Since the start of the Iraq War ten years ago today, more than 190,000 people have died as a direct result of the conflict, over 70 percent of them civilians. The U.S. has spent $2.2 trillion funding the war, 35 to 45 times the original estimate of $50 to $60 billion projected by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget in 2002.
Over ten years, 4,488 American service members died while on active duty in Iraq, along with nearly as many – 3,400 – military contractors (although owing to the inconsistent measures for documenting contractor deaths the true figure is likely many times higher).1
These are conservative estimates, important not only for what they count, but also what they leave out: disease, long-term illness, suicide, accruing interest on government debt, and other harder-to-calculate costs are not included in the basic figures. But that doesn’t mean they remain unknown or undocumented. The Costs of War project aims to provide a comprehensive accounting of all costs from the U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan since the attacks of September 11, 2001. The statistics listed above are part of an ambitious, thorough report released to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War’s start on March 19, 2003.2 In an interview with Footnote last year, project director Catherine Lutz explained the purpose of the endeavor: “After ten years of war, it really is imperative that we understand how much the American people and the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have been paying for these wars… [and] take responsibility for that.”
The scholarly, non-partisan Costs of War project attempts to document the wars’ costs by bringing together the expertise of over thirty economists, political scientists, anthropologists, historians, lawyers, journalists, and humanitarian workers. This interdisciplinary approach takes more factors into account than conventional appraisals, adding depth and clarity to an understanding of wars’ toll in all its dimensions, from human casualties and economic costs to impacts on daily life in the region and civil liberties in the U.S. One example of the project’s nuanced accounting methods is its examination of the opportunity costs and tradeoffs of war spending, costs that Lutz explained are frequently overlooked.
Another factor that’s often unexamined is that some of the Iraq War’s primary costs have yet to kick in. As Lutz described in her interview with Footnote, “Wars, in a sense, are never over when they’re over. They go on for decades.” After ten years of war, 1 in 12 Iraqis remain away from their homes, having left the country or been internally displaced. The 2.3 million American soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have returned home to their families with physical and mental scars. It will cost the U.S. government $500 billion to care for Iraq War veterans over the next forty years, and up to $930 billion when veterans from Afghanistan are included. On top of the $2.2 trillion already spent or obligated for the war, the cumulative interest on the funds borrowed to finance the war could add up to as much as $3.9 trillion.
With so many kinds of costs to consider, the project’s work is far from over. Documenting the costs of the war in Iraq is more than simply a historical exercise, however. As Catherine Lutz explained in her interview with Footnote last year, it’s a way to “take responsibility” for what happened and identify lessons for future policymaking.
- The Costs of War report is explicitly conservative about assessing deaths, intentionally differentiating between those resulting from fatal violence (which is where the 190,000 figure comes from), and the less certain number of deaths from indirect causes. For example, while it is clearly documented that 4,488 U.S. service members were killed, this does not include veteran suicides by non-active duty reservists, which are vastly underreported as a result. Similarly, the very low estimate of 123,000 Iraqi civilian deaths leaves out the loss of lives occurring from illness or infrastructure breakdown, as when hospitals shut down or structurally damaged buildings collapse.
- The report consists of several parts and is available on the project’s website. A brief summary of key findings can be found here.