Even on the rare occasions when the costs of American war preparations and war making are actually covered in the media, they never receive the sort of attention that would be commensurate with their importance. Last September, for example, the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute released a paper demonstrating that, since 2001, the U.S. had racked up $4.79 trillion in current and future costs from its wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, as well as in the war at home being waged by the Department of Homeland Security. That report was certainly covered in a number of major outlets, including the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic, and U.S. News and World Report. Given its importance, however, it should have been on the front page of every newspaper in America, gone viral on social media, and been the subject of scores of editorials. Not a chance.
Yet the figures should stagger the imagination. Direct war spending accounted for “only” $1.7 trillion of that sum, or less than half of the total costs. The Pentagon disbursed those funds not through its regular budget but via a separate war account called Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO). Then there were the more than $900 billion in indirect war costs paid for from the regular budget and the budget of the Department of Veterans Affairs. And don’t forget to add in the more than half-trillion dollars for the budget of the Department of Homeland Security since 2001, as well as an expected $1 trillion in future costs for taking care of the veterans of this century’s wars throughout their lifetimes. If anyone were truly paying attention, what could more effectively bring home just how perpetual Washington’s post-9/11 war policies are likely to be?
That cost, in fact, deserves special attention. The Veterans Administration has chronic problems in delivering adequate care and paying out benefits in a timely fashion. Its biggest challenge: the sheer volume of veterans generated by Washington’s recent wars. An additional two million former military personnel have entered the VA system since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began. Fully half of them have already been awarded lifetime disability benefits. More than one in seven — 327,000 — suffer from traumatic brain injury. Not surprisingly, spending for the Veterans Administration has tripled since 2001. It has now reached more than $180 billion annually and yet the VA still can’t catch up with its backlog of cases or hire doctors and nurses fast enough to meet the need.