rights Watch reported in 2004. There were no mass slaughters underway or on the way, and we were at least two decades too late to stop some of Saddam’s mass murders, because at the time he wasn’t just an SOB — he was our SOB. The most we could do was dig up the remains. Instead of riding in on white horses to stop an atrocity in progress, there’s increasing evidence that we committed some atrocities of our own, beyond those we already know about.

And for all that, despite the “end” of the war in Iraq having been declared, and the number of U.S. soldiers coming home, it isn’t really over and we aren’t really leaving.

But the fact is America’s military efforts in Iraq aren’t coming to an end. They are instead entering a new phase. On January 1, 2012, the State Department will command a hired army of about 5,500 security contractors, all to protect the largest U.S. diplomatic presence anywhere overseas.

The State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security does not have a promising record when it comes to managing its mercenaries. The 2007 Nisour Square shootings by State’s security contractors, in which 17 Iraqi civilians were killed, marked one of the low points of the war. Now, State will be commanding a much larger security presence, the equivalent of a heavy combat brigade. In July, Danger Room exclusively reported that the Department blocked the Congressionally-appointed watchdog for Iraq from acquiring basic information about contractor security operations, such as the contractors’ rules of engagement.

That means no one outside the State Department knows how its contractors will behave as they ferry over 10,000 U.S. State Department employees throughout Iraq — which, in case anyone has forgotten, is still a war zone. Since Iraq wouldn’t grant legal immunity to U.S. troops, it is unlikely to grant it to U.S. contractors, particularly in the heat and anger of an accident resulting in the loss of Iraqi life.

It’s a situation with the potential for diplomatic disaster. And it’s being managed by an organization with no experience running the tight command structure that makes armies cohesive and effective.

In addition, it looks like another 150 U.S. service members will stay behind, training and advising Iraqi security forces — as part of training that has already been called a “bottomless pit” of American money.

Yet, as Andrew Lam noted, even as the president announced the “end” of the war in Iraq, congress approved $662 billion in defense spending, with very little debate about military spending that’s more likely to cost jobs than create jobs.

The simple truth is that, beyond war industry hype, military spending costs us jobs. According to the Political Economy Research Institute’s (PERI) 2009 study, when you compare it to other ways of spending the money, every $1 billion spent for military purposes costs us, at minimum, 3,222 jobs. At the upper end, war spending costs us 17,500 or more jobs per billion dollars. Military spending creates fewer jobs, both directly and indirectly, than every other kind of spending studied by PERI. So, given that we spend well in excess of $700 billion every year on war in this country, it’s fair to say that our obsession with war spending is sucking the life right out of our economy.

War spending is good at making a few corporations very rich at the expense of the rest of us, however. Take Lockheed Martin, for example. Lockheed is the top contractor for both the Pentagon (.pdf) and the U.S. government in general (.xls), having made $35.8 billion off the taxpayer in 2010. Just to put that in perspective, if they were an “official” arm of the U.S. government, their taxpayer-funded budget, ironically, would be roughly three times the size of the Department of Labor (.pdf). Their CEO, Robert J. Stevens, made $21.9 million dollars last year, or $10,527.80 per hour. That’s a pretty sweet deal for the head of a company whose two marquee products, the F-22 and the F-35, have yet to see action in a war-zone because they aren’t safe or don’t work.

While Lockheed Martin and their buddies in the war industry are rolling in the taxpayers’ dough, the rest of us are choking on the ashes of the economy. The unemployment rate in this country as usually quoted in the press exceeds 9 percent. But, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, real unemployment exceeds 16 percent and has remained relatively flat for at least a year. Last month, the economy created zero jobs. Given this very nasty employment picture, there’s absolutely no justification for maintaining what’s essentially a job-killing corporate welfare program for war profiteers.

So, while it’s tempting to join in cheering the end of the Iraq war, as a defeat for neocons and a victory for progressives, it doesn’t feel quite right. As someone who’s been a part of the anti-war movement since Operation Desert Storm, and joined with thousands of others to march against Operation Enduring Freedom and this most recent war Iraq, I definitely join the families of our service members in celebrating the love-one’s homecomings. And I want very much to join in a celebration of a true end to our war i Iraq. Like I said before, it’s like getting something for Christmas that I’ve spent years wanting and asking for.

But putting the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Iraq into context, it feels less like getting a long-awaited gift than it does getting getting the dreaded bill in the mail, for a too-expensive gift bought on credit.

 

 

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