"If we don't stop extending our troops all around the world in nation-building missions, then we're going to have a serious problem." — during the 2000 presidential debates,
At the start of his presidency one decade ago, George Bush spoke the truth. Of course, that truth didn't stop from launching more "nation-building missions" later on, just as it has failed to stop any president in American history from launching any military action they desired.
The amount of money we spend on national defense is rarely debated these days, and it's part of a disturbing pattern – the more our defense budget increases, the less is known about how and where that money is spent, and the less the American public seems to care.
That's understandable. It's difficult to sort out the tangle of government agencies responsible for defense of the Homeland. I've been doing this once a year for the past 15 years, and it's become a bit like doing my own taxes – I know where to look for the data, it still takes me about a week to sort through it all, and the best I can hope for is to finish reasonably close to the correct numbers.
It's clear, however, that a huge pile of cash is spent keeping US soldiers on foreign soil. We have active military personnel stationed in 75 countries. We have around 900 overseas military facilities. They cover much of the planet but are focused in areas of strategic importance – strategic, primarily, to the US economy. The oil transportation corridors of the Middle East and Eastern Europe are prime examples.
When trying to crunch the numbers, it helps to start with an obvious cash outlay – supplemental spending requests for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the last nine years, Congress has approved $1.2 trillion dollars of supplemental spending requests made by Presidents Bush and Obama. Such requests are always approved. There might be some debate in the House and Senate prior to a vote, but approval always comes in the end.
Supplemental spending requests are easy to track when compared to the rest of defense spending, which comes in a multitude of forms. More than a billion dollars will be spent over the next two years to fortify our embassy in Afghanistan and build a larger one in Pakistan. That money will come out of a variety of other budgets, including some that aren't considered defense-related by government bookkeepers.
Other numbers also seem pretty clear. The Pentagon's proposed budget for 2008, for example, was $515.4 billion. The Department of Defense requested $481.5 billion. That same year, Congress authorized $580 billion in funds specifically for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's well over $1.5 trillion dollars right there, nearly $5 billion spent each and every day, and that’s just part of the grand total for the year.
Some costs don't fit neatly into any category. Do public relations expenses count? The Pentagon PR department spent $4.7 billion in 2009 on a wide variety of activities, foreign and domestic. It employs a staff of 27,000 people. As a comparison, the State Department has a staff of 30,000 and the entire annual budget to operate the United Nations is $1.9 billion.
There's simply no way to estimate the cost of operations and programs whose budgets are kept off the books. History tells us that dozens of so-called "black ops" and secret agencies are in existence right now, just as they've always existed in the past. What the cost might be is anyone's guess, because not one person in the world knows the true amount.
The Veterans Administration budget is currently $41.2 billion, but it will increase dramatically every year into the foreseeable future. Estimates of the total cost over the next two decades of caring for wounded veterans vary wildly; numbers between $400 and $700 billion are offered from different sources. When you include all medical disability payments to soldiers, that $700 billion amount seems more likely.
We do know that as a direct consequence of Iraq and Afghanistan duty, 537,099 veterans have been treated at facilities while 489,369 disability claims have been filed. More than 150,000 veterans of Middle East tours of duty have been officially diagnosed with PTSD. The total number is higher but not known, as some veterans seek private treatment instead of using VA programs.
My most conservative estimate of the total we spent in 2009 on national defense would be $2 trillion dollars. 2.5 million citizens work in our military establishment. But the worst numbers of all have nothing to do with money.
The Pentagon casualty count is 5,500 deaths and 38,000 injuries to soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. How do we measure the cost to families and communities, and to society at large, of all those who died? How much do we compensate someone for the loss of a limb, or two limbs, or the ability to think and speak clearly?
There's also no formula to calculate the cost of the fast-climbing suicide rate – once far below the civilian suicide rate – among veterans over the past decade. During their tours of duty, soldiers work alongside private contractors, mercenaries who face many of the same dangers as soldiers. But employees of private paramilitary companies are paid well for their work, often more in one month than soldiers earn in a year. Those soldiers eventually return home, poor despite their military service, with limited job prospects in hard times.
During 2009, veterans in VA care attempted suicide at a rate of about 1,000 a month, often because they couldn’t get access to the kind of care they needed. More than 200 succeeded. In 2008 the suicide rate for soldiers and veterans ages 18 to 29 was 37.1 per 100,000. That's 80 percent higher than the rate in the civilian population of 20 per 100,000.
The Army suffered a record 163 soldier suicides in 2009. The Air Force rate of 15.5 suicides per 100,000 is at its highest since 1995. The suicide rate among sailors in the Navy, at 13.3 per 100,000 last year, has been increasing since 2005. There were 53 Reserve and National Guard suicides in 2011, compared with 42 for the same period in 2009. But even those grim statistics pale in comparison to the number of Iraqi and Afghan civilians who've been killed by US troops over the past nine years.
Is the Long War we’re fighting across the Arc of Instability making America safer? We haven’t had any outsiders attack us lately; terrorist attacks on American soil these days are home-grown and small in scale when compared toand his Oklahoma City truck bomb. But al-Qaida remains a strong presence in many parts of the world, the CIA tells us. Safety from jihadists seems as elusive as ever.
It might help if we stop calling our involvement in Afghanistan a “war” and take an honest look at our military presence there. But since we generally don’t learn from history, hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds of American lives will be lost traveling the wrong path in that rugged land once known as the Kingdom of Gandhara, a graveyard of empires throughout human history.
Whatever the cost, it will have the full bipartisan support in the halls of Congress. You can bet what's left of your retirement fund on that.
"Our government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear – kept us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor – with the cry of grave national emergency. Always there has been some terrible evil at home or some monstrous foreign power that was going to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it." -- General, 1957
Sources and resources:
"Navy attemtped suicide rate nearly 3 precent," Navy Times, Dec. 23, 2009
"What $1.2 trillion can buy," The New York Times, Jan. 17, 2007