YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

How we went wrong

The Three Trillion Dollar War The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes W.W. Norton: 192 pp., $22.95 | Defeat Why America and Britain Lost Iraq Jonathan Steele Counterpoint: 290 pp., $26

March 30, 2008|Kit R. Roane | Kit R. Roane is a journalist who has covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Iraq war seems no closer to resolution today than when it began five years ago. The daily stories of death, setbacks and gains bleed together like a list of mayhem on a police blotter, rarely jolting us anymore from our safe slumber back home. Two new books try to do just that by tallying the war's costs from these daily ledgers. Although each has a different focus, both accountings draw the same picture of hopelessness.

The most enlightening is "The Three Trillion Dollar War," by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda J. Bilmes. They matter-of-factly dissect the staggering monetary cost of the war and the human devastation behind the ever-increasing bill. In "Defeat," Jonathan Steele uses the region's history and his own extensive reporting on the ground for the Guardian to provide ammunition for his thesis, that "the occupation was flawed from the start."

Both books are deeply critical of the rationale for going to war and the way it is being waged. But Stiglitz and Bilmes focus on a track less worn than Steele's. They follow the money, ferreting out exactly how it was spent, explaining how we'll be paying the bill -- one they calculate to be at least $3 trillion -- for decades to come and suggesting where all that money could have been used more effectively.

For instance, $3 trillion is enough to provide the nation's 8.3 million uninsured children with health coverage for about 18 years. It is worth noting that $3 trillion is their "excessively conservative" estimate of the war's total cost when all is said and done.

"The Three Trillion Dollar War" isn't likely to be an Oprah Book Club selection -- its clinical prose and abundant lists don't make for a leisurely read. But its statistics are a damning indictment of how the war has been conducted and a wake-up call for American taxpayers, who for the most part have remained untouched by a conflict that churns through money and lives on a daily basis. Borrowing the phrase "there is no free lunch," Stiglitz and Blimes describe how hefty the bill will become if we don't change course.

They note that the United States has been in Iraq more than a year longer than it fought World War II, and that the "cost of direct U.S. military operations -- not even including long-term costs such as taking care of wounded veterans -- already exceeds the cost of the twelve-year war in Vietnam and is more than double the cost of the Korean War."

Deficit spending has hidden this cost, giving Americans "the illusion that the laws of economics can be repealed, that we can have both guns and butter." But signs of strain are everywhere. The war has contributed to the ballooning national debt (adding about $1 trillion so far) and helped fuel the steep rise in oil prices (from about $35 a barrel in February 2003 to more than $100 a barrel today). The authors cite the tens of thousands of injured Iraq war veterans confronting squalid conditions at under-funded U.S. veterans' hospitals and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy that has produced a backlog of more than 400,000 disability claims, about 25% of which have been pending for more than six months.

Some veterans have been waiting for years. One young Texan who was wounded in 2004 got a visit from President Bush and a Purple Heart. But according to the authors, he didn't receive disability benefits for three years and got them recently only because Bilmes informed veterans' advocates, who alerted the media.

Many injured veterans have been charged for equipment no longer in their possession, such as body armor and night visions goggles probably left on the battlefield after they were wounded. The Department of Defense, the authors note, has pursued "hundreds of battle-injured soldiers for payment of non-existent military debts." Such collection efforts are striking considering the money that has been spent in multimillion-dollar no-bid contracts to private firms backstopping the military effort. Although much of their discussion of veterans' mistreatment falls under the rubric of the Bush administration's alleged efforts to cut or hide costs, Stiglitz and Bilmes also note that the cost of care is being shifted to the veteran and the veteran's family, spreading the war's emotional and monetary toll even wider.

The administration "has not flinched at asking for ever higher amounts of cash to pay troops while they are in combat, and it has not balked at the astronomical demands of private contractors such as Halliburton and Blackwater Security," the authors complain. But it has "behaved as if there were a direct conflict of interest between funding the war and taking care of the veterans after they come home."

Los Angeles Times Articles