Monday, February 19, 2007

The Trillion Dollar War: the costs won't stop when the fighting does

National has a fantastic running counter showing the cost of the war to Date, and what else that money could have bought. Its an incredibly sobering website if you've never been; especially since, as I'm writing this diary, that number is up to: $363,274,750,000.00 and climbing every second

And staggering as the number is, there is only one slight problem with it.

It's Low. By between 100 and 200%.

At least that's what A New Harvard University Study on the future costs of veterans health care has concluded:
Medical costs for U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could range from $350 billion to $662 billion over the next 40 years,

If you add this future liability to the "hard costs" of this war, we are already over the $1 Trillion dollar mark. Apparently, the problem is the soldiers just aren't dying enough:
soldiers survive injuries that would have killed them in past conflicts, according to a Harvard University study,... Due to improvements in battlefield medicine and equipment, there are now about 16 "nonmortally wounded" soldiers for every death, far more than the 2.6 soldiers wounded per death in Vietnam, the study said, citing Department of Veterans' Affairs data.

In other words, even the horrific death toll of 3,411 US soldiers, is misleading when considering the true human costs of the war. A favorite tactic of the few remaining war supporters has been to mock the "low" death toll of this war compared to conflicts past. They point out that as many Americans have died in Iraq as Died in One day of the D-day invasion. But, as this study shows us, a pure comparison of numbers creates a false statistic.

Consider the example given in the article. In Vietnam if the death toll was at 3,400 soldiers that would have meant that you could expect that another 8,000-odd were wounded. But In this conflict, thanks to all the improvements in medicine and life saving techniques we have roughly 55,000 wounded. Or looked at another way, we didn't have as many wounded soldiers in Vietnam as we do today until the death toll there had reached nearly 20,000 or nearly half of the 10-year total.

Worse yet, the numbers in the Study may be MUCH lower than the real costs because of the assumptions they used:

The potential costs include medical care, disability payments and other benefits paid to injured veterans and assume that 44 percent of veterans eventually claim disability. That was the percentage of claims from the first Gulf War. Bilmes' calculations assume that by 2016, 2 million soldiers will have participated in these wars.

The problem is, this war is VERY different from the First Gulf War, or ANY previous war. As previous statistics have shown the Kinds of Injuries we are seeing from this war are MUCH more severe than in conflicts past. For example, The military's own data shows that the amputation rate for this war has been twice that of any war since the Civil War(when amputation was basically the ONLY surgical technique available to battlefield doctors) and 1 in 5 or 20% of all wounded soldiers have had severe head trauma.

This is particularly bad because:

The angle of the force of these IEDs is right for the neck and face. That's been devastating to folks over there," said Holt, explaining that Kevlar helmets do not protect the underside of heads and necks, where crucial nerves and blood vessels lie. ...These injuries, surgeons said, have long-term implications, with many involving irreversible brain damage, breathing and eating impairments, blindness, or severe disfiguration. The study prompted the military to add a full-time head and neck surgeon to a Baghdad field hospital.

"These folks are just starting to come back, and they may require care for a long, long time," said Holt.

(If you want to know precisely how bad these injuries are, and you have a strong stomach, I suggest you check out this New England Journal of Medicine Photo essay about caring for the wounded in Iraq.

So not only are more of our soldiers coming back alive, but they more broken than in any previous war. This means that fixing them up is likely to be a VERY long and expensive prospect for us that will Dwarf even the ruinous costs of fighting this war.

When I was younger and still thought wars and militarism was somehow cool, I read extensively on the subject, and from that reading I recall a paragraph about guerilla tactics that for obvious reasons has come very much to mind of late:

:For the Guerilla, success will come not in killing your enemy but in wounding them severely. Killing a soldier will only gain you victory if you can kill enough of them so that the enemy has no more to send. A dead soldier costs his country very little: the cost of funeral, perhaps some provision for his widow and children and that's it. Now a WOUNDED soldier on the other hand, requires rescue, transport, medical care, and years, if not a lifetime of expensive rehabilitation. Thus wounding soldiers is far better than killing them as it will allow you to paralyze the enemy, destroy the morale of his soldiers and bankrupt his country."

When I look at the staggering, ever-increasing number that is the true cost of this war; I can't help but wonder if that long forgotten author might not be right.