The $1 trillion "war of choice"

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While most of the nation’s attention is properly fixed on how best to commemorate the upcoming 10th anniversary of the attacks in New York, Washington and in the air over Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001 that claimed more than 2,700 lives, the nation passed another kind of milestone recently related to that event. The Pentagon noted on June 21 that total military spending on Iraq and Afghanistan passed the $1 trillion mark at the end of April this year. That figure does not include $100 billion or so spent on intelligence and the total cost is obviously still accruing. For the month of April the Department of Defense spent more than $6 billion in Afghanistan alone.

Most of the money spent on our war on terror has been raised by selling debt, so you can expect that over time that staggering outlay will significantly increase. Some economists have predicted that by the time the United States has extracted itself from the major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and paid off the bonds sold to pay for the war, more than $3 trillion will be spent. I presume someday someway will be found to punish those responsible for the gross cherry picking and distortion of intelligence that led to Colin Powell’s ignoble, career-ending performance at the United Nations in 2003 and the eventual excursion into Iraq. So far the proponents of the Iraq plan, if it can be called that, those who assured the nation this “optional” war would just about pay for itself once the overflowing oil wells of Iraq were made to pump profitably again, have been punished with World Bank appointments, Presidential Medals of Freedom, and cushy commentating gigs at Fox News.

It goes without saying that the economic debacle of the last few years has made all too clear how many ways that vast amount of national wealth could have been better spent within our own borders, particularly as budget crunching at the federal and state levels in recent months has turned us against ourselves in the nastiest manner imaginable over the last year. I don’t think unionism has been this vehemently and incoherently denounced since its earliest, costliest victories at the beginning of the 20th century as it is now. While I wait for the beginning of the many vigorous prosecutions of the people who delivered the nation into economic ruin in 2004 through 2007, the scapegoating of unions and the sideshow assaults on their pension funds continues apace. There is no end in sight to this just as there remains no credible plan for a much needed national restoration of infrastructure or institutions, nor is there any money to pay for it if there were a plan.

The invasion of Iraq did far more than divert the nation’s attention from running down the culprits of the September 11 attacks. It has proved a pit for both the nation’s resources and its credibility. The decision to pacify Afghanistan through force has opened a strategic quagmire for the United States and NATO. That excursion will end, according to the President, by 2014. I wish I could say that whatever hard-won “success” is achieved in Afghanistan will prove enduring, but I have a sickening suspicion that the current and by many accounts irredeemably corrupt regime in Kabul and the flimsy central government and military infrastructure that has been so laboriously constructed over the past decade will not last many weeks after a U.S. withdrawal. But that may prove true whether the U.S. departs in 2014 or 2044.

I find myself thinking of the Athenians who, assured by the oracle at Delphi that a great empire would fall if they invaded Syracuse, felt emboldened to launch their great navy without first pondering which empire the oracle was referring to. The attack of September 11 may prove to be the most cost-effective strike against a great power in history. It did not have to be so. Rarely have the just war principles, compiled and promulgated by the church over centuries, seemed so pointed and true as they are when stood up against the decision to begin a “war of choice” in Iraq.

There were a number of options before the nation in the months that followed September 11. We perhaps followed the most predictable course of action which has delivered us to this point almost ten years later. Pope John Paul II, attempting to thwart the first Gulf War, implored President Bush the elder to turn away from the path of war, what he called the “adventure with no return,” and its ceaseless spiral of violence and mourning. How poignantly those words resonate today as we attempt to extricate ourselves from Iraq and Afghanistan where more than 6,000 U.S. service members have died and an unknowable number of civilians killed. How his warning resounds as we simultaneously seek a way ahead in our own troubled nation toward a renewed and shared understanding of a common good that includes union workers and the people who pay them, the faltering middle class, the unemployed, the sick, the mentally ill, the young and the aged. And not least in importance, a way to pay for it. War-making is unspeakably costly.