The Common Good
March 2011

The Cost of War

by Jim Wallis | March 2011

It's time to end the war in Afghanistan.

When the Vietnam-era draft ended, I thought it would have little effect on the anti-war movement. I was wrong. In short order, meetings and rallies shrank from mass gatherings to small groups of the faithful. Why? Because the segment of the population that was paying the true cost of the war became much smaller. The sacrifice necessary to continue fighting was no longer spread out over a large segment of society; now only a small number of families would experience the anxiety of sending their children to war.

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Today, too few know the cost of war. The financial costs are being put on a credit card for our children and the human cost is relegated to a small portion of society. If the draft existed today, the country would be too busy protesting our continued engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan to pass on false rumors of "death panels" in health-care legislation. The possibility of endless war through permanent bases in Afghanistan has met with little public outcry. If every mother of military-age children knew that her child could be drafted, I wonder if the country would be so quiet.

What weighs on my mind is the growing cost of war and that so few are actually seeing the bill, both human and financial. In the two wars, there have been nearly 6,000 U.S. deaths and 40,000 wounded. Tens of thousands of others suffer from post-traumatic stress and other psychological disorders, and a growing number of veterans are committing suicide. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans have died, which is hardly ever a focus of American consciousness.

There has also been a huge financial cost. The war in Afghanistan now costs more than $100 billion per year, and the cost of caring for veterans is steadily rising. From 2001 to the present, the two wars have cost approximately $1.3 trillion. Economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes estimate that the total cost could go as high as $4 trillion to $6 trillion, including continuing care for veterans and the opportunity cost of inadequate funding for domestic investments.

With unemployment and poverty rates at near-record highs, this misuse of our precious resources is staggering. President Dwight Eisenhower once reminded us, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children."

The military budget in FY 2010 was nearly $700 billion, with an additional $37 billion for Afghanistan. If we include the defense and homeland security expenses outside the Defense Department, the total exceeds $1 trillion. By contrast, all other discretionary domestic programs totaled approximately $400 billion. It is exactly the situation Martin Luther King warned of when he said, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

How do we break this military addiction? People respond to incentives. If they know they are going to be footing the bill for something, they are more likely to count the cost. If we were paying extra taxes to fund the war and every family knew they might have to pay the human cost, we would be more careful about what we committed ourselves to.

We are paying billions of dollars for weapon systems the military hasn't even asked for and doesn't need. Weapons manufacturing brings jobs to congressional districts, which keeps politicians in office. Those workers, and the politicians they elect, will do everything they can to preserve defense contracts -- whether or not they're beneficial to our security or our fiscal health.

Many of those in the weapons industry are good people, working hard to support their families. I doubt they often think about what they are making or what it will be used for. We rarely hear Eisenhower's term "military-industrial complex" any more. But we have a system in which too many people rely on war and the tools of war for their livelihood. Good people in a bad system can have a lot of bad results.

Part of our moral recovery must be to challenge the influence of this powerful engine. With the growing national concern over the deficit, and the desperate need for investment in our future, the amount of money spent on war is no longer tenable.

There are many reasons to end the war in Afghanistan, as the articles in this issue explain. But the unaffordable cost is another compelling reason that we cannot ignore. Even some of the newly elected "tea party" members of Congress are raising this concern. The desire to restore fiscal sanity and to stop mortgaging our children’s future stretches across the political spectrum.

It is time for the war in Afghanistan to end. Our financial and spiritual health depends on it.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

+Click here to visit Sojourners' Afghanistan campaign page and join us in the effort to bring the war and occupation in Afghanistan to an end.

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