As the war in Afghanistan winds down, we are better able to assess some of the true costs. Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes document some of those costs in a piece for the Financial Times.
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In 2008, when we wrote The Three Trillion Dollar War , our book on the costs of the Iraq war, we predicted that costs of disability and healthcare benefits for recent war veterans would grow enormously. With nearly one in two returning troops suffering some form of disability – ranging from depression to multiple amputation – the reality far exceeds our estimates. The number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans receiving government medical care has grown to more than 800,000, and most have applied for permanent disability benefits.(Bold mine. Ed.) Yielding to political pressure, the White House and Congress have boosted veteran’s benefits, invested in additional staff and technology, expanded mental health treatments and made it easier to qualify for disability pay. But the number of claims keeps climbing. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs struggles to cope with its backlog.
The VA’s budget is likely to hit $140bn this year from $50bn in 2001. In previous wars, the bill for benefits came due decades later – the peak year for paying second world war benefits was 1969. Now, with much higher survival rates, more generous benefits, and new, expensive treatments, the eventual costs of caring for veterans of the Afghanistan war will exceed $1tn. To put these numbers into perspective, the debate surrounding the fiscal cliff has centred on expenditure cuts over 10 years of $1tn-$2tn.
There are other costly legacies. To recruit volunteers to fight in highly unpopular wars, the military adopted higher pay scales and enhanced healthcare benefits both for those serving and their families and for those who retired. Even though the Pentagon – watching its personnel costs soar – is asking Congress to roll back some of these benefits, they are politically untouchable. The result is that total personnel costs will soon reach one-third of the total defence budget. Spending on Tricare, the healthcare programme for the US military and their families, is likely to reach $56bn this year. Tricare is growing even faster than Medicare or Medicaid, and will soon consume 10 per cent of the defence budget.
I don’t think most people understand the magnitude of the problems our troops have borne with our wars. Nearly half are requiring treatment for damages inflicted during these conflicts. Most of those are on some form of disability. This will result in costs of about $100 billion/year. Of course, this does not begin to approach the real total costs. The loss in productivity from nearly a million young men and women who will not be able to work, or likely work before full capacity, is a tremendous loss to our economic output. Add in the record numbers of suicides we are seeing, and the costs mount higher, and these are just the financial costs.
Unaccounted for are the costs to the families. These are financial and emotional. The wife who needs to take her disabled husband in for regular medical care will have limits on the kinds of work she may be able to perform. Kids who have a father or mother gone due to suicide, or virtually gone secondary to severe depression or PTSD are likely to achieve at lower levels than if they had two present parents. The emotional costs are impossible to quantify, so I won’t even try.
The costs we have already paid for our wars has been high. They will remain high for the next 30 years, higher than any of our leaders or pundits would ever tell us. So the next time we hear this.
“The costs of any intervention would be very small.”
White House economic adviser
October 4, 2002
We should remember the real costs of war. Maybe it is why a real war leader said…..
To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.