Will Policymakers Ever Stop Underestimating the True Cost of War?
On April 6, the hundred year anniversary of the United States’ entrance into World War I, President Trump ordered 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles to be fired at Syria’s Al Shayrat airfield. The strike came after Syrian President Assad’s most recent use of chemical weapons against rebel units and citizens living in opposition-controlled areas. Although officials claim this strike is a “one-off,” as we look back at another war –– one that may seem distant –– many parallels emerge to our current War on Terror, and warn of the danger of sending additional forces into Syria. Americans would do well to remember that wars usually cost more than assumed and that they invariably erode the domestic freedoms that the fighting is supposed to protect.
As any good student of history or economics will tell you, wars are expensive and have long-lasting consequences for decades or even a century. Yet, the start of a conflict is often greeted with a bizarre degree of enthusiasm, only for voters and governments to later realize the terrible price. In 1914, crowds cheered in every European capital as politicians predicted glorious victory that would see the boys home “before the leaves fall.” The war would last until 1918 and cause 41 million military and civilian casualties, about 20 million killed and 21 million injured. Moreover, the financial burden was billions of dollars, leaving the major European powers weakened and in debt. The Great War also hit Americans with a bill that would amount to $334 billion in 2014 dollars. This pattern of underestimating the price of war has repeated itself in subsequent conflicts, including our present day ones.
When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, officials said the war would be short and estimated the cost at no more than $200 billion. Yet mission creep, the phenomenon when military and political objectives of using force keep expanding, set in. With a vaguely-worded authorization for the use of military force passed by Congress, soon the goals and enemies multiplied as the conflict spread across the globe. Including U.S. military involvement in at least five wars: Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. The combined War on Terror has cost at least $3.6 trillion. That rises to $4.79 trillion when requested spending and projected costs are taken into account.
Spending an amount similar to World War II would be alarming enough on its own, but borrowing at such a level when combined with ongoing U.S. entitlement costs is unsustainable. One fact many hawks on the left and right keep ignoring is that the national debt is now greater than America’s GDP and is about to hit $20 trillion.
The cost in lives is also high. It has been estimated that 6,800 U.S. military personnel and 6,900 contractors died in the War on Terror. Allied forces suffered too, with 43,000 killed, mostly from the Iraqi and Afghan militaries. Although the number of civilians killed is unclear, one more common estimate is at least 218,100 Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis who have died violently as a direct cause of the wars. This number was compiled by Brown University and is one of the few academic reports available. If the number of indirect deaths from factional fighting, the collapse of basic services, insurgent attacks, or displacement is also accounted for, then the total would increase by a few more hundred thousand at a minimum.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates at least 900,000 members of the U.S. armed forces have suffered injuries, including 357,048 suffering from traumatic brain injuries. Furthermore, about 20 percent of personnel, or 300,000 people, have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.
Additionally, civil liberties are curtailed during wartime. Governments often regulate free speech in the name of winning the war. They will also manufacture and promote pro-war propaganda, knowing citizens are more likely to accept diminishing freedom if they are told it will make them safe. For instance, shortly after declaring war on Germany in 1917, the U.S. government created the Committee on Public Information to manage the press and flood the media with propaganda.
Under Wilson, Congress enacted the Sedition Act of 1918. The Sedition Act made it illegal to say, write, or publish “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the U.S. government or the military. Thus, war protests and everyday speech were criminalized with penalties of $10,000 or 20 years of jail time. The law was upheld by the Supreme Court and, though it eventually was repealed, the legal basis and precedents remain in place.
More recently, the 9/11 attacks provided the opportunity for the Bush and Obama administrations to create history’s most invasive surveillance state –– one that records texts, phone calls, emails, and other forms of communication around the world. All of these powers, crafted and regulated in secret, could one day be turned on average citizens if the President wanted to punish his political opponents or a public dissident. In fact, previous clandestine powers already have been used to target U.S. citizens, ranging from collecting emails and internet searches without a court order in recent years to previous wiretaps of civil rights leaders in the 1960s, including one FBI attempt to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr. into committing suicide.
The costs of the War on Terror remain high, yet were largely ignored and unquestioned during the last presidential election. Bush ordered U.S. forces into these conflicts, and Obama continued and expanded it, leaving behind a large debt, mission creep, and a surveillance state in the hands of President Trump. Now Trump has hit Syria, and it is still unclear what his end goal is, assuming he has one. Will these be only surgical strikes, ones designed to punish the use of chemical weapons and theoretically deter their future use? Or, does Trump intend to use more strikes and forcing no-fly zones, as some, including Hillary Clinton, urge him to do? If Trump wants to go all-in, will he seek Congressional backing as is legally required?
Although America’s entry into World War I was a century ago, its lingering impact on lives, taxpayers, and civil rights should be familiar today. U.S. leaders and citizens ought to approach any use of military force with a firm wariness over the costs in money, lives, and freedoms that invariably accompany war. The decision to attack a Syrian airbase and the uncertainty of what comes next are timely reminders of the lessons Americans must learn from our past wars.