War is hell - and hellishly expensive
By William D Hartung
War is hell - deadly, dangerous and expensive. But just how expensive is it?
In a recent interview, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz asserted
that the costs of the Iraq war - budgetary, economic and societal - could reach
That's a hard number to comprehend. Figuring out how many times $5 trillion
would circle the globe (if we took it all in $1 bills) doesn't really help
matters much, nor does estimating how many times we could paper over every
square inch of Rhode Island with it. The fact that total war costs could buy
six trillion donuts for volunteers to the presidential campaigns - assuming a
discount - is impressive in its own way, but not all that meaningful either. In
fact, the George W Bush administration's war costs have already moved beyond
the human scale of comprehension.
But what if we were to try another tack? How about breaking those soaring
trillions down into smaller pieces, into mere millions and billions? How much,
for instance, does one week of Bush's wars cost?
Glad you asked. If we consider the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan together -
which we might as well do, since we and our children and grandchildren will be
paying for them together into the distant future - a conservative single-week
estimate comes to $3.5 billion. Remember, that's per week!
By contrast, the whole international community spends less than $400 million
per year on the International Atomic Energy Agency, the primary institution for
monitoring and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons; that's less than one
day's worth of war costs. The US government spends just $1 billion per year
securing and destroying loose nuclear weapons and bomb-making materials, or
less than two days' worth of war costs; and Washington spends a total of just
$7 billion per year on combating global warming, or a whopping two weeks' worth
of war costs.
So, perhaps you're wondering, what does that $3.5 billion per week actually pay
for? And how would we even know? The Bush administration submits a supplemental
request - over and above the more than $500 billion per year the Pentagon is
now receiving in its official budget - to pay for the purported costs of the
wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and for the global "war on terror". If you can stay
awake long enough to read the whole 159-page document for 2008, it has some
For example, to hear the howling of the white-collar warriors in Washington
every time anyone suggests knocking a nickel off administration war-spending
requests, you would think that the weekly $3.5 billion outlay is all "for the
troops". In fact, only 10% of it, or under $350 million per week, goes to pay
and benefits for uniformed military personnel. That's less than a quarter of
the weekly $1.4 billion that goes to war contractors to pay for everything from
bullets to bombers. As a slogan, insisting that we need to keep the current
flood of military outlays flowing "for Boeing and Lockheed Martin" just doesn't
quite have the same ring to it.
You could argue, of course, that all these contracting dollars represent the
most efficient way to get our troops the equipment they need to operate safely
and effectively in a war zone - but you would be wrong. Much of that money is
being wasted every week on the wrong kinds of equipment at exorbitant prices.
And even when it is the right kind of equipment, there are often startling
delays in getting it to the battlefield, as was the case with advanced armored
vehicles for the US Marine Corps.
But before we get to equipment costs, let's take a look at a week's worth of
another kind of support. The Pentagon and the State Department don't make a big
point - or really any kind of point - out of telling us how much we're spending
on gun-toting private-contract employees from companies like Blackwater and
Triple Canopy, our "shadow army" in Iraq, but we can make an educated guess.
For example, at the high end of the scale, individual employees of private
military firms make up to 10 times what many US enlisted personnel make, or as
much as $7,500 per week. If even one-tenth of the 5,000 to 6,000 armed contract
employees in Iraq make that much, we're talking about at least $40 million per
week. If the rest make $1,000 a week - an extremely conservative estimate -
then we have nearly $100 million per week going just to the armed cohort of
private-contract employees operating there.
Now, let's add into that figure the whole private crew of non-government
employees operating in Iraq, including all the cooks, weapons technicians,
translators, interrogators and other private-contract support personnel. That
combined cost probably comes closer to $300 million per week, or almost as much
as is spent on uniformed personnel by the air force, army, navy and marines.
By one reliable estimate, there are more contract employees in Iraq alone -
about 180,000 - than there are US troops. There are thousands more in
Afghanistan. But since many of these non-military employees are poorly paid
subcontract workers involved in cooking meals, doing laundry and cleaning
latrines, the total costs for the services of all private-contractor employees
in Iraq probably runs somewhat less than the costs of the uniformed military.
Hence our estimate.
So, if $650 million or so a week is spent on people, where does the other
nearly $3 billion go? It goes for goods and services, from tanks and fighter
planes to fuel and food. Most of this money ends up in the hands of private
companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and the former Halliburton subsidiary,
Kellogg, Brown and Root.
The list of weapons and accessories paid for from our $3.5 billion is long and
$1.5 million for M-4 carbines (about 900 guns per week).
$2.3 million for machine guns (about 170 per week).
$4.3 million for Hellfire missiles (about 50 missiles per week).
$6.9 million for night vision devices (about 2,100 per week).
$10.8 million for fuel per week.
$5 million to store and transport that fuel per week.
$14.8 million for F-18E/F fighter planes per week (one every four weeks).
$23.4 million for ammunition per week.
$30.7 million for Bradley fighting vehicles (10 per week).
And that's only a very partial list. What about the more mundane items?
"Laundries, showers and latrines" cost more than $110,000 per week.
"Parachutes and aerial delivery systems" cost $950,000 per week.
"Runway snow removal and cleaning" costs $132,000 per week.
Flares cost $50,000 per week.
Some of these figures, of course, may cover worldwide military operations for
the US armed forces. After all, by sticking the acronym GWOT (global war on
terror)in the title of any supplemental war-spending request, you can cram
almost anything into it.
Then there are the sobering figures like: $2.4 million per week for "death
gratuities" (payments to families of troops killed in action) and $10.6 million
per week in "extra hazard pay".
And don't forget that all the death and destruction lurking behind these weekly
numbers makes it that much harder to get people to join the military. But not
to worry, $1 million per week is factored into that supplemental funding
request for "advertising and recruitment" - not enough perhaps to fill the
ranks, but at least they're trying.
Keep in mind that this only gives us a sense of what we do know from the public
Pentagon request; there's plenty more that we don't know. As a start, the
Pentagon's breakdown of the money in its "emergency" supplemental budget leaves
Even your own congressman doesn't know for sure what is really in the US war
budget. What we do know is that the Pentagon and the military services have
been stuffing more and more projects that have nothing to do with the fighting
in Iraq and Afghanistan, or even the "war on terror", into those war
Layered in are requests for new equipment that will take years, or even
decades, to build and may never be used in combat - unless the Iraq war really
does go on for another century, as Republican presidential nominee John McCain
recently suggested. These "non-war" items include high-tech armored vehicles
and communications devices for the army as well as new combat aircraft for the
Even though these systems may never be used on the US's current battlefields,
they are war costs nonetheless. If they weren't inserted into the supplemental
requests for Iraq and Afghanistan, they might never have been funded. After
all, who wants to vote against a bill that is allegedly all "for the troops",
even if it includes weapons those troops will never get?
These add-ons are not small change. They probably cost in the area of $500
million per week.
Given all of this, it may sound like we have a fair amount of detail about the
costs of a week of war. No such luck. Until the "supplemental" costs of war are
subjected to the same scrutiny as the regular Pentagon budget, there will
continue to be hundreds of millions of dollars unaccounted for each and every
week that the wars go on. And there will be all sorts of money for pet projects
that have nothing to do with fighting current conflicts. So don't just think of
that $3.5 billion per week figure as a given. Think of it as $3.5 billion ...
Doesn't that make you feel safer?
William D Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Initiative at
the New America Foundation. He is the author of And Weapons for All (Harper
Collins, 1994) and How Much Are You Making on the War, Daddy? A Quick
and Dirty Guide to War Profiteering in the Bush Administration (Nation Books,
2004). His commentaries on military and economic issues have appeared in the
Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and the
(Source note: Readers who want to check out the latest Department
of Defense supplemental request for war-fighting funds can click
here and read, "FY 2008 Global War on Terror Pending Request" from the
Office of the Secretary of Defense.)