Calculating the cost of war

Today marks 10 years since the commencement of the U.S war against Afghanistan. To date, Congress has appropriated approximately $1.3 trillion dollars to prosecute that conflict along with the war in Iraq. This estimate is consistent across varied sources and is readily available from the Congressional Research Service, but tallying appropriated costs understates the true cost of our war efforts. In a nutshell, these figures do not include the debt service to finance the wars, which for the first time in U.S. history have been not been offset by tax increases. They also do not include war expenses hidden in the Pentagon’s base budget, or the costs of providing medical care and disability benefits for the thousands of veterans permanently injured by fighting abroad.

A group of academics has added it all up and estimates that the cumulative costs of the wars are up to $4 trillion and rising. Staggering though that number may be, what appalls me is that their estimate, the most comprehensive publicly available, is ultimately an unofficial one. There has been no official accounting or independent audit of Iraq and Afghanistan war costs so that taxpayers know exactly what value they have received for their money. Contrast that with the federal government’s accounting of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), which has an entire website that gives laypersons, policy wonks and researchers customized looks at how virtually every dollar of ARRA funds were allocated and spent. Yet for war costs, already well above what was spent on ARRA, we are forced to rely on unofficial estimates.

This lack of transparency weakens our democracy by not allowing Americans to hold our elected officials accountable for decisions they make to engage in conflict. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) has introduced The Cost of War Act, a bill that takes only 91 words to direct the Department of Defense to publish, on a public website, the cost of our current wars. The value of such an action—especially if the end result is as robust as—would be to force this Congress to have an adult conversation about priorities, spending, deficits and debt. Right now, the only sunlight on federal spending shines on the non-defense, discretionary side, which is dwarfed by defense spending–all of which is discretionary. Exposing it all to the same level of scrutiny would lead to better debate among our policymakers.

To be sure, even if there were a definitive, transparent accounting of the financial obligations incurred by the war efforts, we would still not have an understanding of the true costs of war. What might we have used the money on, if not the wars? Imagine what hundreds of billions invested in infrastructure or education would do to reduce unemployment and increase competitiveness. Or, imagine the economic productivity that the more than 6,000 killed would have generated over their lifetimes. These opportunity costs are either difficult or impossible to calculate, but are nonetheless real. But even if the metaphysical costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are too philosophical to consider, it is certainly possible to calculate and publicize the dollars and cents we have spent and continue to spend on our military efforts.