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The $3-Trillion War

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Posted on Apr 16, 2008
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Flickr / Kevindooley

By James Harris

(Page 2)

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.

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Harris: Linda, there’s a growing sentiment that we are spending too much money on the war in Iraq.  How would you reallocate funds in a way that ... puts us on a path to recovery?  How would you reform this process?

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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By John Howard, April 25, 2008 at 9:55 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Douglas, It seems you get off calling people dumb.  I think everyone is on the same team here and wants to make it better.  I bet you’re a Green Party member that finds it more rewarding to insult rather than solve.  Maybe your intellect would be better used working with people like Bilmes to solve the problem with the war than criticize. No wonder we are where we are.

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By Douglas Chalmers, April 21, 2008 at 7:30 pm Link to this comment

Dumb question…....

James Harris:”...... why is it important that we take this war, and our spending, more seriously…?”

Even dumber answer…..

Linda Bilmes:  ”.....what happened throughout this war, we have essentially translated the human cost into a financial cost, and then we’ve deferred that cost….... a volunteer Army, with soldiers and Marines who we pay, and with another army of contractors who we pay, but all of that money has been borrowed…”

Once again, so much for Harvard scholars whose contemporary shallowness is verified by whats-her-name’s re-interpreting “human suffering” as merely ”...the monthly—annual burn rate of the operations going on in the field…” It would hardly surprise me if she was actually from Harvard’s business school, uhh.

No wonder she actually found writing that book “challenging” as she barely seems to be able to come to terms with the concept of “human suffering” or the human condition at all in her academic fairyland. Then again, there are people on Wall Street who like to read things that way…..

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By eplebneesta, April 17, 2008 at 2:00 pm Link to this comment

Let’s at least garnishee all of the NeoCons’ assets until the war is paid for or they are up to their asses in brimstone. (And I don’t believe in that stuff. Especially not a hell made up by a 13th century Italian novelist.)
I know this is basically childish, but there is some value in not allowing these subhuman monsters to enjoy their ill-gotten blood money.

E Pleb Neesta

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By cyrena, April 16, 2008 at 7:43 am Link to this comment

We discovered, for example, that veterans who are enlisting and taking signing bonuses, if they are wounded, have been asked to repay their signing bonuses because they didn’t serve out their contract. We have found—and the GAO has chronicled hundreds of veterans who are being chased and hounded for small amounts of money that they allegedly owe the government, in most cases related to pieces of equipment that they lost because they were wounded or their vehicle exploded.

This is something that I’ve been aware of for some years now, in attempting to help what amounts to only a few of so many thousands of these veterans, to access the benefits and health care that they need.

But, it also brings to mind that the very same thing is happening on every single level where any of the corporate bureaucracy has the hammer, and that’s everywhere.

An example of the same is the experience of the widows of the American Airlines cockpit crew members who died on 9/11. (the United Airlines widows did NOT experience this problem). In short, these women were forced to go through multiple bureaucratic hoops, just to get their spouses final paychecks. The hold up? They wouldn’t release the checks because the crew members, who are paid (in part) based on their COMPLETED TRIP HOURS, had ‘failed to complete’ those flights/trips on their schedules for the day of September 11, 2001. The company held up their paychecks for weeks that turned into months, and these women had to eventually seek legal recourse to get their money.

And…NO! There isn’t the slightest thing ‘unusual’ about this. Actually, it is par for the course. Whenever and wherever any part of the corporate bureaucracy, (which includes the government, as they are now one and the same) can avoid paying anything that is legitimately due, or if they can squeeze or otherwise hound ‘the VICTIMS’ for monies that are NOT their responsibility, they do.

And…NO! There isn’t the slightest thing ‘unusual’ about this. Actually, it is par for the course. Whenever and wherever any part of the corporate bureaucracy, (which includes the government, as they are now one and the same) can avoid paying anything that is legitimately due, or if they can squeeze or otherwise hound ‘the VICTIMS’ for monies that are NOT their responsibility, they do.

I recently read an article that exposes how the private collection agencies hired by the IRS are actually COSTING more than they collect, and they hound citizens with phony claims of unpaid taxes. A friend sent me an e-mail revealing it as yet another ‘scam’ as if being perpetrated by some individual con artists. I explained that it was indeed a ‘scam’ but it was a government operation.

So, as awful as this is to be doing to our vets, the practice has long been used by multiple corporate entities; banks, insurance companies, you name it. Literally millions of citizens have been targeted at some point in time, and many have been hit multiple times. The unprecedented foreclosures are another example, because many of those have also been fraudulent and illegitimate foreclosures.

This is the same culture of scam and greed that has diminished the quality and availability of health care for our veterans. While there are still some dedicated professionals within the system, most have been run out and replaced with ...yep, private contractors for nearly every service provided..IF the vets can get any at all.

It makes me very ill.

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