In the center of the CostOfWar.com home page, an upward-racing ticker,
presented in a large, red font, keeps a steady tally of the money spent for the
US war in Iraq. Every time I visit, it takes a moment to sort through the
counter's decimal places and make sense of it. The hundreds of dollars fly by
too quickly to track. The thousands change a little faster than once a second.
As of Wednesday, the ticker read US$244,371,461,490.
It is worth staring at the site for a while to see the vast sums accumulate.
Yet this exercise in wartime accounting quickly becomes unsatisfying. First of
all, few Americans have any frame
of reference for evaluating a number like $244 billion. The National Priorities
Project, the organization hosting the counter, tries to remedy this by allowing
visitors to compare war costs with expenditures on preschools, health care and
public housing, noting, for example, that this much money could provide basic
immunizations for every child born worldwide in the next 79 years.
Even then, the incomprehensibly large number ticking away on-screen turns out
to be no measure at all of what Americans will eventually pay for the war.
Depending on what estimate you use, it could be off by almost a factor of 10.
After all, it lacks a place for the trillions.
So how much will the war cost? The question occasionally appears in the media,
never a new issue, never a settled one either. Still, there are some
certainties about the costs of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. One is that
it keeps going up. President George W Bush has now submitted a "guns over
butter" budget to Congress that increases Pentagon spending to $440 billion,
while taking away funds from social services at home and development assistance
abroad. One of the great curiosities of this huge sum is that it does not
include funding for the wars the United States is actually fighting. Those are
appropriated separately - this year, the White House will reportedly ask for
another $120 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, roughly
equal to what it spent in 2005.
Another certainty of wartime accounting is that the cost of the war in Iraq
will remain far higher than the Bush administration wants anyone to think. It's
already stratospherically beyond the initial estimate of $50 billion to $60
billion used to sell its war to the public. That number was meant to conjure
memories of the previous Gulf War - Operation Desert Storm - an engagement
Americans recall as swift and relatively painless, in part because an array of
allies helped pay for it. The US ponied up only $7 billion for that conflict.
The administration's other magic trick was taking Larry Lindsey, the White
House economic adviser who publicly suggested in late 2002 that a military
return to Iraq would cost closer to $100 billion to $200 billion, and making
In the years since Baghdad fell, several analysts have sought better estimates
for the war's true cost. Last August, Phyllis Bennis and Erik Leaver at the
Institute for Policy Studies issued a paper predicting that the total cost
could reach $700 billion at the then-current spending level of $5.6 billion per
month. Like the CostOfWar.com tally, this figure included only direct
In January, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard's Linda
Bilmes released a report that took a wider view. Hinting at the human cost of
the occupation - which, of course, requires its own ghastly page in the ledger
of wartime accounting - the report factored in the government-assigned "value
of statistical life" for troops killed in combat. (It did not include the loss
of Iraqi lives.) It tallied items such as the costs of health care for wounded
veterans, increased recruitment spending for a hard-up Pentagon, and the
opportunity costs of more productive public investments that might have been
made if funds had not been diverted overseas. Following Congressional Budget
Office predictions for troop deployment, the report considers the possibilities
of full US withdrawal by 2010 to 2015. All told, the two economists put the
cost to the US at between $1 trillion (their most "conservative" estimate) and
$2.2 trillion (their "moderate" one).
Sixty billion, 239 billion, 2.2 trillion dollars. The more such figures swirl,
the more necessary it is to change the question. The real matter at hand is not
"How much will it cost?" but "When does it start to matter?"
Vietnam tipping points
The answers provided by past experience are imperfect. The Oxford Companion to
American Military History places the direct costs of the Vietnam War at
$173 billion (equal to $770 billion in 2003 dollars). Veterans' benefits and
interest payments add another trillion to Vietnam's costs, calculated in 2003
dollars. Thus the estimates for the cost of the Iraq war already place the two
conflicts at similar levels, although Vietnam expenditures represented a larger
percentage of the gross domestic product.
There seems to be no single point at which costs become too great. Different
parties reach their moment of decision at different times, independently
determining that "victory" is not worth the price being paid. Disaffection
builds as financial and human costs rise. And so looking at turning points, in
Vietnam or in Iraq, involves twisting the question once again. We must ask not
only "How costly is too costly?" but also "Too costly for whom?"
For many who opposed the Iraq war on moral terms, the conflict was too costly
from the start. The lives and money sacrificed since then merely serve as
tragic affirmations of a conviction already reached. Others more traditionally
supportive of presidential decisions to take the US to war can, however, be
swayed by mounting costs, once victory doesn't come.
One Vietnam tipping point came in late 1967 when, for the first time, opinion
polls showed that a bare majority of Americans considered the conflict a
"mistake". The size of this majority surged after the start of the Tet
Offensive in January 1968. In a watershed moment in the wake of that onslaught,
CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite both echoed and solidified public sentiment by
famously indicating that the US could not win the war. "To say we are closer to
victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who
have been wrong in the past," he told his television audience. "To say that we
are mired in a stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory,
Bad news from the war front helped to turn the US public, but domestic dissent
went far in shaping public reactions to developments abroad. The same 1967
polls that registered the first anti-war majority also showed that most
Americans deplored the growing anti-war movement. Nevertheless, anti-war
protesters had a critical (and sometimes unexpected) impact. Historian Melvin
Small offers one example of when "the anti-war movement dramatically affected
policy": after mass protests at the Pentagon in October 1967, "Lyndon Johnson
launched a public relations campaign that emphasized how well the war was
going. When the communists [then] launched their seemingly successful
nationwide Tet Offensive, most Americans felt that they had been deceived by
their own government."
A turn in elite opinion followed on the heels of public disaffection. Although
rarely remembered, the defection of a previously supportive business community
formed an important part of this shift. A lack of business enthusiasm for the
war sprang from military developments in Vietnam, but was also spurred by
war-related economic doldrums (which have resonance today). As Small explains,
"For many economists, the last truly good years for the economy were 1962-65,
with almost full employment, very low inflation and a favorable balance of
trade." As the war escalated, "an increasingly unfavorable balance of trade,
related in part to spending for the war abroad, contributed to an international
monetary crisis involving a threat to US gold reserves in 1967-68. That threat
helped convince some administration officials and Wall Street analysts that the
United States could no longer afford the war."
In March 1968, Clark Clifford played a vital role in convincing a doggedly
hawkish president Lyndon Johnson that a seismic shift had, in fact, occurred
among influential patrons. Clifford was a prototypical Washington insider, a
polished and well-connected lawyer who for decades served as a counsel to the
president and maintained close ties with the giants of corporate America. He
felt comfortable speaking truth to power, and power listened, knowing Clifford
had its best interests at heart.
In January 1968, Clifford replaced Robert McNamara as US secretary of defense.
Although recruited as a hawk, he formed a new assessment of the war after
examining the military realities and polling his well-heeled contacts to gauge
the domestic outlook. Historian Gabriel Kolko cites Clifford's recollections
from March 1968, when he told several White House aides, "I make it a practice
to keep in touch with friends in business and the law across the land ... Until
a few months ago, they were generally supportive of the war ... Now all that
has changed. These men now feel we are in a hopeless bog." He went on to say,
"It would be very difficult - I believe it would be impossible - for the
president to maintain public support for the war without the support of these
That same month, Clifford helped organize a two-day meeting between Johnson and
his Senior Advisory Group on Vietnam - nicknamed the "Wise Men". These were
veteran operatives and diplomats with powerful connections to the business and
financial communities. As David Halberstam relates in The Best and the
Brightest, they "quietly let [Johnson] know that the Establishment -
yes, Wall Street - had turned on the war ... It was hurting the economy,
dividing the country, turning the youth against the country's best traditions."
As libertarian economist Murray Rothbard notes, just a few days later Johnson
announced that he would not seek re-election and started the US on its long
exit from Vietnam.
Iraq: The politics of withdrawal
Though the obvious "Wise Men" figures of this moment, like former president
George H W Bush's confidant Brent Scowcroft, remain out in the cold when it
comes to the younger Bush's Iraq policies, business leaders are one group that
might yet be turned by a cost-benefit analysis of the Iraq war.
In their report, Stiglitz and Bilmes consider, among other factors, how the war
has hurt the US economy by increasing global and domestic insecurity while
contributing to a boost in oil prices. Outside of a few energy companies and
defense contractors that continue to directly benefit, America's corporations
have generally been adversely affected by these costs. A significant number of
corporate leaders have begun complaining about a damaged Brand America and a
chilled climate for doing business abroad. Certainly, business leaders have
reason to doubt that a neo-conservative foreign policy works in their favor,
and they may yet decide to cut their losses. If some chief executive officers
and other executives re-evaluate their allegiance to the White House - becoming
more vocal supporters of realism in Republican foreign policy or even of the
Democratic Leadership Council's multilateral brand of corporate globalization -
the turn could make the discussion about the war in upcoming electoral contests
significantly more contentious.
As for the US public at large, polls on Iraq started showing majority
disapproval as early as the summer of 2004. Anti-war opinion now regularly
registers as high as 60%. John Mueller, professor of political science at Ohio
State University and an expert on wartime public opinion, has argued that
eroding support for Iraq matches patterns for wars in Korea and Vietnam. "The
most striking thing about the comparison among the three wars is how much more
quickly support has eroded in the case of Iraq," he writes in Foreign Affairs.
By the start of last year, with just 1,500 American troops dead, public opinion
on Iraq had dropped to depths only reached in the Vietnam War after Tet, when
some 20,000 Americans had been killed.
Mueller concludes, "If history is any indication, there is little the Bush
administration can do to reverse this decline."
That might be cause for celebration, if only it were the end of the story.
Mueller's formulation may sound simple, even deterministic, but the reality of
withdrawal is not. True, public support for the Vietnam War never rebounded
after March 1968. Yet the conflict dragged on for another five years. The
ticker for that intervention kept racing higher because president Richard Nixon
and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger were willing to take the
tragedy Johnson made and adopt it as their own. A lesson for us now is that no
set pattern will guarantee a satisfying end to the situation Americans face, a
situation in which another unpopular war threatens to stretch on for years.
The fact of the matter is that the majority of the United States has already
decided that the war in Iraq has become too costly. Americans have rejected the
prospect of funding a massive and prolonged occupation. In that sense, we have
Questions about the price of war keep resurfacing not because there's a
credible argument for most Americans that the price is reasonable, but because
their elected officials thus far have only pushed those costs ever higher. What
remains, then, is for the public to hold accountable those who would carry
forward the neo-conservative crusade - to make their stance a costly one in
public life. What remains is for Americans to bring the political price of war
into line with the human and financial costs that we will continue to bear.
Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, is an analyst with Foreign
Policy In Focus and a contributor to Newsday, In These Times, the Christian
Science Monitor and TomPaine.com. He can be reached via DemocracyUprising.com.
Research assistance for this article was provided by Kate Griffiths.