Costs of War: Doing the Numbers

If you Google “$3.7 Trillion” and “war” today, you’ll find a torrent of news coverage about the newly released Costs of War report authored by the Eisenhower Study Group based out of Brown’s Watson Institute for International Studies.

I was part of the interdisciplinary group, co-directed by Catherine Lutz, that co-authored the report which aims to comprehensively explore the vast scope and scale of the impacts, the many kinds of costs, of the U.S. military response to 9/11. So, not surprisingly, the mood strikes me to tell you something about it.

There were more than 20 of us who contributed to the project, and anthropologists were well represented alongside historians, journalists, political scientists, economists, and others.

One of the great strengths of the report and it’s interdisciplinary approach is that it brings together numbers (like international civilian casualty rates) and issues (like impacts of deployment on the children of U.S. service members) that are often disarticulated or overlooked all together.

Now, for better or worse, numbers make good headlines, and this report is chock full of them. We noted that:

The wars have created more than 7.8 million refugees in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are 75% more likely to die in car crashes than their civilian counterparts; Military responses to terrorism have been successful in only 7%of the 268 examples since the late 20th Century; An M-1 Abrams tank gets about half a mile per gallon of gas; In the U.S., the proportion of hate crimes against Muslims has risen 500%since 2000, even though overall hate crime rates have gone down; And, as everyone from The Washington Post to The Toronto Sun noted, the report estimates an (incomplete) price tag of between $3.2 and $4 Trillion.

These numbers are compelling. And, true to the axiom “if it’s integerial, it leads,” (that’s how it goes, right?) numbers make good copy.

But as an anthropologist with a healthy disciplinary skepticism of faith in statistics and all their quantitative kin, and one who worked with injured soldiers and their families and wants people to know about their struggles, I was torn between the power of contagious numbers, and their simplifying and sometimes anesthetizing effects.

Thinking that some of you folks might be too, I thought I would share a few other findings of the report; findings that speak to the power of absent numbers:

The $4 Trillion number leaves much uncounted. For example, it doesn’t count ‘solatia’ payments that the U.S. makes to the families of some Afghan and Iraqi civilians killed or the cost of Predator and Reaper drones (we do know, however, that Predators cost $4.5 million each, and that more than one third of them have crashed).

Project Co-director Neta Crawford’s contribution on casualties begins with a poignant description of the historical, logistical, and political reasons that a death, especially, but not only, that of a civilian can be made uncountable.

Political scientist Alison Howell and I note the way that sensational statistics, like divorce rates, can mask the strains on military families, the very things for which they’re supposed to stand as proxy.

Matthew Evangelista’s contribution offers some important historical lessons using unexpected numbers often disappeared from amnesiac comparative histories of terrorism including those related to organizations active in the 1970s like Germany’s Red Army Faction, Italy’s Brigate Rosse, and Quebec’s Front de Liberation du Québec.

So, though Reuters has made $3.7 Trillion the headline of the Costs of War report, it seemed you might be interested in other ways the rest of us are doing the numbers.

Zoë Wool is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University. She works on the intimate, carnal, clinical and political making of fleshy life for severely injured American soldiers.

5 thoughts on “Costs of War: Doing the Numbers

  1. Thanks for that link, Matt. Interestingly, that NPR story also notes

    What history has told us is that you don’t see a proportional decrease in spending based on the number of troops when you draw them down,” says Chris Hellman, a senior research analyst at the National Priorities Project.

  2. Thanks for sharing this — the piece sounds fascinating, and it’s going to the top of my reading list.

Comments are closed.