Volume 3, Number 62
10 January 2003

What Would a War in Iraq Cost?

Dear Friends,

When I was invited to conduct a workshop on this question, at Guilford College later this month, my first thought was, "Why not? I know about as much about that as anyone in Washington, which is of course 'Nobody knows.'"

My second thought was: "If there is going to be a war, Quakers ought to be prepared for the cost." The cost will be registered in human lives, property destruction, environmental damage, hatred creation, deterioration of the world economy, and the effect upon our lives. (Money is a mere measure, by which some will try to grasp the enormity of all the above.)

Economists are already out there, trying to come up with a figure. After months of study, in December the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an American think-tank, made four separate estimates, based on (1) no war, (2) a 4-to- 6 week war, (3) one lasting up to three months, and (4) a 6-month war. Their curious assumption is that a war begins sometime and ends sometime, and the increased cost is what happens in the meantime. Depending on the scenario, they estimate a cost until the end of 2004 of $55 billion for the optimal and $120 billion for the worst case. The Congressional Budget Office estimated $50 to $60 billion for a shortish war. This compares with about $80 billion (in today's money) for the Gulf War. (All these data come from The Economist, 12/07/02).

But on December 31, the White House budget office reduced the estimate to $50-60 billion (NYTimes, 12/31/02). In an age in which self-serving corporate executives deceive their stockholders, why should we believe the estimates of a self-serving White House?

Michael Ignatieff of Harvard estimates $120 billion to $200 billion (New York Times Magazine 1/5/03). William Nordhaus, economist at Yale, estimates that non-military costs (for peacekeeping, reconstruction, and nation building) would run about $600 billion if all went well, up to about $1.6 trillion if it did not (The Economist, 12/07/02).

Most suppose that an economist always thinks in terms of money. I will surprise you. I believe the cost of war has many dimensions, including the following:

First is the amount of hatred it creates: hating the enemy after the war is over. Here we must be wary. My personal experience in Germany right after World War II and in Vietnam last year found minimum hatred toward the erstwhile enemy. On the other hand, the Vietnamese are currently persecuting the Montagnards, a mostly-Christian tribal community that cooperated with the Americans (New York Times, 12/28/02). French and Germans hated each other for centuries, and especially the French wanted to settle scores for the 40-year German occupation of Alsace-Lorraine. The atrocities being committed right now in the Middle East will (I believe) bear scars of hatred into the indefinite future.

Israel possesses scientific knowledge that could benefit the whole area if it were not for this hatred. Early on after Israel's entry into Palestine, many suggestions were made on how the Israelis — with science brought from Germany — could improve the lives of the Palestinians. For example, water pumped from the Mediterranean and desalinated could make the West Bank bloom. As war and hatred intensified, such suggestions dropped off, since clearly they would not be realized. If you want to put a figure on the cost of Arab-Israeli hatred, it should include the loss to the world from the profitable cooperation that is being missed. How much cost? Enormous.

Our scare tactics on North Korea have brought on new anti-American protests in Seoul. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has said "that pressure and isolation would not persuade North Korea to end its nuclear arms program... Pressure and isolation have never been successful with Communist countries; Cuba is one example" (New York Times, 12/31/02). Many South Koreans want peace with their northern relatives.

Second is the loss of lives and livelihood: Iraqis and US soldiers who will die. Long-term health disorders will result from military activity, destroyed water systems, and the like. Compare a wrecked Afghanistan today with what it would be like if the cost of war had instead been spent on schools, hospitals, and infrastructure. Try to put a figure on the human suffering, break-up of families, children separated from parents, and so on. Robin (my wife) knows about this. In 1949-51, she worked in a resettlement camp for children who had lost their parents in World War II. She knows the heartbreak of kids who will never see their parents again.

Third is environmental damage. If nuclear weapons are used (which our government does not plan for now) lands will be scorched and radiation set loose. For how long? We don't know. Even without nuclear weapons, damage would be done by fire and explosions, toxins released by various weapons, chemical gases, refuse from thousands of soldiers, and the possibility of burning oil wells as in the Gulf War.

Fourth is property damage. How great this will be depends on our attitudes after the war. When I lived in a totally-ruined Frankfurt in 1948, Germans were saying that fifty years would be required to rebuild the city. Instead, they pounded the ruins into powder, re-made bricks on the spot, and constructed new buildings. When I returned ten years later, I could see no sign of wartime damage. German factories had been dismantled and shipped to England as reparations, so the Germans got a fresh start and quickly overtook the British.

On the other hand, many buildings in East Germany and Russia and its former satellites remain unrepaired even today. How long will it take Afghanistan and other countries in the Middle East?

Fifth is the impact on the economy. During World War II, Americans were willing to sacrifice: food was rationed, taxes increased, and Roosevelt told the people they had to suffer for a worthy cause. But the presidents during the Vietnam War thought we could have both guns and butter; the war was thousands of miles away, and civilians would not feel it except as they lost loved ones. The result was sacrifice anyway (in that the costs of war could have been devoted to schools and hospitals), plus a serious inflation that destroyed the value of our currency. Economists speak of "opportunity cost," as the sacrifice of something to buy something else with the same money. The opportunity cost of guns is butter, but also schools, and hospitals.

President Bush is aiming for a tax cut just at the time of increased wartime expenditure. The Wall Street Journal (12/06/02) tells about this cogently: "In January 2001 Americans were told that cumulative budget surpluses from 2002 through 2011 would total $5.6 trillion. Based on this fiscal mirage, a large tax cut was passed. In March this year, the $5.6 trillion estimate was dropped to $1.7 trillion. In August we were told, sorry, it will be only $100 billion. Even that looks highly optimistic. A substantial deficit over this period is far more likely." Our government wants us to buy guns and think they have no opportunity cost — another untruth!

Another economic impact was "the sixties," a period of protest when many thought the war was not worthy. Young people dropped out of school and took to the streets (including two daughters of ours). A whole generation of Chinese was "lost" because of the "cultural revolution." The opportunity cost of protest is (lost) education. I suspect the same will come over a war with Iraq, unless it is quickly over.

The sixth cost is intangible. It consists in the changing nature of the American people, from a confident culture that can tackle any hardship into one that is grossly scared. Curiously enough, the Center for Strategic and International Studies did not think the "no war" scenario would be the cheapest. The "lingering uncertainty about a possible war will continue to depress markets and add a risk premium that boosts oil prices and acts as a drag on growth" (The Economist, 12/07/02). Will terrorist acts continue on our shores, even after a war is "ended?" It seems to me our government is scaring us well beyond the desired medium between security and civil liberties.

All these costs must be set against the cost of Saddam Hussein continuing in power. He has set up a nasty thuggish system and has shown remarkable disregard for human life. Geoffrey Williams (of the editorial board of The Quaker Economist) writes: "I have just been reading about Hussein's genocide and his use of poison gas and mass executions of the Kurds who lived in Iraq. I am certainly willing to listen to an argument that war is not the best way to control his destructive and violent nature, but at the very least I would like some acknowledgement of the horrible deeds he has committed, and ideally some comparison of how other solutions might yield a better outcome."

Added to Geoffrey's remark is a quotation by Edward Rothstein (New York Times, 1/4/03) that challenges us, particularly pacifists:

"There is still discomfort about absolutes of all kinds. Yet there are also still decisions to be made about how to act when confronted by absolutist enmity. And there are still totalitarian enterprises that come in the garbs of fundamentalist religion and leave their opponents but little choice."

How do you speak to Geoffrey Williams and Edward Rothstein?

Your friend,


Readers' Comments

Note: My purpose in asking the "hard" questions of TQE #63 was to encourage Meetings to hold discussions on them, not that a discussion should take place in TQE. At age 82, I have too many disabilities to allow me to spend time creating the interchanges that I would like to see happen. That must be left to others. Hence I only excerpt longer letters. This message applies to some replies (below) that have been truncated. Jack

I am confused as to why Edward Rothstein would refer to fundamentalist religion when discussing Saddam Hussein. I'm sure you remember that Saddam is a secular dictator who has tortured and killed fundamentalists in Iraq.

I am very upset by the horrible deeds that Saddam Hussein and other thugs have carried out, yes, and unfortunately many of these thugs have been and are "our boys." Of course, we all know, Saddam was our boy while some of the worst of these abuses took place. Geoffrey Williams should spend some time perusing the Amnesty International website. He will soon realise that such Thugdom is very widespread and that war against all thugs would tax even the US mighty military. How about starting out instead by withdrawing our support and registering protests when these thug allies violate human rights instead of turning a blind eye or worse, encouraging them!

— Betsy Fadali, Reno (NV) Friends Meeting.

Amen! (Complete agreement, but I suspect Geoffrey would also agree). — Jack

This is so inclusive, it is terrifically useful! I distributed it to the Meeting's list and to other friends. I will use it in some form when contacting officials.

— Trudy Reagan, Palo Alto Friends.

I think it is inappropriate for Quakers to rely too much on the argument that this probable war on Iraq will cost too much in dollars and hurt not only our economy but the world economy as well. Our response should be that war brutalizes and dehumanizes society and individuals, and at this stage in human civilization, there are far better and more appropriate ways to deal with conflicts throughout the world.

I look forward to your future letters.

— Ken Woerthwein, Harrisburg (PA) Friends Meeting.

I'd like to add to the questions about the costs of not confronting Saddam Hussein raised by Geoffrey Williams and Edward Rothstein. My husband says that Bush doesn't want to be the president who did nothing about Iraq when, a few years from now, Chicago has been blown away by a nuclear bomb. He's speaking melodramatically for effect--but I have trouble getting past his point. I've been one of those Quakers who think that waging war is almost always the wrong thing to do--but that maybe World War II was different. So I keep asking myself whether this isn't way too similar for comfort.

— Catherine Cox, Goose Creek (VA) Meeting

You are right that there is no easy way to measure the human costs of hatred and fear. The environmental costs are also related to damaged infrastructure. In Kosovo I noticed that it was some time after the war before such things as trash collection were restarted, so that pollution of the streets and waterways continued after the war until infrastructure was reconstructed.

— Sandy and Tom Farley, Palo Alto (CA) Meeting.

Thanks, Jack, for your thoughtful and humanistic analysis of the "cost of the war," with its even-handed conclusion, leaving it up to the reader to make his or her own judgments. I'm sharing it within the family.

— Wil Bernthal, Grace Lutheran Church, Boulder CO.

How much would a war with Iraq cost? I doubt that anyone could give an accurate answer. How, for instance, do you measure the loss of a human life? And is an American life worth more than an Iraqi life? Dollar amounts don't even begin to give an accurate account of the true lose. But, it's safe to say that some will pay a far higher price than others.

— Michael Mawhiney, Joplin, MO

Your letter No. 62 includes many of the costs, but likely not all, that a war against Iraq would cost us, which has not been talked about in any publication that I have read, and I thank you for provoking our thinking.

— Lila Cornell, Media (PA) Meeting, sojourning at Pittsburgh (PA) Meeting.

While you are quite right to put hate up as an often overlooked cost of war, there are some complications:

First, sometimes a war oddly seems to reduce hate. The Yom Kippur War is at least widely thought to have made it politically possible for the Egyptians to make peace, as their performance was at least creditable, rather than the complete rout of the Six Days War. A weaker version of the same phenomenon would be our relation to Germany after WWII. Suppose we had sat by and the Germans had conquered Europe and completed the extermination of the Jews. I doubt if the very good relations that prevailed between us and the Germans in the late '40s, the 50s really up till very recently, could have occurred. Indeed, my guess is that even our strained relations now are better than they would have been with a Nazi government. (I hope so!)

Second, there are interesting chicken-egg problems. War is often a consequence of hate, including the hatred or indifference of certain rulers for their people. Note the interesting reports of Hitler's explicit views of the Germans in the last days of his rule, where he dismissed them as being unworthy of his dream.

— Stephen Williams, Bethesda (MD) Meeting.


RSVP: Write to "tqe-comment," followed by "@quaker.org" to comment on this or any future Letter. (I say "followed by" to interrupt the address, so it will not be picked up by spam senders.) Use as Subject the number of the Letter to which you refer. Permission to publish your comment is presumed unless you say otherwise. Please keep it short. Letters will be edited for spelling, grammar, clarity, and brevity. Any letter over approximately 100 words may be returned without being read. Please mention your home meeting, church, or synagogue, if any (this is not required), and your location.

To subscribe or unsubscribe at no cost, please visit our Home Page.

Each letter of The Quaker Economist is copyright by its author. However, you have permission to forward it to your friends (Quaker or no) as you wish and invite them to subscribe at no cost. Please mention The Quaker Economist as you do so, and tell your recipient how to find it.

The Quaker Economist is not designed to persuade anyone of anything, although viewpoints are expressed. Its purpose is to stimulate discussions, both electronically and within Meetings.

Publisher and Editorial Board

Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board:

  • Roger Conant, Mount Toby Meeting, Leverett (MA).
  • Carol Conzelman, Boulder (CO).
  • Ann Dixon, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting
  • Janet Minshall, Anneewakee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasvillle (GA).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright © 2003 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

Previous Letter | Home Page | Next Letter