The real cost of the war in Iraq

Discussion in 'Politics' started by ZZZzzzzzzz, Mar 13, 2007.


    Here are some excerpts:

    Yet the story of the US wounded reveals yet another deception by the Bush administration, masking monumental miscalculations that will haunt generations to come. Thanks to the work of a Harvard professor and former Clinton administration economist named Linda Bilmes, and some other hard-working academics, we have discovered that the administration has been putting out two entirely separate and conflicting sets of numbers of those wounded in the wars.

    This might sound like chicanery by George W Bush and his cronies - or characteristic incompetence - but Bilmes and Professor Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate economist from Columbia University, have established not only that the number wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan is far higher than the Pentagon has been saying, but that looking after them alone could cost present and future US taxpayers a sum they estimate to be $536bn, but which could get considerably bigger still. Just one soldier out of the 1.4 million troops so far deployed who has returned with a debilitating brain injury, for example, may need round-the-clock care for five, six, or even seven decades. In present-day money, according to one study, care for that soldier alone will cost a minimum of $4.3m.

    However, let us first backtrack to 2002-2003 to try to establish why the administration's sums were so wildly off-target. Documents just obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show how completely lost the Bush administration was in Neverland when it came to Iraq: Centcom, the main top-secret military planning unit at Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, predicted in its war plan that only 5,000 US troops would be required in Iraq by the end of 2006.

    Rummy's deputy Paul Wolfowitz was such a whizz at the economics of it all that he confidently told us that Iraq would "really finance its own reconstruction". Rumsfeld himself reported that the administration had come up with "a number that's something under $50bn" as the cost of the war. Larry Lindsey, then assistant to the president on economic policy at the White House, warned that it might actually soar to as much as $200bn - with the result that Bush did as he habitually does with those who do not produce convenient facts and figures to back up his fantasies: he sacked him.

    Estimating long-term costs using even the second, moderate scenario, Bilmes tells me: "I think we are now approaching a figure of $2.5 trillion." This, she says, "includes three kinds of costs. It includes the cash costs of running the combat operations, the long-term costs of replenishing military equipment and taking care of the veterans, and [increased costs] at the Pentagon. And then it includes the economic cost, which is the differential between reservists' pay in their civilian jobs and what they're paid in the military - and the macroecono mic costs, such as the percentage of the oil-price increase."

    Let me pause to explain those deceptive figures. Look at the latest official toll of US fatalities and wounded in the media, and you will see something like 3,160 dead and 23,785 wounded (that "includes 13,250 personnel who returned to duty within 72 hours", the Washington Post told us helpfully on 4 March). From this, you might assume that only 11,000 or so troops, in effect, have been wounded in Iraq. But Bilmes discovered that the Bush administration was keeping two separate sets of statistics of those wounded: one (like the above) issued by the Pentagon and therefore used by the media, and the other by the Department of Veterans Affairs - a government department autonomous from the Pentagon. At the beginning of this year, the Pentagon was putting out a figure of roughly 23,000 wounded, but the VA was quietly saying that more than 50,000 had, in fact, been wounded.

    Casualty conspiracy

    To draw attention to her academic findings, Bilmes wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times of 5 January 2007 in which she quoted the figure of "more than 50,000 wounded Iraq war soldiers". The reaction from the Pentagon was fury. An assistant secretary there named Dr William Winkenwerder phoned her personally to complain. Bilmes recalls: "He said, 'Where did you get those numbers from?'" She explained to Winkenwerder that the 50,000 figure came from the VA, and faxed him copies of official US government documents that proved her point. Winkenwerder backed down.

    Matters did not rest there. Despite its independence from the Pentagon, the VA is run by Robert James Nicholson, a former Republican Party chairman and Bush's loyal political appointee. Following Bilmes's exchange with Winkenwerder - on 10 January, to be precise - the number of wounded listed on the VA website dropped from 50,508 to 21,649. The Bush administration had, once again, turned reality on its head to concur with its claims. "The whole thing is scary," Bilmes says. "I have never been conspiracy-minded, but watching them change the numbers on the website - it's extraordinary."

    What Bilmes had discovered was that the tally of US fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan included the outcome of "non-hostile actions", most commonly vehicle accidents. But the Pentagon's statistics of the wounded did not. Even troops incapacitated for life in Iraq or Afghanistan - but not in "hostile situations" - were not being counted, although they will require exactly the same kind of medical care back home as soldiers similarly wounded in battle. Bilmes and Stiglitz had set out, meantime, to explore the ratio of wounded to deaths in previous American wars. They found that in the First World War, on average 1.8 were wounded for every fatality; in the Second World War, 1.6; in Korea, 2.8; in Vietnam, 2.6; and, in the first Gulf war in 1991, 1.2. In this war, 21st-century medical care and better armour have inflated the numbers of the wounded-but-living, leading Bilmes to an astounding conclusion: for every soldier dying in Iraq or Afghanistan today, 16 are being wounded. The Pentagon insists the figure is nearer nine - but, either way, the economic implications for the future are phenomenal.

    So far, more than 200,000 veterans from the current Iraq or Afghanistan wars have been treated at VA centres. Twenty per cent of those brought home are suffering from serious brain or spinal injuries, or the severing of more than one limb, and a further 20 per cent from amputations, blindness or deafness, severe burns, or other dire conditions. "Every person injured on active duty is going to be a long-term cost of the war," says Bilmes. If we compare the financial ramifications of the first Gulf war to the present one, the implications become even more stark. Despite its brevity, even the 1991 Gulf war exacted a heavy toll: 48.4 per cent of veterans sought medical care, and 44 per cent filed disability claims. Eighty-eight per cent of these claims were granted, meaning that 611,729 veterans from the first Gulf war are now receiving disability benefits; a large proportion are suffering from psychiatric illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

    More than a third of those returning from the current wars, too, have already been diagnosed as suffering from similar conditions. But although the VA has 207 walk-in "vet centres" and other clinics and offices throughout the US, it is a bureaucracy under siege. It has a well-deserved reputation for providing excellent healthcare for America's 24 million veterans, but is quite unable to cope with a workload that the Bush administration did not foresee.