Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Cost

For those of you just waking up from a coma or returning from a sensory deprivation chamber, the last “US combat brigade” officially left Iraq last week. It seemed an appropriate time for a pause to reflect on the cost we've incurred.

I heard someone remark on TV the other day about over four thousand lives lost and a trillion dollars spent. The four thousand people I understand. It's a lot of people, but I can conceive of it. Forty rows of a hundred people each. Or perhaps eight or ten large passenger jets full of people. That's a lot. Each was a person, with a life, probably a family, all affected.

But I don't think that's the full count of lives lost. I hope to convince you it's a terribly low number. I think the number of casualties of this war was much, much larger. And I didn't mean the injured or those with psychological damage, such as PTSD. Those are also costs, and I don't mean to discount them. But those are not the ones I mean. I'm actually meaning to count deaths. And yes, there are Iraqis dead. They're often not counted. That's sad as well. But I mean the count of American deaths is low, at least as I tally it.

But first, let's return to the trillion dollars. That's an incomprehensibly large amount of money. A million dollars is hard for many to comprehend. A trillion is a million million. It makes it seem almost quaint to think back on the late Senator Everett Dirksen's familiar quote, “A few billion here, a few billion there and before you know it, you're talking real money...” A trillion is a thousand billion. That's a lot. It's more than seventeen times the wealth of Bill Gates.

To understand this number better, I'd like to speak for a moment about something called opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is not the direct cost we pay out, but is a measure of what we lose by not doing something else. One can't do everything in life. Usually making a choice to do one thing locks out the opportunity to do other things. So sometimes you can't just look at what you got by taking a certain choice, but you also have to look at what you lost.

For example, there are 310 million people in the US. Instead of going to war with Iraq, we could have borrowed a trillion dollars and just given $3226 to each person (man, woman, or child). We'd still owe the trillion dollars, just like we do now, but everyone in the US would be that much richer. We didn't choose to do that. But one way to conceive the cost of the war is to say we denied ourselves that money.

It's unlikely we'd have ever had such a handout, at least not like that. But here's another thought: Lots of people get sick and don't have health care. Sometimes they get sick because they don't have health care—maybe they weren't getting screenings for things they should have. So the cost of saving them might be trivial. Perhaps a few hundred dollars. Or maybe it would be a simple procedure or some medication. Perhaps a few thousand dollars. Maybe it would require serious surgery. Let's be very, very conservative and guess that it takes $100,000 to save a life. It will make my point and then we can come back and look at the other possibilities.

Instead of paying a trillion dollars on a war, if it cost $100,000 to save a life, there are ten million $100,000's in a trillion dollars. That means we lost the chance to save ten million lives. Let me say that another way: Ten million people died who didn't have to. Or maybe more, if you think my $100,000 number is high. If you could find a way to save a life for $10,000, there are one hundred million such bundles available in a trillion dollars. But let's be conservative in our back-of-the-envelope calculations here and say just ten million. It makes the point well enough. Either way, we didn't spend our money that way. We made our choices, and those who could have been saved were not. We spent the money on the war instead of on them.

So going back to where I began and trying to fathom the depth of meaning in “a trillion dollars and over four thousand lives,” one way to conceive the phrase is to say “ten million civilians dead and four thousand military dead.” And, in a sad irony, if the money had been spent on those ten million, the four thousand military would probably still be around, too.

Ten million people. That's six times the population of Manhattan.

Let's not forget the chilling imagery created by Condoleezza Rice when she said, “The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” We didn't want even the chance of losing one actual city to terrorism, yet in order to avoid it, we spent enough that we could have probably saved that many people six times over. That was a lot to spend, both in dollars and in lives.

And if you don't like me making up numbers about how much it costs to save a life, another way to sum up the human cost is by looking at the cost of universal health care. It's estimated to cost somewhere around $70 billion (annually). So we could have paid for universal health care for 14 years with that same trillion dollars we borrowed to help out Iraq. That would, again, be a lot of healthy people. At no more cost than we're paying today.

Oh, right. I'm being unfair. We supposedly gained something from the war. We didn't fight it for no reason. We were told we were fighting the war in Iraq so we wouldn't have to fight the terrorists here. Is it likely that we're safe now? After all that expense, did we achieve that goal? Bush said “mission accomplished.” (I've noticed that Obama has avoided that phrase, even as he pulls so-called “combat troops” out of Iraq.)

Are we safe now? Do we have no more risk of terrorism here now that we fought that war? I don't know about you, but I think not. It's not the soldiers' fault, of course, but we didn't accomplish our mission, not that one. That mission was not possible to accomplish. We couldn't rid ourselves of terrorism by fighting with people in Iraq. And we won't be free of terrorism if we keep on in Afghanistan. We'll just be poorer, and that makes us less safe.

The big risk to our national security is wasting our wealth. We neglected the lesson of the Cold War, that one can lose a war by simply overspending. We've squandered our dollars and, I claim, in ways that we'll never bother to tally, we've squandered lives.

Yes, a lot of our military died. We should mourn them. But there are hidden casualties—really a lot of them. We should mourn them, too. Many Americans died here at home but won't be counted as war dead, even though if we hadn't fought this war, they did not have to die. We could have been wealthy enough to afford to spend that money on life.† But we gave up that opportunity. That is the true cost of the war.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published August 26, 2010 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): saving lives, opportunity, pro-life, choice, mushroom cloud, body count, death count, casualties, casualty count, opportunity cost, million dollars, billion dollars, trillion dollars, health care, life, death, cost, civilian, military, war, politics

Click here to see the cost of the ongoing wars.

Click here to see the Iraq War casualty count.

†Yes, you're right that the Republicans would have opposed spending the money on such saving of lives. They're not that kind of “pro-life.” But letting such people have a say in our government is still a political choice we make. Electing them at all may indeed imply that such opportunities are lost from the outset, but I still feel obliged to point out that the opportunities are there to decide these things every time we go to the ballot box. We're just locking in that cost earlier by letting them be involved.