801,000 dead, $6.4 trillion spent, and no end in sight: the true costs of the Global War on Terror

“The numbers continue to accelerate, not only because many wars continue to be waged, but also because wars don’t end when soldiers come home."
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The number of people killed by the Global War on Terror now stands at 801,000, nearly half of which were likely civilians, according to new research conducted by Brown University’s Costs of War project.

Though the numbers are staggering, it may not tell the whole story, researchers warn. Since the study only tallied the number of direct war deaths (including drone strikes and IEDs), the real death toll may be much higher. Indirect deaths, such as veteran suicides or deaths caused by lack of access to food, water, medicine and/or related infrastructure, remain uncounted; and some direct combat deaths just haven’t been recorded, researchers said.

“Indeed, we may never know the total direct death toll in these wars,” Brown researchers observed in a 2018 paper. “For example, tens of thousands of civilians may have died in retaking Mosul and other cities from ISIS but their bodies have likely not been recovered.”

The Costs of War project explores the human, economic, environmental and cultural costs of America’s longest-running conflict, which many veterans don’t believe is worth fighting. Below is a run-down of some of the project’s most recent research on the human and economic costs of America’s post-9/11 wars abroad:

801,000 and climbing: The cost of GWOT in human lives

(Brown University)

Of the 801,000 deaths, 42% are civilian, 22% are national military or police forces, and 32% are opposition fighters, which Brown cites as being anti-government fighters, “militants,” or “enemy fighters,” depending on the conflict and the data source being drawn from. Taken together, fallen American troops, workers hired by U.S. contractors and allied troops (including 11,000 Kurdish fighters killed fighting ISIS) make up 3.4% of the total.

  • The Costs of War project gathered its death estimates from DoD and U.S. Congressional Research Service reports, the United Nations, NGOs, on-the-ground reporting and other organizations such as Air Wars.
  • Again, the report does not include indirect deaths, but a 4:1 ratio of indirect deaths to direct deaths would be a reasonable estimate for contemporary conflicts, according to The Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development — a calculation that would put the GWOT’s death toll at more than 4 million.
  • The number of U.S. service members killed in the conflict (7,014) makes up less than .811 percent of the total, while the number of workers hired by U.S. contractors (7,950) makes up .99 percent.
  • The report does not attempt to calculate the total number of wounded civilians and combatants. However, the 2018 paper notes that over 21 million people across the Middle East have become refugees or internally displaced as a result of GWOT.

$6.4 trillion plus interest: The toll of GWOT on the American economy

(Brown University)

Though politicians of all stripes harp on the skyrocketing costs of GWOT, getting a bead on the exact economic costs of the conflict is a challenge, Brown researchers said. Disentangling the Pentagon’s “base” costs from its war operations (Overseas Contingency Operations “OCO”) has become increasingly difficult, said researchers.

  • The U.S. is on track to spend an estimated $5.4 trillion in appropriations funding through fiscal year 2020 on post-9/11 wars, Brown researchers said, with an additional $1 trillion to care for veterans of these wars over the next several decades.
  • Expenses are paid for by deficit spending. That means that even if the U.S. immediately withdraws from all of its post-9/11 wars today, the budget burden will continue to rise as the U.S. pays for veteran care and for the interest on borrowing to pay for the wars.
  • As with the human cost of GWOT, the financial costs of post-9/11 wars are difficult to calculate, in part because Pentagon spending on war costs and overhead costs have blurred over the past 18 years, Brown researchers said.
  • At first, the Pentagon lumped all GWOT spending into its Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which doesn’t have the same Congressional oversight as its “base” funding, which covers costs that DoD would incur even if the U.S. were not at war. But because OCO spending is exempt from base budget caps and sequestration, DoD has used OCO money to supplement its base budget.
  • “It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between the incremental costs of military conflicts and DoD’s regular, enduring costs,” wrote the Congressional Budget Office. Even former defense secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged that OCO is sometimes used as a slush fund.
  • Certain GWOT operations and benefits, such as Operation Pacific Eagle (the U.S.-backed counter-ISIS mission in the Philippines) and TRICARE health insurance for reserve forces, have become institutionalized as part of the Pentagon’s base budget, which drives up the overall cost of maintaining the U.S. military, Brown researchers said.

(Brown University)

At the intersection of the human and economic costs of GWOT is the cost of caring for wounded veterans. Due to advances in medicine, service members are surviving more deployments and more grievous battlefield injuries than ever before, researchers said. While that decreases the overall cost of the war in terms of human life, it increases the long-term cost of caring for those veterans because it is so expensive to provide the complicated treatments they will require for the rest of their lives.

  • In 2018, there were 4.1 million post-9/11 war veterans, comprising about 21 percent of all veterans and 16 percent of all veterans served by the VA, Brown researchers said.
  • Post-9/11 vets are in general less healthy than the vets of previous wars, wrote Brown researchers. Advances in trauma and battlefield medicine mean vets have survived to live with more service-connected disabilities than vets of previous wars.
  • That means post-9/11 vets need more and different kinds of medical care than vets of previous wars. The costs of caring for them will only rise, said Brown researchers. The VA estimates that the 10 year cost of caring for post-9/11 veterans with traumatic brain injuries alone will be $2.4 billion from 2020 to 2029.
  • Nearly half of post-9/11 vets have service-connected disability assessed to be 60 percent or greater, wrote the Brown researchers.
  • In the past, the U.S. government paid for wars by selling victory bonds or creating war taxes. The U.S. implemented no such measures to pay for post-9/11 wars, leading to deficit spending and an ever-expanding national debt, researchers said.
  • The Brown researchers proposed selling war bonds or instituting a post-9/11 war tax as methods of reducing the long-term costs of interest on the debt accrued for post-9/11 war spending. Otherwise, we will be paying those debts into the 22nd century, they said.