On September 14, Heidi Peltier at Boston University sat down with PCIM Director Raza Rumi to talk about the Costs of War Project, its findings and the impact of the United States’ bloated defense budget on American citizens and the world. Professor Peltier is the Director of the Costs of War Project’s “20 Years of War” research series at the Pardee Center, launched in October 2019 in collaboration with Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. The Costs of War project has explored the human, financial, environmental, social, and political costs of the post-9/11 wars.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Raza Rumi: Hello everyone, and welcome to Park Center for Independent Media’s The Edge. Today I have Heidi Peltier from the Costs of War Project at Brown University with us. The Costs of War Project has been cited so many times in local and international media with regard to the implications of the U.S.’s war on terror and what it has actually cost the American public and the state. Thank you so much, Heidi, for joining. I would like you to tell us all how this came about: what is the genesis of the Costs of War Project and why was it created?
Heidi Peltier: Sure. Thank you, Raza, for having me on. So, the Costs of War Project was started at Brown University in 2010 as the U.S. was approaching the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the intervention in Afghanistan. The idea behind the Costs of War Project was that there’s not really a full accounting of the various costs of war. What we often hear from the Department of Defense is the kind of narrowest aspect of the budget for war spending, which is what is now called “Overseas Contingency Operations.” Publicly, when the amount of spending is discussed on the war, that OCO is the number we most often hear, and the Costs of War Project wanted to look at all the other associated costs. So, not just the direct war spending, but the other increases to the Pentagon’s budget that happened during wartime: the increases in Homeland Security expenses, the increased costs of interest payments on the debt we take on for the war, increased cost for veterans’ care and benefits and so on — a much more full accounting of the costs of war.
In addition to the budgetary costs, there are all the other costs: the human costs, the lives lost, the injuries, the effects on loss of transparency, human rights abuses. Various aspects of war now have brought dozens of scholars from different disciplines — anthropologists, political scientists, economists and more — looking at these various costs of war.
So, it started in 2010. The project has continued to grow since then and lately has gotten a lot of attention from media and policymakers, especially with the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the 20-year mark of the 9/11 attacks. The Costs of War Project has been called upon quite a bit for its numbers on the costs, since we have the most comprehensive accounting and legislators are using the resource in drafting legislation. There’s new legislation drafted by representative Barbara Lee, for instance. The Costs of War Project was mentioned by President Biden in a recent speech. And so, we’re seeing that the project is having an impact, but more importantly, policymakers need this kind of accounting of war expenses.
Raza Rumi: Absolutely. And because we are talking just a few days after the 20th anniversary of the tragic events that took place on 9/11, it becomes even more relevant and meaningful. So tell us, Heidi, what has the project found out so far regarding how much money U.S. taxpayers have put into these different wars in different countries? What’s the total tally and breakdown, and what does it mean for future generations of Americans?
Heidi Peltier: All good questions. The total tally is actually quite staggering. The most recent numbers were published September 1, just a couple of weeks ago, in a paper by Nina Crawford, who is one of the cofounders of and codirectors of Costs of War Project. What we spent or obligated since 2001 until today, just in the U.S., is $5.8 trillion. That’s from 2001 through fiscal year 2022. That includes a little of over $2 trillion of war spending classified as OCO. And it includes over a trillion dollars of interest on borrowing from the war debt. It includes increases in the Pentagon’s budget, compared to its peacetime budget. It includes veterans’ care and benefits, and it includes Homeland Security.
So, $5.8 trillion already, and then in addition to that, we have all the upcoming expenses for veterans; the post-9/11 veterans who have served over the last 20 years will continue to receive care. Linda Bilmes, also with the Costs of War Project and a professor at Harvard, has estimated at least $2.2 trillion are obligated for veterans’ care and benefits. When you put all of that together, these post-9/11 wars have already cost, or will cost, $8 trillion. And that number may continue to rise.
Raza Rumi: Eight trillion dollars. Let that sink in. That is a huge, huge cost that will be not just borne by those who are paying taxes now, but by future generations. Your project has also documented the casualties that U.S. forces have faced and that people in countries the U.S. has invaded or bombed or intervened have faced. Tell us a bit about that as well.
Heidi Peltier: Directly, nearly a million lives have been lost in the post-9/11 wars. A small fraction of that is U.S. troops. A bit more than that is U.S. contractors — we actually have more deaths of contractors than troops. But by far the greatest losses have been in civilians during the post-9/11 wars. The countries where these have happened include Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and some surrounding countries as well. The national police and national military, civilians, the opposition fighters — those are the groups that have faced the most serious losses. And when we combine all these areas of the post-9/11 war, the casualties are nearly a million. And that doesn’t include the indirect deaths.
Indirect deaths result when healthcare facilities are bombed, and water and food and energy and infrastructure are damaged, and people don’t have access to the life-sustaining things they need. So, there are many times more indirect deaths than direct deaths. The true number would be in the millions, but it’s close to a million of just direct deaths.
Raza Rumi: Wow. I mean, this is staggering. And I believe that I was reading some time back about the damaging impact on U.S. veterans, in terms taking care of their bodies and mental health and the kind of attention they would require. That is also a cost that the future generations of Americans will bear.
Heidi, you mentioned in your opening remarks about President Biden and others citing your very important contributions. What has been the general response by mainstream media within the U.S.? Our center looks at what the mainstream media is covering or not covering for that matter. Have they paid due attention to these findings in your view, or in your team’s view? Or do you think more needs to be done?
Heidi Peltier: More needs to be done. I will say that for most of the past 20 years, not nearly enough attention has been paid to the cost of the wars — neither in terms of dollars nor lives lost. These costs have been largely hidden from public view. Of course, in some respect the public didn’t even realize we were still at war. The withdrawal from Afghanistan really has brought attention to the fact that we have been there for 20 years now. So in the last few weeks, we have gotten a lot of media attention, and the mainstream media is talking much more about the impact of the wars, the successes, if any, and then failures, mostly. They have now started to talk much more seriously about: What are the costs? What are the future obligations? What are the human impacts?
As I’ve mentioned, the Costs of War Project has been relied on a lot lately for these numbers. There’s starting to be much more public discussion about it, which is great because these wars have largely been ignored for the past decade or so. It’s as if most Americans have forgotten that we were still in Afghanistan or in Iraq.
Raza Rumi: Exactly. You mentioned that it’s a kind of a tragic reality that such information has long been hidden from the public. In a democracy, how can voters or citizens hold those in power to account until they have access to this kind of information? Do you think that the information is now getting out adequately? I know we talked about the media, but of course there are many other ways, such as school systems, academic spaces, colleges, community groups — do you think they are picking up this information enough to inform and educate the public? Because that is the only way that there would be a more responsible war policy by the U.S. government in the future.
Heidi Peltier: That’s right, and there’s a lot more work to be done. I do think that there is a big task ahead to educate the public, to educate kids in schools, about the federal budget and how we spend federal dollars. Half of our discretionary budget, which is the part of the budget that Congress makes decisions on every year, goes to the Department of Defense — and it’s more like two-thirds if we include the DoD plus Homeland Security, plus Veterans Affairs, and some the Department of Energy, which has atomic programs, nuclear programs, etc.
Two-thirds of the dollars we make decisions on each year go to this militarized section of the economy. I don’t think voters know that, so there’s a lot of public awareness to raise. There’s a lot of education to be done concerning how we spend tax dollars, and how those tax dollars reflect our priorities or don’t, and where changes need to be made. This summer, the Costs of War Project launched a new part of its website that has some teaching resources. The hope is that middle school and high school teachers can use some of that in their classrooms — college teachers as well — and really start increasing the effort to make people understand where we’re spending our tax dollars.
Raza Rumi: Exactly. Now, I know that you are located at the Watson Institute at Brown, and you’re not on K Street in D.C., but how do we get around to talking to the legislators at the national level? What kind of advocacy, or “lobbying,” can be used to sensitize lawmakers to how they must exercise due diligence and caution while approving wars and their associated budgets? Have you thought about this, or is it not part of your agenda?
Heidi Peltier: It is part of our agenda. It’s a little more challenging during COVID, but when travel is normal, those of us who are based in Massachusetts or Rhode Island will try to meet with our legislators to let them know some of the research so they can make important decisions when considering legislation for or against military spending.
It’s interesting that you use the word “lobbying,” because if you think about the big military contractors — Lockheed and Raytheon and Northrop Grumman — they’re spending millions and millions of dollars a year. They have hundreds of lobbyists working to support the cause of increased defense spending, of increased weapons modernization, and growing the nuclear arsenal. There’s a lot of money and manpower behind increased defense spending, and the only thing that will counteract that, at least a bit, is to get public pressure on our legislators to consider reduced defense spending.
There is a congressional progressive caucus that discusses reductions in the defense budget, but we need to grow that caucus and grow the support for reduced military spending. One of the ways we try to do that through the Costs of War Project is just to provide the research that shows that, for example, we can create more jobs through clean energy investments than we can through the military. You can create more jobs through infrastructure repair, or healthcare investments, or education than you can through the military. Making those kinds of facts known to legislators is one step towards increasing their understanding of the various ways that it might not be in their constituents’ best interest to increase or support military spending. There actually might be alternatives that are better for creating jobs and a kind of economy that their voters would prefer to have.
Raza Rumi: Yes. Excellent ideas. Of course, we can convince the legislators and the public, but it’ll be hard to convince the defense contractors who are at the center of this debate. Anyway, thank you, Heidi. I hope that we continue to have these conversations and thank you so much for your time. This is such an important issue, not just for the U.S. but for the world at large. Hope to see you again.
Heidi Peltier: Thanks very much.