Mar 11, 2014
The $3-Trillion War
Posted on Apr 16, 2008
By James Harris
Harris: One of the more telling lines from your book discusses veteran payouts from the first Gulf War. You write, “The United States still spends over $4.3 billion each year paying compensation, pension, disability benefits to more than 200,000 veterans of the Gulf War.” What do you think veterans’ benefits and health care will cost us 20 years from now for this war?
Bilmes: Well, it’s a very good question because the important thing to note about veterans’ disability benefits is that they grow over time and they peak many, many years after the war. For example, in the Spanish American War, the peak year for paying disability benefits was 50 years after the end of the war. In World War II, these benefits peaked in 1993. In the Vietnam War we are currently paying out some $20 billion a year in disability benefits. And even in the first Gulf War, which was a one-month war, we are spending $4.3 billion a year in paying disability benefits. So, in this war we’ve had a very, very high rate of casualties. We have had 1.65 million troops deployed, over 70,000 of them wounded in combat or injured in accidents or contracting serious diseases that required them to be medically airlifted out of the country. There have been another 250,000 who have been treated for other things at veterans hospitals and clinics and, of those, 68,000 have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. There have been near-epidemic problems with hearing. Hearing loss, vision problems, joint problems. And the long-term cost of caring for our servicemen and -women will be felt by the next generation. We expect that, overall, if you include medical care and disability benefits, the cost of taking care of our veterans will cost around $600 billion, depending on—in today’s money.
Harris: I was always taught—when I was spending a significant amount of money—to think about the consequence of that spending. Not so much how much money I lost, but what else that money could have been spent on. So when you say just a portion of this war has cost us upwards of $600 billion, what are some other things that we could have spent this money on?
Bilmes: Well, the opportunity costs are really staggering. For the amount of money we’ve spent so far, we could have made Social Security solvent for the next 75 years. We could have provided universal health care to children. We could have paid for a significant investment in our infrastructure here at home in paying for our own roads and bridges and tunnels and electrical grids instead of essentially spending that money on repairs and construction in Iraq, much of which has been bombed and attacked and had to be reconstructed again and again. And I think that the amount of money is so large that it’s almost hard to conceive what a large amount of money this is. For example, I was reading a report that the Centers for Disease Control issued last week. This is their long-awaited report on autism. And the Centers for Disease Control say that one in every 150 American children is now being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, which is a huge number. And we spend, in the Federal Government, $108 million a year on autism research, which is the equivalent of four hours of the Iraq war in cash costs, not even counting all the veterans and other costs. So once you start thinking about it in that way, and there’s almost a new method of measurement now, in Washington, of how many hours, how many days of the Iraq war would it cost to pay for this or that. And certainly in many communities throughout the country there are very serious problems which require investments—infrastructure problems, problems with homelessness, problems for the elderly—which would require ... the amounts of money required are minutes or hours of the cost of fighting in Iraq.
Bilmes: Well, we have, in our book, a chapter on exiting Iraq, in which we lay out the fundamental question about whether it is worth spending another $600 to $900 billion to stay in Iraq, in the way that we are, for the next two or three years. We also lay out in another chapter a number of recommendations that would make, hopefully, it less likely for us to get embroiled in this kind of quagmire again. Some of those recommendations have to do with transparency of financial reporting, of better control and oversight over where our money is going, of better checks and balances between the Congress and the executive. And a very important thing which we have not touched on yet is improvements in the way our veterans are being treated. And if I can just say one point about that: We wrote the book for two reasons. Partly because we believe that the public has a right to know how much the war is costing and, secondly, to call attention to the fact that our veterans are being shortchanged. And we discovered this, essentially by accident, as we were doing our research. We discovered that many veterans are encountering an enormously difficult bureaucratic battlefield when they come home, just trying to get their disability benefits and get access to doctors for their disabilities that they have suffered. And this is something which is particularly painful because it’s a fixable problem. There are some parts of the Iraq situation that are very, very difficult and complicated. But doing right by our veterans should not be impossible to fix. And we’ve laid out, in our book, a series of steps that would improve substantially the situation for returning veterans.
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