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Counting the Costs of the War in Iraq
In some respects the costs are incalculable ...

When Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was discussing the projected costs of war and reconstruction in Iraq as recently as March 2003, he told the House Appropriations Committee: "We are dealing with a country that can finance its own reconstruction."

In May of 2003, President Bush declared that the war was essentially over. "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended." In September 2003, however, Wolfowitz returned to Congress to defend President Bush's request for 87 billion to cover the costs of the continued fighting and the initial round of reconstruction anticipated for 2004. The money was approved.

In 2004, an election year, an additional 25 billion was requested and approved, and nearly everyone understood, this was simply a temporary funding request. No one wanted to pay the political price of an honest reckoning of the war's true cost going forward. The Bush campaign crticized the Kerry campaign for daring to suggest that expenditures for the war were approaching 200 billion.

But in January 2005 the administration returned to Congress for another 80 billion and no one was suggesting that this would be the last such request. Are readers keeping score? By the end of 2005 this war may well have cost American tax payers not the 200 billion total Senator Kerry was pointing to, but a whopping 300 billion.

Yet the cost keeps rising ...

Cost of the War in Iraq
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Since 2001, the Bush administration has requested and Congress has approved a total of about $331 billion in special appropriations for military operations. This includes about $226 billion for Iraq, $76 billion for Afghanistan and $29 billion for homeland security-related and other activities.

Last year (2006) , the administration submitted a supplemental request for an additional $70 billion to help cover the cost of the war, and plans to amend its 2007 defense budget request to include $50 billion as a down payment on 2007 costs related to military operations. This would bring the total amount received by special appropriations to some $451 billion.iraq war cost graphic picture

Compare that to the 350 million allocated for the relief effort following the tsunami, or even the 150 billion that some experts estimate the federal government may eventually spend on relief and reconstruction related to hurricane Katrina. No wonder that many throughout the world now see the US as being far more serious about making war than relieving the real suffering of human beings who face poverty, disease or disaster on a massive scale, even here at home.

Even more disturbing, however, is the loss of human life associated with this conflict. Since there were never any public estimates of the number of American or Iraqi casualties that were anticipated before going to war, it is not possible to evaluate the miscalculation with respect to the loss of life ... here we move from mere statistics the losses that are truly incalculable.

Since the process of weighing the loss of even one human life is impossible, let's simply consider the financial consequences of the 450 billion dollars approved specifically for the wars in Iraq and Afaghanistan. (While remembering that the special appropriations for these wars do not represent their entire cost, by a long shot. For example, these appropriations do not include many items in the regular defense budget that could be allocated to the "war on terror," or long term health care and survivor benefits for wounded soldiers or their families.)

If I persuade you to join me in an adventure using the argument that the undertaking will be "self-financing" as the administration did in this case, but it turns out that there has been a 450 billion error in my calculations, and I expect you to share in the loss of 450 billion dollars, it is time for a re-evaluation of our relationship, to say the least.  In the case of a corporate CEO who makes a mistake of this magnitude, heads will roll. 

If it is not simply miscalculation, but deception involved, the corporate leader might well end up in jail. In the case of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boston, for example, the miscalculations and mistakes of Cardinal Law during the sex abuse scandal now appear to be costing his church over 100 million dollars.  In this instance the Cardinal resigned in disgrace.

In the case of Iraq we are not talking about 100 million, but 450 billion.

The $120 billion likely to be spent on war this year alone is equal to about 20% of the year's entire federal budget for discretionary spending, more than we tax payers will be asked to pay for education, job training, employment and social services, combined. $120 billion for war in a single year also makes the $350 million budgeted for the relief effort following the tsunami pale by comparison. As Jesus once reminded his followers: "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

The President has made a point that he is guided in his decisions by his deep Christian faith. And while many people think of Jesus as being at the very least a person of deep principle, he could also be both pragmatic and realistic, as is indicated by the instructions he gave to his disciples when discussing the "cost of discipleship:"

"Which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, 'This man began to build, and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace." (Luke 14:28)

We do not think of Jesus as being an expert in either the planning of construction projects or the conduct of war, but in these words his wisdom clearly is relevant to both.

Note that he suggests that a crucial part of both discipleship and leadership is the ability to count the cost of one's decisions before entering into a particular course of action, not after the fact. With the costs of our effort in Iraq now exceeding this administration's wildest estimations, it is time for a renewed public debate about the progress of this project and about its successful and expeditious completion.

As Jesus suggested, ethics is not about moving forward with blind faith, but rather involves a careful and faithful evaluation of the consequences of one's decisions ... before making them. It is high time that the American people as well as its leaders become more faithful in this sense of the word.

For the latest casualty count in Iraq, including the names of those who have died. Pray for them ... and their families.


Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.