The frighteningly high human and financial costs of war

The ravages and costs of war can persist for generations after the fighting and bombing stop.

An Afghan man holds his children after arriving at a UNHCR registration centre in Kabul, Afghanistan [REUTERS]
An Afghan man holds his children after arriving at a UNHCR registration centre in Kabul, Afghanistan [REUTERS]

We have always known that war is dirty and destructive, but now a US-led international team of researchers is revealing precisely how destructive and expensive several wars have been for the United States and the countries it invades – and how the ravages and costs of war could persist for generations after the fighting and bombing stop.

The Costs of War Project comprises 35 scholars, legal experts, human rights practitioners and physicians, and has been working since 2011 to document the full human, material, and political costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the related violence in Pakistan and Syria – and to ask for an official accounting.

The project’s findings show that over the past 15 years, US conflicts have cost more than 600,000 military and civilian lives, resulted in more than seven million refugees and displaced people, and run-up perhaps nearly $13 trillion in financial costs over the lifetimes of the conflicts.

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The project is coordinated by the Watson Institute for International Studies, at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Professor Catherine Lutz at the Watson Institute, a co-director along with Neta Crawford and Stephanie Savell, elaborated in an interview this week on the project’s aim to fully account for the cost of war in all dimensions, and in all the countries concerned.

Full consequences

“We conduct this research because we feel we must assess the full consequences of the wars we wage,” she said.

“By fostering a democratic discussion of these wars, by providing the fullest possible account of their human, economic and political costs, we hope informed public opinion would better understand how many people died and were injured, and continue to die. We are not anti-war on strategic or moral grounds as such, but we want the American public to be able to at least count the number of dead and injured, and ask what we accomplished, and if these wars were worth fighting, for the United States as well as for Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.”

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This week marks the 15th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan which the United States and allies launched in October 2001, shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States. Six months later the US and its allies also launched a war in Iraq.

Over 600,000 military and civilian dead, more than seven million refugees and displaced people, and perhaps nearly $13 trillion in financial costs over the lifetimes of the conflicts.


The Costs of War Project’s research of the past 15 years of these wars includes the following key findings:

  •  Some 370,000 soldiers, contractors, and civilians died due to direct war violence; Lutz believes many more died as a result of the indirect consequences of the warfare, such as malnutrition, damaged infrastructure, environmental degradation, disease and hunger – or how many died from lack of services in places where hospitals were bombed out of commission. On average, for every person killed in fighting four other people die due to indirect consequences that can be felt months or even years later. Iraq’s infrastructure and health and education systems remain war-devastated, generating ongoing human needs, misery, and some death and impairment.
  •  Some 210,000 civilians have been killed in direct violence by all parties, and over 6,800 US soldiers have died in the wars. Many deaths and injuries among US contractors have not been reported as required by law, the project states, adding that it is likely that at least 6,900 have been killed.
  • Some 7.6 million Afghans, Iraqis, and Pakistanis are war refugees and internally displaced people today, often living in grossly inadequate conditions.
    Afghan women arrive at a UNHCR registration centre in Kabul, Afghanistan [Reuters]
    Afghan women arrive at a UNHCR registration centre in Kabul, Afghanistan [Reuters]
  • The financial cost of the wars to the US alone (not counting spending by Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan) is at least $4.8 trillion to date; future additional cumulative interest payments on past appropriations in 2001-2013 are estimated at another $8 trillion by 2053. Even these estimates of federal government expenses undercount the actual financial cost of the war, Lutz explained; these figures do not include the costs incurred by state and local governments, the costs to the economy of families caring for injured veterans, or lost productivity due to men and women who leave work to care for injured family members.
  • These after-the-fact costs to care for people who were injured or impaired in these wars is likely to be significant, given that in previous wars some returning Americans or their families required medical care or other forms of support for more than 50 years after their war ended. The US government does not know exactly how many returning soldiers were injured or fell ill while deployed abroad. About 3 million Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past 15 years; disability claims to the Department of Veterans Affairs continue to come in at a high rate, with 970,000 such claims registered by March 2014.

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  • The US government’s funding of “reconstruction efforts” in Iraq and Afghanistan has totaled over $170bn, the project noted, but added: “Most of those funds have gone towards arming security forces in both countries. Much of the money allocated to humanitarian relief and rebuilding civil society has been lost to fraud, waste, and abuse.”

The project also points out the costs of war in terms of the “erosions in civil liberties and human rights at home and abroad”, noting that Iraq and Afghanistan still rank extremely low in global studies of political freedom, women in both countries are broadly excluded from political power, and they also suffer from high rates of unemployment and war widowhood.

Americans continue to serve in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the US has been regularly bombing targets in six Muslim-majority countries – Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

So the costs of war will only continue to rise for Americans and those unfortunate lands where the US government decides to make war – without any serious reduction in the terror attacks that started this whole cycle in September 2001.   

Rami G Khouri is a senior public policy fellow at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut and a non-resident senior fellow at Harvard University Kennedy School.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.