The latest new math

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by Emilio DeGrazia | April 12, 2009 • In November, 2003, I wrote a widely circulated opinion piece asking whether the war in Iraq was worth its cost. At that time the war was 10 months old, with $40,000,000,000 already spent and another $87,500,000,000 earmarked for the war by Congress and President Bush.

Emilio DeGrazia has authored four books of fiction, including Seventeen Grams of Soul, winner of a Minnesota Book Award, and Enemy Country, winner of a Writer’s Choice Award. A founding editor of Great River Review, he has co-edited (with his wife Monica) 26 Minnesota Writers and 33 Minnesota Poets. His most recent book is a collection of essays entitled Burying the Tree. He lives downstream in Winona. All Downstream blog entries ©2008 Emilio DeGrazia.

At that time the Iraqi population was estimated to be about 24 million, minus about 10,000 reported to be killed in the war. I calculated that we had targeted $5,312 at each Iraqi man, woman and child. After expressing concern about a “cost efficiency ratio” showing that adversaries were spending a mere $1,000,000 for every $1,000,000,000 we were allocating to the war, then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld estimated that there were still about 5,000 “insurgents” (I also called them Bad Guys) still alive. Using only half the $87,500,000,000, it would cost U.S. taxpayers about $8,750,000 per person to kill the remaining 5,000 Bad Guys.

All the zeroes in those figures seem like eyeless blank checks now, out of sight and out of mind, especially since we’ve set our sights on Wall Street and the banks for causing our recession. More than six years have passed and the cost of the Iraqi war has been projected to escalate to $2,000,000,000,000, with Iraqi war-related deaths alone estimated (controversially but conservatively) at 500,000. If those figures are approximately accurate, it will cost $400,000,000 to kill each of the remaining 5,000 Bad Guys. We could figure things more conservatively too. Assuming that U.S. forces share responsibility for only half the Iraqi deaths, those 250,000 deaths will end up costing U.S. taxpayers one trillion dollars or $4,000,000 each.

We no doubt ought to deduct certain amounts for well-intentioned projects such as protection of oil fields, post-bombing reconstruction of infrastructure, construction of the Green Zone, and money spent on private contractors (70% of whom are foreigners). If the expenditures for do-good projects seem high, an argument could be made for balancing the books by leveraging them against the cost of achieving Iraqi casualties. And that method of accounting might allow us to exclude civilian deaths from our calculations.

Still, it seems that the war has lost some of its earlier efficiencies. Albert Einstein, whose genius seems well-earned, reminds us that not all things that are counted count, and that many things that can’t be counted really count the most. Difficult to calculate, for example, is how much all these deaths, Iraqi and American, have saved us at the gas pump.

It is important to maintain proper perspective. There are important differences between short and long-term views. Linda Bilmer and Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, for example, take a short-term view when they calculate that the first four years of the war (costing only $1,000,000,000,000) cost U.S. taxpayers $500,000 per minute, or in an expanded view, $720,000,000 per day. Taking a still longer view, they figure the eventual costs of the war at $3,000,000,000,000, with each minute and day gaining considerable value.

It might be useful to personalize the costs, certainly if we’re going to require accountability. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) calculates the cost per U.S. soldier at $500,000 per person per year, with the average retirement benefit for survivors of 20 years of service ringing in at $2,600,000 at age 77. Since most veterans don’t make it to age 77, some savings are realized.

According to the CBO, private contractors such as Blackwater armed guards earn about $1,222 per day and also cost about $500,000 per person to maintain. Since only 30% of private contractors are U.S. citizens, we perhaps could credit to U.S. taxpayers some of the benefits that accrue to foreign economies.

With all the facts and figures we do have about defense budgets, war expenditures, and losses resulting from corruption and bribes, we still have many black holes that might contain things that count that can’t be counted because they are invisible or don’t exist. How do we see as real the 1,274,336 homes that could be configured with renewable electricity units with the $720,000,000 spent per day on the war, or the jobs those units would create, or the schools and scholarships, or the medical research, or the mortgage assistance programs, or the health care and Social Security benefits?

How visible are the problems veterans bring home from the war to the privacy of beds and living rooms? How real will these problems be twenty years from now?

And how can our minds make any sense of the incalculable waste––the heaps of toxic trash left behind, the goodwill we’ve lost all over the world, the fathers and mothers who never return, the vacant stares in children’s eyes, the lost body parts, the broken hearts and dreams?

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