The U.S. paid a high price for Iraq War lessons

by Kenneth Leonard

Homeless Iraqis, 10 years onWhen the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003, the Bush administration said the financial impact on the American people would be substantial, with estimations ranging from $50 to $60 billion. Unfortunately, the actual cost has exceeded those initial approximations. A recent study from Brown University revealed how much the war actually cost. The Costs of War project included input from a panel of economists, anthropologists, lawyers, humanitarian workers and political scientists from 15 universities, the United Nations and other organizations. The Cost of War project’s research concluded the actual cost of the war in Iraq to be at least $2.2 trillion. With interest, this figure could swell to more than $6 trillion.

These numbers are staggeringly beyond what we can comprehend, so it’s hard to understand exactly how huge $2 trillion really is. With this amount of money, the U.S. can immunize every child in the world from deadly diseases for 1,500 years or provide resources for developing nations to fight the spread of AIDS for more than 130 years. With about $175 billion per year the U.S. could eliminate global poverty in 20 years. Millions of lives could have been saved for a fraction of what the Iraq War cost. Problems could have been solved with this money or steps could have been taken toward finding solutions, at the very least.

More important than the financial impact of sustaining the war is the colossal death toll. According to Brown University’s Cost of War report, more than 189,000 people died in the Iraq war. Of those casualties, more than 70 percent of those people were civilians, meaning the blood of more than 134,000 civilians stains the hands of the leaders who pushed the U.S. into Iraq, not to mention 4,488 members of the U.S. military and at least 3,400 U.S. contractors. In addition to these figures, more than 32,000 American military personnel have been wounded in Iraq.

Whether or not this war was justified is irrelevant. The war happened, so now here is the question: What did we learn from it? Technically, with more than 7,000 contractors still on the Pentagon’s payroll—meaning American taxpayers are supporting them—it may be more accurate to say the war is still ongoing.

So, the question remains. What have we gained from this experience? It’s difficult to argue that we’ve received a return on our investment. We are responsible for burning through an insane amount of money, consuming vast amounts of resources and executing a massacre of Iraqi civilians. Still, it’s possible that this war hasn’t been fought for nothing.

From a strategic standpoint, the losses greatly outweigh the gains in Iraq. However, from a long-term standpoint, if our generation can learn from this war, it’s possible it was worth it. Our parents’ generation got us into this mess, and we will be paying for this war for years to come. Their parents’ generation was responsible for Vietnam, so you’d think they would have learned a lesson or two, but apparently they didn’t. So, now it’s up to us. We can deviate from the American tendency to jump into military conflict. We can insist upon finding non-military solutions to our problems and treating war as an absolute last resort.

It’s time for us to advance beyond the military-industrial complex that’s been dragging our once-great nation down for decades. We lead the world in defense spending, with more than $700 billion per fiscal year. Our spending is inefficient and our policies are stupid. The way we dump money into defense spending should outrage taxpayers. It’s actually extremely disrespectful to the men and women who are serving in our military.

Despite how we consider the last 10 years of war—whether from a financial or a moral standpoint—America has clearly been failing. It’s not too late to fix this. It’s never too late to learn from our errors. Let ours be the generation that rises up out of repeated failures with the knowledge and determination not to let history repeat itself.