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January 10, 2006

Costs of War
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

I re-watched the brilliant 2003 documentary Fog of War last week and can report that, if possible, it was even more depressing the second time.  Why?  Two reasons.  First, McNamara reminds that when he resigned as Secretary of Defense in 196?, the US had suffered only half the ultimate total of Vietnam combat deaths.  In other words, the worst came well after the height of public debate and angst.

Second, though, Johnson, McNamara and others come off as thoughtful, decent people who made tragic mistakes and knew it at the time.  Hard to imagine the current crew stepping back and seeing their own folly as clearly as Johnson sometimes did.  Not that it did Johnson -- or the soldiers, or the Vietnamese -- much good.

But in fact this post was intended to recommend to you the already-controversial study that Joe Stiglitz has co-authored on the "real" cost of the war.    I like Stiglitz for his genuine efforts to combine an economist's understanding of what trade can do for people and nations with a lefty's appreciation of what trade orthodoxies in fact do sometimes do for the people and nations it is supposed to help.  He's a one-man convergence.

The Christian Science Monitor gets this great quote on Stiglitz from Heritage:

Stiglitz rants against globalization, and generally barks louder than he bites," said Timothy Kane, an economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "That is, he is a champion to the lefties, but never really says that free trade is bad."

So, this study is a little bit of a publicity stunt or a big-think piece -- by including costs such as long-term health care for the wounded, he and co-author Linda Bilmes make it almost impossible to think about the costs in straightforward national security terms.  But, of course, they are right that society has to bear those costs and should know about them.

And the discussion around the study has already spawned these interesting figures:

"Direct operating costs" of the war are around $4.5 billion a month according to the Marines, $7.1 billion according to Stiglitz and Bilmes.

The Monitor and the paper recall that former White House economist Larry Lindsey got in trouble for predicting the war would cost $100-200 billion -- the Marines say it has already cost $173 billion. 

No wonder the economy and the stock market are ticking along so well.


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Fact is that while some of them may have been "thoughtful, decent people who made tragic mistakes and knew it at the time", they serve as exemplars of the phenomenon known as the banality of evil.

More: They may have seen some mistakes, but the bulk of them firmly believed that we could have and should have won in Vietnam. More: None of them publicly admitted mistakes at the time, but waited until Vietnam was historically safe and off the front page to cop to error.

Typical. Nothing noble then.

...strangelove walked away in 1967.

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