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Yes to Empire, No to the People

"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." George W. Bush, Jan. 2001

February 16, 2009
By Rob Lafferty

Add it all up, if you can. Try to calculate the total cost to the taxpayers of America for our military presence in the world beyond our national borders.

I tried, and I failed. It's too big an equation to handle in one afternoon, and I have better things to do with my time in the evenings. There's so much to include that goes beyond the obvious cash outlays, which are staggering amounts of money on their own. I was able to come up with a wild approximation of costs, but I never got close to a true and complete answer.

I started with the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Direct appropriations from Congress amount to nearly $600 billion from the invasion in 2003 through Dec. 2008; that money covers the bulk of operations and expenses in both countries but doesn't include a multitude of indirect costs associated with the massive military bases and airfields we've built in Iraq.

It doesn't include the full cost of healing wounded soldiers who come home after fighting battles that hold little meaning for them now. There's no formula to calculate the total cost to society for the fast-climbing suicide rate among veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan tours of duty. It would take months to research all the indirect costs associated with health care for service-related injuries or conditions that are paid for with state tax dollars, such as counseling services and disability payments and training programs.

And balance sheets don't quantify the social and economic status of the people who make up today's military forces, where foot soldiers are paid much less than officers but carry almost all the risks. It's called a "voluntary" army because soldiers weren't drafted or subscripted or forced into service against their will but only a few passed up better career opportunities in order to serve from a patriotic sense of duty to country.

In 2007 an AP report stated that "...nearly three-fourths of US troops killed in Iraq came from towns where the per capita income was below the national average. More than half came from towns where the percentage of people living in poverty topped the national average."

Those soldiers didn't die because they were poor before they joined up, therefore too dumb to avoid getting killed. Given the random nature of the fighting in Iraq, those numbers represent the high percentage of poor citizens who are foot soldiers in any American military force. They serve alongside a growing number of foreign citizens who were too poor to immigrate but got fast-tracked into citizenship after signing up to become US soldiers.

During their tour of duty many of those soldiers work alongside private contractors, mercenaries who are paid by the same government they work for. But employees of Blackwater and other 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 to realize they're still poor despite their military service and have limited job prospects during economic hard times.

How can anyone calculate the cost to towns and neighborhoods and families when a stressed-out veteran snaps and does desperate things?

So I left that out of the equation and went ahead with sums. Using a very conservative bias, I reckon that taxpayers have been spending at least $30 billion each year since 2004 to maintain all state and federal support programs for veterans of all our military campaigns across the globe. That number will rise each year for at least five more years, but only some of that expense can be attributed to our operations in the Middle East.

So I offer a well-rounded sum of $100 billion as the total cost to American society for Iraq/Afghanistan veteran health care, including the impact of those afflicted by war once they return home. That number will rise in proportion to our increased military operations in the Afghanistan/Pakistan border region you can bet your overvalued mortgage on that but $100 billion will do as a figure for my purposes.

That's an absolute minimum of $700 billion for our military presence in just two countries or actually three countries, as we now ignore the Afghanistan/Pakistan border just as the Pashtun people and Taliban extremists who live in the area always have. So we should add to that total the amount we've given to Pakistan in the form of military aid and weaponry since 2001 as well.

We're now in the same fiscal ballpark as the $787 billion "stimulus" spending package approved by the Democratic majority in Congress. Only three Republican senators supported the nicely-named "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act" with an actual vote; not one Republican in the House would support the bill. That's about the same ratio of Republican politicians who opposed any military spending bill brought before them during the past eight years. That's also a clear picture of the true fiscal policy of politicians who've dominated the Republican Party for too long.

When I look at the record of overall Congressional spending during the past forty years, I see this:
Most Democratic politicians have a history of spending taxpayer money on anything and everything;
Most Republican politicians have a history of spending taxpayer money on everything except services for taxpayers in need;
Both political parties support military spending with few or no restraints.

In the end, both parties helped create the economic mess we find ourselves in today. Both continue to promote wasteful spending on non-essential programs, goods and services they prefer. And far too much of that waste hides beneath the massive blanket of national defense spending.

Because the annual cost of our misadventures in Mesopotamia doesn't include the billions we spend to keep more than 700 military bases staffed and maintained around the world. It doesn't represent half of what we spend on the 2.5 million people who work for our military establishment. My most conservative estimate shows 40 cents of every dollar spent by the US government now goes towards national defense in some form or another.

If the National Treasury doesn't have $787 billion for an economic bailout and must borrow that money from a reformed Communist China, how can we continue to budget trillions of dollars every year to maintain a military presence around the globe? That's not a question our representatives raise in public, nor is it asked of them. It's money for defense, so it's money well spent that's the only safe political position to have regarding our military budget since the Twin Towers of New York were attacked on 9/11.

The American nation sent its armies down a brutally wrong path in Iraq that remains a mistake five years later. We're heading down a similar path in Afghanistan, the Graveyard of Empires throughout human history. That path looks to be expensive in lives, in dollars, in more ways than can be counted. But whatever the cost, it will have the full bipartisan support of both political parties in the halls of Congress. You can bet what's left of your retirement fund on that...