“War, what is it good for?” You might remember that lyric of the hit anti-Vietnam War protest anthem sung by the Temptations in 1969. It’s also a question that philosophers and warriors, citizens and their leaders have asked from the earliest tribal wars to today. The question remains particularly relevant with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, assessment of the Iraq war, conflict in Syria, and the advent of nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran.
War is a complex and costly option, and we hope that it is only undertaken for the most honorable and humane reasons, when all other non-violent options have been exhausted. Usually, however, it is emotional reasoning, economic benefit, lack of imagination and sometimes truly evil political maneuvering that prevail in our decisions about war.
Take, for example, the recent confirmation from declassified tapes that in 1968 presidential candidate Richard Nixon sabotaged President Lyndon B. Johnson’s promising peace talks with Hanoi and South Vietnam in hopes of weakening Johnson’s re-election bid. Not only did Nixon convince the South Vietnamese to withdraw from the talks by promising them a better deal if he were elected, but his move kept Johnson from halting the bombing of North Vietnam. As president, Nixon escalated the war, and 22,000 more Americans died in Southeast Asia before a peace accord was signed five years later in 1973. Some are calling his actions treasonous.
Likewise, the national examination of the way George W. Bush’s administration lead us into the Iraq war after the 9/11 attacks—with lies, or at best specious misinformation—came to a crescendo around the 10th anniversary of the war on March 20. Motivations were revisited—that the war was fought to remove never-found weapons of mass destruction, for regime change that would bring democracy, for American oil interests, because of later-debunked Iranian ties with terrorists and, most strangely, to kill Saddam Hussein in revenge for his death threat against the president’s father, George Bush Sr.
Lack of imagination about the outcomes of toppling a dictator and unleashing sectarian violence in a country unaccustomed to democracy led to what some are calling the biggest strategic error by the U.S. since the end of World War II. President Bush estimated that the war would be over quickly at a cost of $50 to $60 billion. The actual figures were recently reported by Brown University’s Watson Institute Costs of War Project. You may have been seeing some of these numbers recently.
‰$2.2 trillion - the estimated cost of the war, including interest on borrowed funds.
‰134,000 – Minimum estimation of Iraqi civilians killed, though the number may be four times larger.
‰4,488 - U.S. service members killed.
‰3,400 - the estimated, perhaps low-ball, number of U.S. contractors killed.
‰5 million - Iraqis, about 25 percent of the population, displaced by the war.
The costs of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan was estimated at $4 trillion and the deaths of 330,000 civilians, members of the military and contractors. The nonpartisan, nonprofit project arrived at these numbers with the help of the United Nations and 30 participants, including economists, lawyers, political scientists, humanitarian workers and anthropologists from 15 universities.
So what did the United States receive for the money spent, for example, on the Iraq war after eight years? The results are certainly mixed. It is true that Saddam Hussein is no more. While Iraq is under a constitutional government, it is still considered an unstable state. WMD’s were never found, but capability to restart such a program was removed. The supposed al-Quida presence in Iraq was unconfirmed, but the terrorist presence grew significantly more powerful in the Middle East in response to the hated U.S. presence there. Before the 2003 invasion, Iraq’s nationalized oil industry was closed to the West. Now ExxonMobile, Chevron, BP and Shell are in residence along with service corporations such as Halliburton.
Many in the know say that the war was about oil, all along. When he was a senator in 2007, our new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, “People say we’re not fighting for oil. Of course we are.”
People looking for the reasons behind U.S. wars can search beyond oil to other economic motivators. Defense contractors can only profit if the military stays busy. A quick check of the daily U.S. Department of Defense web-site on government contracts shows daily lists of the contracts just finalized. Did I mention that the list comes out daily? On March 22, for example, contracts went to Caterpillar for $633 million, to Lockheed Martin for $27 million to General Dynamics for $7 million. Those were only three of seven contracts announced on one day in March of this year. (See www.defense.gov/contracts/contract.aspx?contractid=5003).
Our military employed 2.3 million service members at a cost of $142.8 billion in 2012 according to the Department of Defense budget. Support staff, facilities and maintenance cost added an additional $204.4 billion to the budget. Imagine, if even one-tenth of DoD employees were to be laid off, and imagine the resulting cost to the economy and the social structure of the country if even half of that number crashed onto the civilian job market.
The cost-benefit analysis of American wars is complex. The moral analysis even more so. Was the loss of Iraqi and American lives worth what was gained?
War makes money for U.S. corporations, keeps military and contractor employees working and often supports other economic engines like the oil industry. Let’s face it: We don’t always go to war for noble purposes, and certainly not the flag-waving, patriotic reasons we’re given by our presidents. When President Dwight Eisenhower gave his exit speech in 1961, he eloquently warned Americans about a new “permanent armaments industry of vast proportions” and an immense military establishment. Alert citizens, he said would need to “comprehend its grave implications” and guard against the influence of the military-industrial complex (Seewww.youtube. com/watch?v=8y06NSB BRtY).
In recent years, we haven’t been doing such a great job. The answer to “War, what is it good for?” isn’t an easy one. But the answer isn’t, as the song said, “Absolutely nothing.” It’s good for the military-industrial complex, for sure. But, we need to be sure it’s good in our moral analysis, as well. As we consider today’s challenges—Iran, Syria and North Korea—we’re going to need to be a more discerning public. We’re going to need to be Eisenhower’s more alert citizens.