Counting the Costs of War

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“The refugee crisis” is a big and scary concept, but to many of us it is just that, conceptual. However, a September 2020 study has found that between 37 and 59 million people from 12 different countries have been displaced since September 11, 2001, as a consequence of the US Global War on Terror. To repeat: 37–59 million lives disrupted as a consequence of US military choices.

The report (“Creating Refugees: Displacement caused by the United States’ Post 9/11 Wars”) is one of many research projects undertaken by the Brown University–affiliated Costs of War Project. The project brings together scholars, physicians, human rights and legal experts to draw attention to the underacknowledged metrics of US military actions, but even publishing the staggering numbers of those displaced as a result of US policies has elicited little reaction from Americans. The troubling fact is that the Western media’s response to this human crisis has been led mainly by a fear of taking in refugees. Unfortunately, the report on displacement provoked little soul-searching in the US, perhaps in part because we are creating a world where displacement becomes almost a fact of life.

The report cautions us not to see these displacements as only troubling statistics, but asks us to remember that each displacement has caused “incalculable harm.” Many of us remember the 2015 photo of a Syrian boy, three-year-old Alan Kurdi, found dead on a Turkish beach. The media response was what one might expect, namely horror at the senseless death. The anguish felt by Westerners at this photo was a genuine reaction to man’s inhumanity to man. However, when this level of human suffering is multiplied, it becomes difficult to consider the full magnitude of the crisis. As we are told, one death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic. Kurdi’s death remains a grim reminder of the human toll of the refugee crisis.

The Costs of War Project illustrates the major refugee flows caused by the U.S. wars since 2001

Since 9/11 the United States has been involved in wars or combat operations in over 24 countries. Yet the Costs of War Project is the first major effort to calculate those displaced by these wars. Neither the United States government nor the governments of the affected nations have accurate displacement statistics, in part a reflection of the low priority placed on civilian lives. The calculations are made more difficult by the constant reconfigurations of the battlefields. Of the 37–59 million displaced by the War on Terror, an estimated 25.3 million have returned to their homes. But, the September report cautions us, this “does not erase the trauma of displacement.” What would be a good method for calculating the “trauma of displacement”?

If the staggering number of those displaced by American wars will not affect us, is there a different way that we can reckon with the human costs of these wars? How else can we quantify the degree to which we are complicit in the systematic destruction of the Middle East? These questions are perhaps above my pay grade, but I would posit that we must consider the degree to which we are the benefactors of a global hegemony whose exercise provokes the displacement of millions. Since these displacements are the direct result of US involvement in the region, and we can calculate the price for others of this US hegemony, can we calculate the benefits? Maybe directly comparing the two would make the average American feel more guilty for these “forever wars.”

Unfortunately, finding benefits to quantify is challenging. The Costs of War Projects has issued a stream of reports looking at the impact of the war on humans, budgets, and policies, but so far there don’t seem to be any benefits to ring up.

I would argue that we have lost far more than we could have possibly gained from these wars at the frontier of the American empire. Despite widespread agreement on the need for greater equity in access to health care and education, we are told time and time again that a domestic policy that focuses on the financial needs of the less fortunate is simply unfeasible, that the money just is not there. However when it comes time for another war, suddenly money is no object, we are fighting for freedom after all! By 2020 US taxpayers had spent over two trillion dollars on the war in Iraq alone. This is an unthinkable amount of money. This dichotomy between money spent on war and money spent on domestic issues is stifling. It feels almost as if there are two different governments making these decisions: one full of tight-fisted financial conservatives, unwilling to support welfare programs because of the national debt, etc.; and another government ready to spend like a drunk on spring break if it is part of the War on Terror.

I am part of a generation that does not remember 9/11; to me and my peers a state of constant war is normal, something almost not worth discussing due to its utter banality. It is taken as a given that there is some vague Middle Eastern threat that must be dealt with through constant warfare. The hegemony of American imperialism creates with it a hegemony of thought; I simply cannot imagine a United States that is not at war. Nor do I see any will to end these wars. President Biden, with his recent airstrike on Syria, has stepped into the paths of his predecessors. Frankly, I do not see these wars ending anytime soon, without a reinvention of how we think about the “sacrifices” we are making. We are sacrificing our future, our health system, our educational system, and, as the Costs of War Project poignantly reminds us, we have sacrificed the stability of tens of millions of lives overseas with our policies.

If we are to live in an America without war, we will need to invent a new vocabulary for discussing war and its aftermath, and new metrics for new arguments. The Costs of War Project aims to provide those metrics to shift the debate and hopefully bring the “forever wars” to an end. 37–59 million people are hoping we succeed.

Seth Lerner, a Champaign native, is a senior at Depaul University in Chicago. He is studying Political Science and Philosophy and is particularly interested in Marxism and religion.

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