Home > Democracy, Security and Violence, Taxation > War, part 2: counting the costs

War, part 2: counting the costs

When, after many battles past,
Both, tired with blows, make peace at last,
What is it, after all, the people get?
Why! Taxes, widows, wooden legs and debt. — Samuel B. Pettengill

Your money is going toward killing people you do not know. The War on Terror, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the War on Drugs, the drone wars… Can we awaken from this nightmare yet? Can we at least stop paying for wars that are bankrupting us? Unfortunately, as with everything governments do, we do not have a choice.

The full costs are hard to count. Modern governments finance wars with debt, which means we will be paying for many years to come. When we are shown the costs of wars, we usually only see the direct budgetary costs. As such, it is widely reported that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost about $1 trillion. Though a truly enormous figure in itself, the one trillion statistic obscures the money the warmakers cannot account for, the costs of treatment and pensions for soldiers, compensation to the families of the over 6000 US troops killed (not much compensation for Iraqi or Afghani families, though) and debt financing. The war in Iraq almost definitely made oil prices rise by at least $10 a barrel. The actual figure for the costs of the war may well be over $3 trillion. Three trillion dollars. Barack’s first defense budget came to $685.1b, which means it grew, and hit $708.3b for 2011, which means it is growing. Oh, and $20b has been spent just on air conditioning, but wars in the desert will require that. It is also going toward military bands, but only to the tune of a billion dollars a year.

A keynesian might say that this money has been well spent because it has stimulated the economy. No, it hasn’t. It can’t. It has dragged down the economy with higher debt, higher oil prices, higher costs to veterans, fewer jobs, higher interest rates and trillions of dollars diverted from the productive sector of the economy to the destructive government sector. The wars exacerbated the economic crisis in which the US is still entangled. But if even keynesianism worked, how do we account for the money that is missing?

In October 2009, the Inspector General of the US Department of Defense released a report that exposed various “significant deficiencies” in Pentagon balance sheets from fiscal years 2004 to 2008. The Department of Defense has never been audited. But by examining the various internal audits that have been carried out, along with the opaque system of contracting, the report uncovered more than $1 trillion in unsupported account entries.The Senate Finance Committee wrote a report a year later that took the Pentagon to task for its “total lack of fiscal accountability” for “leaving huge sums of the taxpayers’ money vulnerable to fraud and outright theft.” Fraud and theft are typical of all governments; but not all governments can raise and waste a trillion dollars and not have to face the guillotine. And since a democracy’s only real way to hold anyone at all to account is elections, the unelected bureaucrats at the departments have little to fear.

One example of this wastage is the $6.6b in cash the Pentagon for some reason thought it wise to fly in a plane over to Iraq. It has presumably been stolen, but who knows? How could any organisation, especially one that is barely accountable to anyone, account for all the trillions of dollars it goes through? It is too big and too opaque to audit. The role of special interests in taking your money to spread war is well documented. (Here is a primer.) If you need an example of profligate handouts to war contractors, consider this: even after the scandal of the missing trillion dollars, the Pentagon requested another trillion to operate the fleet of Lockheed F-35s. Where do they get all this money from? They steal it from the private sector through taxation. Do you know how many hospitals that money could build for war victims? How many people we could educate with that money? Can the government ever stop spending and let us try?

In War Is a Racket, Major General Smedley Butler begins “[War] is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”

Only insiders benefit, of course, and they make big money. As such, they have a major interest in keeping wars going and lying to everyone about why they must. According to Butler, at least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the first World War.

How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?

Out of war nations acquire additional territory, if they are victorious. They just take it. This newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few — the selfsame few who wrung dollars out of blood in the war. The general public shoulders the bill. And what is this bill? This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.

He goes on to outline the financial interests that guided pre-WW2 Allied policy from supporting to opposing Japan, and how the costs of war and expansion are borne by taxpayers. Foreign involvement from 1898 saw the origin of the debt crisis that the US is struggling with today. Smedley details the enormous earnings of various corporations from WW1, some of whom produced things that were never used. Aside from the probable fact that today’s wars are more costly and more groups have their hands out, little has changed.

The main imperialist powers will naturally be the richest ones. States with liberalised economies have strong economies. Oppressive states do not have free economies and thus have trouble sustaining wars. Only a state with a strong economy could afford to keep a powerful military machine going indefinitely. The US went through Vietnam and survived to learn nothing from it; the USSR lost the war in Afghanistan and collapsed.

Military powers continue to spend countless sums developing new weapons that make killing easier and more efficient. The contractors make big money, with Lockheed Martin coming out on top, pocketing $36b from the US government in 2010 alone. Though the government contracting business is a somewhat opaque process, we see big corporations making tens of billions from governments who like war as a way to suck the people’s money from them and enlarge their own budgets. They ostensibly aim at eliminating civilian casualties, but in the wars they fight, insurgents, terrorists or whoever your enemy is blend with civilians, and the proportion of civilian casualties to bad guys has not gone down. Pilots still bomb or gun down people on the ground from thousands of feet in the air and get called brave heroes by the politicians benefiting from the war.

So inside the US, the current imperial power, is very liberal, and as such its economy is strong. However, because it is able to project its power, it does so, to disastrous effect for large parts of the rest of the world. The American people believe in the freedom the US has internally and want the best for others, so they are easily won over to illiberal wars by promises to free the people of their dictator. But the differences between the countries the US (and now NATO) goes to war with are not moral ones. The rich countries simply have the power to project themselves into other people’s affairs, they can get away with it because only voting keeps them in check (and foreign policy does not hold voters’ attention), and the countries they pick on are so weak—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen—they could not possibly put up a real fight.

Libya is a case in point. Barack did not ask Congress for permission to go to war, even though he is required to do so according to the Constitution. (I like the US Constitution but it does not seem to be much more than a piece of paper anymore.) Barack’s people said the war would last “days, not weeks”, and it lasted six months. The interveners’ original mandate was a no-fly zone to protect people that was soon expanded without authorisation from the Security Council to picking sides, assassination and regime change. On May 13, after nearly two months of fighting, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the war had cost $750m. It doesn’t seem like a lot for an organisation that spent $3t on Iraq, but then that figure is an official government figure and probably includes only the costs of bullets, missiles and fuel, not the planes themselves, the salaries of the soldiers, the money for the rebels, the post-conflict reconstruction (if there is any), and whatever else we do not know about. And the interveners were quick to recognise the rebel forces as government, which means a) there was no consultation of the people (so at least the decision was democratic), b) the world will be expected to look away when the rebels, now the good guys, commit atrocities, and c) the rebels will be pliable to the demands of foreign governments (which will presumably mean no-bid contracts to their oil friends). Is this self-determination for the Libyan people?

That said, for the sake of fairness, the war is over and Qaddafi is gone, which might be the best outcome we could have expected, and some credit must go to NATO. Even though this post condemns war, it seems to me wise to judge events on their eventual outcomes. If Libya becomes much freer and more prosperous as a result of NATO intervention, it may have been worth it. If history is anything to go by, Libya will not be much better off after Qaddafi.

All these invasions send a clear message to states like North Korea that have or are developing nuclear weapons: keep them. Nuclear weapons are a highly rational statist enterprise. It is fundamentally out of the question to attack a country with a nuclear weapon because it might use it. So North Korea, Iran and whomever else the US and Israel talk tough about, hold on tight to your nukes if you want to hold on to your regime.

Only spending by an organisation with an unlimited budget could have produced the nuclear bomb. North Korea could never have built such a bomb from scratch. Only a democracy could. Only a democracy has the money and the ability for scientific openness, and yet the ability to appropriate billions of dollars (in 1940s money) for secret projects. And for the incalculable sum spent on research and development to gain an advantage in killing others, the advantage often does not even last until the end of the war, because another state can steal secrets or develop its own special killing machines.

You do not benefit from war. You only lose. Imperialists benefit, as they get to control more and more territory; military hardware firms benefit from generous contracts; civilians, soldiers and so on do not benefit. Unfortunately, those people are mostly sheep. Every society has a few “deep thinkers” and a large number of “sheep thinkers”. Sheep thinking not only limits our imagination; it could have enormous consequences. In Nuremberg Diary, Gustave Gilbert recounts a conversation he had with Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second in command, who revealed a deep understanding of the ability of the elites to control the sheeplike masses.

Why, of course the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece?…But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship…. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

History shows innumerable examples of the public’s approval of or even pushing for war. So often the elites throw the war into the open because of some high political squabble and make everyone think they need to go to war. As the idea of war mixes and churns in political discourse, in the media and in the minds of the people, it soon becomes a given that we must go to war. After all, we are under attack.

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  1. September 9, 2011 at 12:34 am
  2. September 10, 2011 at 3:45 pm
  3. September 10, 2011 at 3:59 pm

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