The Costs of War in the Modern World
A Talk for a Conference at Lyndon State College
Lyndonville, Vermont  -  March 10, 2004

My underlying purpose in this talk is to argue that the ordinary literate citizen – the kind of person Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf had in mind when they popularized the term “a common reader” – can discover what’s going on in the world and can make intelligent decisions about what kind of world he or she wants to inhabit. None of us requires experts to tell us which of the contending visions of the world is correct and certainly, none of us must depend on experts to supply us with our own vision of a healthy and meaningful society.

Still, though we can discover the truth about the world and formulate a desirable human environment for ourselves, most of us don’t. And why not? Because we don’t make sufficient effort to educate ourselves. What we do – rather avidly in many cases – is to pursue schooling, and credentials, and degrees. And we accept, uncritically, the contention of the people who sell us this schooling, and sell us these credentials and degrees, that they collectively constitute education. This is a big lie, but it is a lie supported by a monstrous conglomeration of vested interest and profit-taking, and consequently it is one that you will continue to have pumped at you for the rest of your life.

Now, what does this have to do with war and its costs? Simply this: the degree to which a population fails to educate itself will be an accurate indicator of how much it relies on war to achieve its purposes and how much it is willing to spend in order to gain the blessings that war supposedly showers upon it. I’m so confident of this that I’ve made it the topic of an aphorism that guides virtually all my study – and that is:

The more profoundly uneducated a society becomes the more warlike it will be, because it will be
made up of people who are easy to manipulate by those who profit from war.  And when we consider
profit in its crassest terms, there is nothing that can produce it as quickly and easily as war does. War
is the creator of great fortune among the few and great misery among the many.

Defining education as being, at least in part, the ability to avoid that sort of manipulation, in contrast with the way it’s defined in most of our schools and colleges, as training processes designed to prepare people to become tools of manipulation, is a task that runs way beyond the time and energy we have available to us this afternoon. Although I’m always eager to engage in conversation that helps the genuine definition of education step forward, here I have to fall back on the assertion that the training one receives in the typical university today does not help one very much in assessing the true cost of war, or of any other major social activity.  Education as it’s accepted in our schools and colleges nowadays is not a matter of seeing the world whole or of acting in accordance with the needs of a full and meaningful human society.

Consequently, my task this afternoon is probably undoable, because not only do I need to spell out the costs of war in a way that’s different from what we find in normal scholarship and normal journalism. I also have to try to do it by appealing to habits of mind that have been suppressed by the schooling mechanisms most of you have been subjected to.

One of the first attitudes I need to get around is the notion that when we speak of costs we’re addressing phenomenon that can be measured solely in dollars. It certainly takes a great pile of dollars to wage a modern war and I don’t want to ignore, or to minimize, the costs that can be measured in that way. But I do want to argue that the true costs of war go far beyond what can be assigned a dollar-cost, or even what can be measured numerically. Let me, right here at the beginning, give an example of what I mean.

During the bombardment of Baghdad about a year ago, a young woman on the verge of delivering a baby was brought into a hospital with both of her arms blown off. The doctors managed to stop the bleeding and bandage the stumps of her arms. And then, within a couple hours she went into labor and her baby was born. The infant was laid on her stomach, which is the common practice in birthing rooms, but she was not able to hold her child as a new mother normally would because she had no arms with which to hold him. And because the medical personnel had to rush off to attend to other wounded people who were being brought in great numbers into the hospital, there was no one there to help this young mother, and she lay through the night with her baby wailing on her stomach. This is just one of the thousands of stories that are subsumed by the United States government under the heading of “collateral damage.” And, since collateral damage is unintended, it does not, so far as official policy is concerned, need to be counted. No one on the coalition side (as we call it) wanted to destroy this woman’s arms. But, the arms are gone all the same. And, I suspect that the memory of the night her child was born will remain vivid in her mind and will become, over the years as this child is growing up, the source of an ever-spreading story. When the child born in this way becomes twenty years old, we can’t know what he will do in honor of his armless mother. But a little imagination tells us that he might be determined to exact a price, which will clearly be a cost of this war.

If Mr. Rumsfeld, our Secretary of Defense, were asked to assign a magnitude to this cost, he would doubtless express sorrow that the event occurred, and he would say something about the inevitable and regrettable accidents of war. But I don’t think he would take the task of assigning a cost seriously. And once he got away from the glare of television lights he would probably utter graphic epithets about the soft-headedness of people who think and ask about such things. 

I am one of those soft-headed persons because I know, both from personal experience and from history, that when people experience hideous events they don’t merely write them off with an obnoxious abstraction. They live with them everyday, and the recall of those events becomes a strand in the fabric of their lives. It’s not always the case that their memory leads to hatred and the desire for revenge. Upon rare occasions, people who have had bad things happen to them resolve that they should not happen to others anytime, anywhere. But, it’s more likely that they will harbor hostile feelings towards the people who caused their injuries, and, for the most part, they don’t care what their reasons were. Ask yourself this: if somebody blew off your mother’s arms, would it matter to you whether they did it collaterally or on purpose?

I suspect that if Mr. Rumsfeld were viewing one of his granddaughters who had been maimed, he wouldn’t speak of her as collateral damage. Rather, he would see her as a cherished family member who had been made miserable by the violence of others. And this truth points us towards another of the non-measurable costs of war.  It causes us, inevitably, to view other people as being less than fully human and to speak of them either as monsters or as statistics.

In 1943, Life Magazine ran a feature story which included a photograph of a young woman, carefully dressed, sitting at a writing desk, gazing fondly on the skull of a Japanese soldier that had been sent to her by her boyfriend from Guadacanal. The text noted that the boyfriend had penned a message to her on the top of the skull, and it was this message that she was presumably preparing to answer.

It’s a moving love story, isn’t it, that a young American soldier, one of our heroes, far out in the South Pacific, would take the time to cut off a Japanese head, boil it down till all the flesh was removed, package it up, and send it to his sweetheart at home? And it’s even more moving that she should have been so pleased to receive this souvenir.

In truth, it wasn’t a rare occurrence. Years later, when the Japanese government dug up the remains of their soldiers killed in the Mariannna Islands, in order to send them home for burial, they discovered that sixty percent of them were missing their skulls.

I guess there are those who would argue that there is no cost associated with the transformation of a young man, who, without the war, would have been tinkering with his ’36 Ford, or playing baseball with his buddies, or hoeing a row of cotton, into a head boiler. But I don’t find that argument persuasive. War coarsens people, and it is not likely that the habits developed in war will be reserved only for war. We have no sure way of tracing the effects of war into ordinary life. But clearly, we know enough of war-induced psychosis and trauma to suspect that the overall effects are not positive. We certainly should respect those whose war-time experiences have led them to a wider and deeper view of history. Yet, it would be misleading to take their example as an argument that the overall consequences of war are educational.

Even if we set aside the moral costs of turning ourselves into the kind of people who will celebrate the boiling of heads, and ask only what the purely practical consequences are, we find that the costs remain high. Our recent military activities, for example, have transformed us into the most despised country in the world. And though we may, in a spirit of national confidence, dismiss the opinion of all those lesser creatures who are not Americans, their views affect us nonetheless. As Robert Wright observed in the New York Times a little over two years ago:

Among the top 10 morals of the Sept. 11 attack is that what ordinary people abroad think about
America now matters. Fifty years ago, when Mr. Rumsfeld came of age, it made sense for American
strategists to focus on the opinion of foreign elites — government officials in particular. So long as
leaders abroad either liked us or feared us, we were safe. But, with massively lethal force
increasingly available to nongovernmental groups, world opinion more broadly matters. Some small
fraction of today's brooding, America-hating masses will become tomorrow's terrorists. So shrinking
these masses, however difficult, is one way to fight terrorism. Bombs alone won't accomplish this
mission — and, depending on the circumstances, they may hurt it. (January 20, 2002)

One thing we can be pretty sure of is that the way in which we have regarded and reported on our recent wars is not going to shrink those masses. On February 5th of this year, the CBS Evening News made the first mention I have seen from a major media outlet of the number of people who have been killed in Iraq because of the war. These were very conservative estimates compared to others that have been put forward, but even so, it was notable that an American network took any account of non-American deaths. The numbers reported by Dan Rather were 9,000 Iraqi civilians, 6,000 Iraqi military, and 529 U.S. military personnel.

Those numbers, of course, except for the deaths of American soldiers, did not come from the American military. Our government has announced that it will not count the people we kill in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The thinking behind this decision seems to be that since we kill civilians only collaterally, their deaths are accidents for which we can take no responsibility, and as for the military deaths, they are inflicted on people who are bad because they oppose us, so they don’t deserve to be counted. This seems to make perfect sense to the American officials who have announced these policies, but I can assure you it does not set well with people outside this country, who tend to view it as one more instance of callous American arrogance. I’m not interested today in arguing the moral rightness or wrongness in caring so little for non-American lives that we can’t bother to count, or even to estimate, the number we take. But I will argue that it is something that is noticed about us, and reported widely about us, outside our own media, and as a consequence it serves to increase the numbers of those “brooding, American-hating masses” from which future acts of terror will arise.

It seems not to have occurred to the major figures of the current American government that though we are not bothered by killing non-Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, each person we kill has a circle of family members and friends who will see that death as a terrible event and in all likelihood will store up resentment towards the people who caused it. We were told repeatedly by our political leaders that the people of Iraq would be overjoyed to see us invade their country. There have been some demonstrations that could be taken as a welcome. But they could just as well be taken as the cowering of people who have long since learned to bow down to the current power. In actuality, as time has gone on, more and more demonstrations have had an anti-American tone, and the frequent deaths have been blamed on the occupying powers more often than on the attackers who caused them.

Furthermore, it is impossible to occupy a country without alienating a considerable portion of its population. Every door kicked down, every woman rousted from her bed in the middle of the night, every man forced to kneel in abject submission, every child wailing terrified in a corner, adds to the stories that circulate from village to village about what the Americans do and what kind of people they are. And these incidents are covered by the foreign press far more eagerly than they are by the generally subservient American media. Of course, the army and American reporters can always trot out someone with a good word to say about a water system repaired or a school put back in operation. But, the truth is that our press has supplied us with little idea of what the Iraqi people say of us when they are outside our hearing. Still, the increasing anger that boils over during street demonstrations can give us some indication.

Mention of the press reminds us that in war truth – as had been so famously said – becomes the first casualty. There could scarcely be a more perfect demonstration of that aphorism than the buildup and the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. It is increasingly said that the American people have no memory, and though that’s too harsh a charge, it does seem to be the case that a considerable percentage of Americans have forgotten the tone and temper of assertions made by the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, and many other officials during the period the rest of the world was being castigated for not getting on board, and the name of fried potatoes was being changed, just before we sent our forces into Iraq. At that time, there was no hint of uncertainty about what we supposedly knew about the Iraqi government. When Colin Powell went to the United Nations to make the case for war, he said he knew, beyond any doubt, that the Iraqis were hoarding vast stores of forbidden weapons, which could be unleashed at any minute to bring desolation on countries around the world. He did not use such phrases as “intelligence indicates,” or “we suspect that,” or “we have good reason to believe.” He said we knew. And that was simply untrue. We did not know. Subsequent events have shown how very little we did know about the state of Iraqi military strength, which was supposed to be threatening the entire world. The irony of the situation, which has been scarcely mentioned by the American press, is that in the early months of 2003, the mad man Saddam Hussein was telling the truth about Iraqi weapons and the president of the United States was spreading untruth with all the resources at the command of the United States government.

Whether the latter was done cynically, or out of honest mistake, will be debated by historians for generations, and I suspect that even a century hence there will be no consensus on the question. But right now we know that the president, in his eagerness for war, exaggerated the quality and nature of our information about conditions inside Iraq. As a consequence, the credibility of the United States has sunk to a level heretofore unknown in history. We are now exactly in the position of the little boy who cried wolf, and anytime in the next decades the president of the United States or the secretary of state goes to the United Nations to declare something that bears on the safety of the world, he will be disbelieved by the majority of the people who hear him. In the opinion of the world community, the government of the United States is a perpetual and ruthless liar.

Even our own official documents proclaim our contempt for the truth. As Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post last September:

The oddest document in the archives today is the congressional resolution that the White House
sought authorizing war in Iraq. It is less than a year old, but already it seems from another era. It is
alarmist, written in the most purple of prose, saying of Iraq that it "poses a continuing threat to the
national security of the United States." It says Iraq is "supporting and harboring terrorist
organizations," specifically naming al Qaeda. As a historical document it is rich in irony. As a cause
for war, it is a farce.

Now there are many people in the United States, led by such voices as the political talk show host Bill O’Reilly, who proclaim, loudly and insistently, that “we don’t care what they think.”  One of the effects of war is to produce a rah-rah, cheerleader mentality that seeks to persuade oneself, as well as everybody else, that we are invincible, that there are no limits to the reach of our power, that everyone in the world must do our bidding, that somehow, great military power has conferred upon us great wisdom, that it is impossible for America to make a mistake, and that virtually all the goodness which exists in the world has come to reside in American breasts. The ancient Greeks had a word for this attitude. They called it hubris. And they also told us that when hubris reaches its height, that’s when danger is the very greatest. It is hard to imagine a more full-scale demonstration of hubris than that exhibited by the government of the United States over the past two years, and in the modern instance, the threat of hubris is intensified by the financial requirements of waging modern war.

For some strange reason – and I’ve never fully understood this – when it comes to killing somebody the United States wants to kill, the question of the cost of the killing is completely dismissed. We will haggle for months over the cost of paving a road, or hiring a teacher, or providing medical care for a sick child, or looking after an elderly person who has lost the ability to look after himself. In these cases, every penny has to be scrutinized. The taxpayer’s dollar takes on the aura of a religious icon, and floods of political rhetoric are gushed forth to proclaim that it should be expended only after the most exacting analysis. But, when it comes to killing somebody, all thought of cost is out the window. I don’t know how much money we spent to send a huge army halfway around the world, and I doubt that anybody else does. The accounting procedures of the government are somewhat less than crystal clear. But, just use your commonsense. Think how much you would have to take out of your pocket if somebody rushed in and told you that you had to send your Uncle Fred’s tractor to Turkmenistan. The cost of transporting and activating armies amounts to tens of billions of dollars.

Even if we assume that we wanted to kill everybody in Iraq that we have killed and, therefore, argue that each one of those deaths was a justifiable target of American policy, we still need to step back, use a little simple arithmetic, and realize that the American taxpayer spent somewhere in the neighborhood of five million dollars to accomplish each one of those deaths. Modern war is surprisingly expensive.

When you and I spend money, we are always engaged in comparisons. One asks himself, would I rather go out to dinner on Friday night, or would I rather have a new pair of pants? No matter how wealthy we are, we know that we live in a world of financial limits, and that we have to make choices. And the consequence of failing to recognize limits is financial disaster.

But when it comes to war, a patriotic mania takes hold, and we behave as though the costs are inconsequential. In the United States, this mania has been so strong over the past two years, that our government is spending money it doesn’t have – and has no acceptable way of getting – at a rate never before seen in history.

Our most cautious political commentators have spoken in the strongest terms about the costs of forgetting our limits. David Broder, for example, generally regarded as the dean of American political discourse, wrote in the Washington Post, on March 23, 2003:

The answer, sadly, is that youngsters yet to be born will see their choices limited and their prospects
blighted by the decision of today's politicians to press ahead with an unaffordable tax cut even while
the costs of war and reconstruction make earlier spending estimates wildly unrealistic.

Just how wild the estimates were is only gradually beginning to dawn on the American public. We are borrowing money at a rate that puts the basic financial structure of the nation’s economy in danger. Already, foreigners hold so much debt that if they decided to transfer it from dollars to other currencies, we would experience a collapse that would make the Great Depression of 1929 seem like child’s play.

Mr. Bush has claimed to be a great defender of American security. Television is now flooded with political commercials celebrating his wise and steady leadership. Yet, he has pursued policies that threaten the wellbeing of virtually everyone in this country. And a major portion of that threat comes because he was avid to launch a war.

The principal justification for that war has now shifted from the threat posed by Saddam Hussein to his badness. Mr. Bush recently appeared on Meet the Press and repeatedly justified the war on the basis that Saddam was not only a ruthless dictator but that he was a mad man. His utter craziness, that was so extreme as to require the United States to forfeit the good opinion of the rest of the world, has, however, only been recently discovered. Mr. Bush has persistently listed the evil and crazy things that Saddam did over the course of his rule. But the president has not bothered to remind us that most of these evil things were done when Saddam was a virtual ally of the United States government and that the horrendous deeds were done with at least tacit American approval. We need to pay attention to our own history more carefully than we do, and heed the findings of our most careful scholars. Bill Keller of The New York Times reminded us of this on December 14, 2002, when he wrote:

Samantha Power, who documented America's long indifference to the most extreme form of abuse —
genocide — in her harrowing book "A Problem From Hell," points out that Presidents Reagan and
Bush Senior were worse than silent when Saddam was at his most genocidal. During the so-called
Anfal campaign of 1987-88, when tens of thousands of Kurds were slaughtered in mass executions or
fumigated with lethal gases, the U.S. regarded Iraq as a bulwark against Iran. Even after the gas
attacks were documented the U.S. continued to ladle out credits for Iraq to buy American grain and
manufactured goods. Ms. Power's reporting turned up one State Department document that
concluded, with spine-tingling diplomatic detachment, "Human rights and chemical weapons use
aside, in many respects our political and economic interests run parallel with those of Iraq."

The concentration on war as the principal means of national policy distorts both history and current reality. Bob Herbert, a writer who strikes me as reflecting the essence of sanity, noted in February of last year:

Presidents eager for budget savings have frequently proposed cuts in Impact Aid. Congress has almost
always resisted. What makes Mr. Bush's proposal so potentially devastating is that it comes when he is
marshaling the nation for war, when the federal government is running up record budget deficits,
when most states are struggling with huge budget deficits of their own, when school districts across
the country are already suffering financially, and when both houses of Congress are controlled by the
president's party.

Wars, of course, have always been very costly. In the past, we have borne them in the expectation that they would eventually come to an end, and that we would return to normal peacetime activities. But we are now facing something new in American history: a war, which, by the very definition placed on it by our leaders, can never come to an end. Very early in the conflict, President Bush announced that this was a war against evil, and that it would not be over until evil had been banished from the face of the earth. Now, if we define evil in the way Mr. Bush does, it’s pretty clear that it can never be banished. Therefore, the war that we entered more than two years ago must go on forever, and the costs of war must be paid forever.

In war, civil liberties are diminished, supposedly in the interests of security. Now, they must be diminished forever.

Domestic projects are set aside because the aims of the war are more pressing. Now they must be set aside forever.

Open, democratic decision-making must be suspended lest we let the enemy in on our secrets. Now, it must be suspended forever.

Friendly negotiations with other nations, involving give and take, can no longer be indulged because, in war, national security demands that we do nothing but defend ourselves. Now, negotiations of the traditional sort are over, forever.

The serious question facing the American people is whether they want their nation to be eternally at war. And in order to answer that question in an intelligent manner, the people must be able to take account of the costs of war. We now have a government that is doing everything in its power to turn our attention away from measuring those costs.

Here, this afternoon, I’ve done a very inadequate job of sketching the sort of thinking and investigation that would permit us to gage those costs in a sensible matter. But, I hope I have managed at least to suggest the kind of imaginative projection which is required to come even close to understanding the magnitude of expenditure that war places upon us, both immediately and into the future.

Contrary to what you might imagine, I am not a philosophical pacifist. I was once a soldier myself, and I was prepared to do what was required of me as a soldier. There have been times in the past when the costs of war were justified. And, there may be times again when it would be reasonable to pay those terrible prices. But we have to know what the prices are to make rational decisions. Neither the United States government nor the major American media are currently helping us towards an adequate assessment, but, in my judgment, over the past year, the price of war in Iraq has shown itself to be beyond any conceivable benefit we can receive from it.

©John R. Turner

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