Hole in the future

Thursday, February 2nd, 2006

For those impervious to the suffering of others, a dollar figure sometimes helps bring it home. Two honest economists have recently put one on the Iraq war, and in so doing shone a spotlight on the black hole in the center of our future.

If $1 trillion makes you gag, try $2 trillion.

The latter number is the “moderate,” as opposed to the conservative, price tag that Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard lecturer Linda Bilmes have put on the war, which they calculated by factoring in some — but by no means all — of its real costs, such as lifelong care for brain-injured U.S. troops.

The most outrageous deception in the selling of this war three years ago is not the claims that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction or had links to al-Qaida, but the blithe assertion that the war could be fought for chump change; it was supposed to be pay-as-you-go, financed by liberated oil revenue. White House economic advisor Larry Lindsey was sacked for saying the adventure could cost the country as much as $200 billion; of course, the total, even by conventional calculation, has gone well beyond that.

Stiglitz and Bilmes begin to demonstrate that the invasion of Iraq amounted to the complete collapse of fiscal sanity — tantamount to the collapse of moral sanity — the blame for which rests not simply with the Bush administration or Congress, reckless as they were in their duty to guard the national interest, but with the administration’s base of the willingly deceived, which is a fearful percentage of the population.

Anyone with the common sense to look no further back than the nation’s last two wars could have predicted many of the consequences, and costs, from which we’re now hemorrhaging. And we’re only at the beginning.

Consider the fact that more than a third of the troops who took part in the 1991 Gulf War — that four-week war, with a U.S. death toll of only 148 (a cheap war indeed) — have put in claims to the Veterans Administration for an array of bizarre, terrifying nerve ailments and cancers, attributed to so-called Gulf War Syndrome. The VA is paying, according to Stiglitz and Bilmes, some $2 billion annually in support of 169,000 of those claims, which stem from exposure to modern warfare’s inevitable toxins, the most insidious of which is depleted uranium dust (the residue of exploded DU armaments).

Super-dense DU, beloved by the military for its armor-piercing capability, disintegrates on impact into a dust fine enough to penetrate any gas mask, not that we protect our troops — let alone Iraqi civilians — even to that minimal degree. And in our campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re using more of this substance than ever before.

Among the many human faces of DU poisoning we’re beginning to see from the current war are those of Gerard Matthew and his daughter Victoria. Matthew, a former specialist with the Army National Guard, had been part of a war-debris collection detail in southern Iraq, which resulted in significant DU irradiation; he tested positive for the substance in 2004. He’s now suffering from an array of ailments — facial swelling, triple vision, brain tumor — typical of DU poisoning. And most heartbreaking of all, his daughter, now a year old, was born without a right hand. The likelihood of birth defects also skyrockets with DU exposure.

Because, contrary to Bush administration swagger, we do not support our troops or their families in any way commensurate with the sacrifice they’ve made for the country, Victoria has been denied disability benefits from Social Security. She and her father are both part of a lawsuit against the Department of Defense, along with eight other members of his unit who tested positive for DU on their return to the States, seeking $5 million each in damages, according to Japan Times. These suits are a minuscule part of the uncalculated cost of Bush’s war.

And then there are the brain injuries and other manifestations of “polytrauma” experienced to an unprecedented degree by U.S. troops in Iraq, due, ironically, to better battlefield armor that allows soldiers to survive car-bomb and other explosions they wouldn’t have survived in earlier eras. Stiglitz and Bilmes calculate lifetime round-the-clock care for these men, and those to follow, to be between $600,000 and $5 million apiece; the total cost for this aspect of the war could be as high as $35 billion, assuming we pay it.

“We expect to follow these patients for the rest of their lives,” Dr. Steven Scott, director of the VA hospital in Tampa, Fla., told New York Times reporter Erik Eckholm. “But I have a great deal of concern about our country’s long-term commitment to these individuals. Will the resources be there over time?”

The doctor’s question cuts through the bravado of the war’s diehard supporters and gives us a glimpse of the hole in our future. Even if the government weasels out of its moral obligations — and it will probably try — someone will bear the direct costs of our injured troops’ long-term care. And all of us, and our children and grandchildren, will bear the indirect costs, which include a society of radically diminished possibilities. To what other causes might we have committed $2 trillion?