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War is Hell, But What the Hell Does it Cost?: One Week at War in Iraq and Afghanistan for $3.5 Billion

March 7, 2008

William D. Hartung (Tomdispatch)

War is hell — deadly, dangerous, and expensive. But just how expensive is it?

In a recent interview, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz asserted that the costs of the Iraq war — budgetary, economic, and societal — could reach $5 trillion.

That’s a hard number to comprehend. Figuring out how many times $5 trillion would circle the globe (if we took it all in one dollar bills) doesn’t really help matters much, nor does estimating how many times we could paper over every square inch of Rhode Island with it. The fact that total war costs could buy six trillion donuts for volunteers to the Clinton, Obama, McCain, and Huckabee campaigns — assuming a bulk discount — is impressive in its own way, but not all that meaningful either. In fact, the Bush administration’s war costs have already moved beyond the human scale of comprehension.

But what if we were to try another tack? How about breaking those soaring trillions down into smaller pieces, into mere millions and billions? How much, for instance, does one week of George Bush’s wars cost?

Glad you asked. If we consider the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan together — which we might as well do, since we and our children and grandchildren will be paying for them together into the distant future — a conservative single-week estimate comes to $3.5 billion. Remember, that’s per week!

By contrast, the whole international community spends less than $400 million per year on the International Atomic Energy Agency, the primary institution for monitoring and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons; that’s less than one day’s worth of war costs. The U.S. government spends just $1 billion per year securing and destroying loose nuclear weapons and bomb-making materials, or less than two days’ worth of war costs; and Washington spends a total of just $7 billion per year on combating global warming, or a whopping two weeks’ worth of war costs.

So, perhaps you’re wondering, what does that $3.5 billion per week actually pay for? And how would we even know? The Bush administration submits a supplemental request — over and above the more than $500 billion per year the Pentagon is now receiving in its official budget — to pay for the purported costs of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and for the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). If you can stay awake long enough to read the whole 159-page document for 2008, it has some fascinating revelations.

For example, to hear the howling of the white-collar warriors in Washington every time anyone suggests knocking a nickel off administration war-spending requests, you would think that the weekly $3.5 billion outlay is all “for the troops.” In fact, only 10% of it, or under $350 million per week, goes to pay and benefits for uniformed military personnel. That’s less than a quarter of the weekly $1.4 billion that goes to war contractors to pay for everything from bullets to bombers. As a slogan, insisting that we need to keep the current flood of military outlays flowing “for Boeing and Lockheed Martin” just doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

You could argue, of course, that all these contracting dollars represent the most efficient way to get our troops the equipment they need to operate safely and effectively in a war zone — but you would be wrong. Much of that money is being wasted every week on the wrong kinds of equipment at exorbitant prices. And even when it is the right kind of equipment, there are often startling delays in getting it to the battlefield, as was the case with advanced armored vehicles for the Marine Corps.

But before we get to equipment costs, let’s take a look at a week’s worth of another kind of support. The Pentagon and the State Department don’t make a big point — or really any kind of point — out of telling us how much we’re spending on gun-toting private-contract employees from companies like Blackwater and Triple Canopy, our “shadow army” in Iraq, but we can make an educated guess. For example, at the high end of the scale, individual employees of private military firms make up to 10 times what many U.S. enlisted personnel make, or as much as $7,500 per week. If even one-tenth of the 5,000 to 6,000 armed contract employees in Iraq make that much, we’re talking about at least $40 million per week. If the rest make $1,000 a week — an extremely conservative estimate — then we have nearly $100 million per week going just to the armed cohort of private-contract employees operating there…

READ MORE AT TOMDISPATCH.COM.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation. He is the author of And Weapons for All (Harper Collins, 1994) and How Much Are You Making on the War, Daddy? A Quick and Dirty Guide to War Profiteering in the Bush Administration (Nation Books, 2004). His commentaries on military and economic issues have appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and the Nation magazine.

Copyright William D. Hartung 2008

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