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The Ultimate Cost of Our Endless Wars

Could the debt alone deal a fatal blow to our democracy?

By Jerry Delaney | March 5, 2019
Flickr/thomashawk

What has gone largely unreported in the popular media-and is scarcely ever mentioned in our national conversation—is that our ongoing wars since 9/11 have been waged almost entirely on borrowed money. They are credit-card wars, 60 percent funded by U.S. investors, 40 percent by those in other countries. Unlike the other 10 major wars in our history, they are not being paid for as they happen and they are racking up a substantial debt to these foreign countries.

For this budgeting legerdemain we have the administration of President George W. Bush to thank, although neither Presidents Obama nor Trump changed the rules of the game.

How much is the tab so far? As of 2018, the United States had spent the stupefying sum of $5.9 trillion on the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria. That means the average taxpayer had paid more than $23,000 since 9/11 to fund these wars. What’s more, as a direct result, more than 480,000 people have been killed. These are the conclusions of the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, which issued a report by Boston University political science professor Neta C. Crawford as part of the institute’s ongoing Costs of War project. Although this compelling report was released several months ago, it has received surprisingly little attention in the national press.

Setting aside the deeply troubling moral issues raised by these wars, the practical implications alone scream for public attention. Although the borrowed money provides the means to pursue a heady policy of military supremacy and global hegemony, the payback will be enormous. So enormous that it could wipe away the last vestiges of U.S. democracy.

So far, the interest payments alone have cost more than $534 billion. Furthermore, since we are not likely to see huge sums like $5.9 trillion paid back very quickly, the 35 scholars at the Watson Institute working on Costs of War have projected that, because of compound interest, the payments on interest alone will reach a stratospheric $8 trillion by 2053.

It is a Faustian bargain, with the soul of the nation at stake.

If the figure of $5.9 trillion already spent sounds unlikely or exaggerated, don’t be surprised. According to the Watson project, 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 is published—and no cumulative figures are readily available.

“Direct war appropriations, which policymakers often cite as the costs of the post 9/11 wars, account for less than half of total war costs,” writes Crawford.

For example, $686.1 billion was appropriated for the military budget in 2019. But that does not reflect the war-related activities of Homeland Security, which since 9/11 has exceeded $635 billion. Nor does it include future medical and disability benefits allocated for veterans, which totals $1 trillion. Nor does it include war expenses by the State Department.

So what then are the practical ramifications for ordinary people?

First of all, since the government has to pay back those from whom we’ve borrowed, huge sums of money will flow out of the United States to foreign investors, diminishing funds necessary for solving problems besetting us such as health care, poverty, homelessness, violence, and infrastructure.

Second, the payback also means that vast amounts will flow to already wealthy U.S investors—making the rich richer and the poor poorer. The mounting rise of social and economic inequality, already at a shamefully high level, will be driven unimaginably higher.

Recall that even now we have no claim to be a model of social and economic justice. Although our GDP makes the United States the wealthiest country in the world, it also has the second-worst child poverty rate among 35 developed countries, squeaking in at number 34, ahead of Romania. A United Nations study for the Human Rights Council has concluded that 40 million people in the United States live in poverty.

Our commitment to military supremacy and global dominance, based as it is on a deep foundation of debt, is no longer compatible with American democracy. In order to maintain our empire of 800 military bases around the world, deploy military operations in more than 140 nations, and conduct counterterrorism operations in 76 different countries (not to mention the staggering $1 trillion dollars already allocated for refurbishing the nuclear arsenal), we cannot satisfy the legitimate needs and desires of a democratic citizenry.

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?

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