Meter is running on the wars

Areader named Mike was fed up.

"How come these politicians keep saying we have to cut everything and nobody says anything about those wars?" he said.

I couldn't answer him. Those wars (remember them?) have been going on so long it kind of seems like they've always been there. Like the Oceania citizens in "1984," who believed they'd "always" been at war with Eastasia, Americans eventually became inured or developed attention fatigue. People often suggest ideas for this column, but the wars have not been hot items lately.

Just when it seemed Mike was the only guy thinking about them, a teacher at a Monday town hall meeting in Phoenix asked Sen. Jeff Merkley how we could justify spending billions on the wars and cutting our kids' education. A politician could say the two things are different budgets and have nothing to do with each other.

While that's true, it evades the larger point, which is that we as a nation have indeed decided, through various processes, to do just that. Merkley said he thinks we're spending too much on the wars and not enough on education and infrastructure.

Boy howdy. Pick almost anything in the federal budget these days and it's getting cut, with an odd grab-bag of exceptions including Social Security, Medicare, interest on the debt, corporate welfare, tax breaks for billionaires — and the Pentagon. The Rs are up front about this. In fact, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says any more appropriations, regardless of how long or short they extend the business of the government, will contain a full-year appropriation for the Department of Defense.

The Ds typically come up with a starting point that's closer to the Rs than they let on, then put up a weak showing in the sound and fury and posturing that passes for a budget "fight."

As the wars keep on rolling along, we're talking very big bucks, and a true cost that is — as with the Bush/Obama bailouts, and like a greased pig — slippery and hard to pin down.

Remember the 2004 debate in which President Bush jumped on John Kerry for saying the war in Iraq could cost as much as $200 billion? Bush insisted it would cost "only" $100 billion. The Congressional Budget Office had actually guessed one year earlier that if Saddam Hussein were dispatched quickly, the war might not cost much more than the 1990 Gulf War, or about $60 billion, according to Congress.

Well, the war in Iraq began March 19, 2003, and Bush declared victory in about six weeks. That was eight years ago. Kids who were in grade school when we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq are now in college.

Whatever else these wars are, they are very, very expensive. For a graphic sense of this, check out, a website of the National Priorities Project, a research group that tracks federal spending. The site shows a running tally of war spending in real time. It was at $1.17 trillion and change Saturday, about two-thirds of that for Iraq. You can also see what the wars are costing Oregon ($9.4 billion so far), Jackson County ($445 million) and any city in the country.

The meter is running. According to the Center for Defense Information, the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at the end of fiscal 2011 will reach $1.29 trillion.

The Congressional Budget Office says the wars' cost could hit $2.4 trillion dollars by 2017. And Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz, a former chief economist of the World Bank, says the real cost will be at least $3 trillion by the time you add interest, veterans' medical care, fraud and waste by the likes of Halliburton.

That's the low end. And it's just the cost to U.S. taxpayers, not other members of Bush's "coalition of the willing," all of whom have since become unwilling and pulled out, not to mention to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, most of whom wish we'd just leave.

The wars cost about $170 billion last year. The cost of the Afghanistan war topped the Iraq war for the first time about a year ago due to the troop build-up in Afghanistan and withdrawals from Iraq, as Obama continues to make the Afghanistan war his own. And if you thought Iraq was expensive, it costs about twice as much to put a soldier in Afghanistan as in Iraq.

What could we do with this kind of money in terms of, say, infrastructure (leaving education for another time)?

More than a quarter of the country's nearly 600,000 bridges are structurally deficient or obsolete. More than 1,800 dams with a high hazard potential are deficient. The American Society of Civil Engineers says many of the nation's levees are on the verge of failure, with lives very much in the balance (see: New Orleans).

We're $7 billion a year short of spending enough to substantially improve our bridges. The annual shortfall in the spending needed to keep existing water systems safe (never mind planning for a very difficult water future) is estimated at $11 billion. The National Park Service has a backlog of $7 billion for overdue maintenance. Superfund spending for the nation's worst toxic waste sites is at its lowest level in 25 years.

That's a short list. The ASCE says the total investment needed to bring American infrastructure up to par is about $2.2 trillion over, say, five years. Ain't gonna happen. We've let the country go to seed for a decade to pay for these wars. Oops, check that. We're not paying for them. We're borrowing the money.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to

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