The cost of boots on the ground in Iraq
By John Basil Utley
It takes half a million dollars per year to maintain one sergeant in combat in
Iraq. Thanks to a senate committee inquiry, an authoritative government study
finally details the costs of keeping boots on the ground. The Congressional
Budget Office (CBO), in its report "Contractors' Support of US Operations in
Iraq", compared the costs of maintaining a Blackwater professional armed guard
versus the US military providing such services itself. Both came in at about
$500,000 per person per year.
News reports of the study have largely focused on the total cost of US
contractors. The 190,000 contractors in Iraq and neighboring countries, from
cooks to truck drivers, have cost US taxpayers $100 billion from the start of
the war through the end of 2008. Overlooked in this media coverage has been the
sheer cost per soldier of keeping the army in Iraq. This per-soldier cost is
comprehensible and alarming than the rather abstract aggregate figure.
Whether in maintaining US soldiers or private-sector contractors, the costs of
occupation are enormous. With no end in sight, unending foreign wars do have
one clear consequence: the eventual bankruptcy of the United States.
Breaking down the costs
The cost of a sergeant is complicated to calculate. His or her actual cash pay
is $51,000-$69,000 per year, which puts sergeant pay in the middle of the pay
grade, according to another CBO report, "Evaluating Military Compensation.
Non-cash benefits - pensions, medical care, child care, housing, commissaries -
likely double this amount, even during peacetime. Pensions are the biggest
ticket item. The average retirement benefit for a soldier or sailor who stays
in for 20 years equals $2.6 million, if he or she lives to the age of 77
(though most soldiers don't stay in the service long enough to get this
A major portion of the $500,000 figure comes from the "support staff" and
rotation system that allows for recuperation, training and accumulated
vacations after each year in combat. It's allocated on the basis of one or two
sergeants in the United States backing up each one overseas. The CBO report
does not, however, factor in bonuses for re-enlistment, which offers tens of
thousands of dollars for soldiers with special skills. Nor does the report
calculate operating or equipment costs per soldier. The $500,000 figure applies
to personnel costs alone.
"Support staff" refers to headquarters management and specialized skills
supervising the enlisted men. To make the comparison the CBO identified a
hypothetical army unit that could deliver roughly the same caliber of men as
the Blackwater guards. This "would require about one-third of an army light
infantry battalion - a rifle company plus one-third of the battalion's
headquarters company". This support staff would "include not only command
elements, but also medics, scouts, snipers and others who functionally
correspond to some of Blackwater's supervisory and specialized personnel".
Contractors, meanwhile, are increasingly filling the roles once played by US
Army personnel. In terms of total costs, the CBO points out that there are
about an equal number of contractors as soldiers, the highest proportion for
any war in American history. However, only 20% are US citizens. And most
contractors, for example kitchen personnel, are paid much less than the guards
who earn $1,222 per day. The report also notes that their contracts allow for
much more flexibility and shorter assignments than what regular army soldiers
cost the government.
Thousands, not billions
The studies are only for personnel. They don't include the long-term costs of
care for disabled and handicapped veterans. They don't include the costs of
replacing or maintaining equipment. Nor do they factor in the costs for allies'
supplies and training or the cost of interest on all the borrowed billions used
to fight the war.
That's how Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes reached the astronomical cost
estimate approaching $3 trillion for Iraq and Afghanistan. That study estimated
actual yearly cost per soldier in the field at $400,000, a number comparable to
the CBO estimate for sergeants.
Perhaps the accountants who did the CBO study were themselves surprised at the
costs of fielding an American army. Their objective was only to analyze the
costs of hiring guards at $500,000 a year, compared to fielding soldiers. The
study only incidentally shows the individual costs of American occupation
forces facing resistance.
Given these costs, which are only part of a military budget and other defense
expenditures that approach a trillion dollars, it's easy to see how the wars
are bankrupting America. Washington has borrowed the money, and the impact can
already be felt in the dollar's declining value and America's deteriorating
infrastructure. The national debt, since the war started, has increased from $6
trillion to $9 trillion. Ancient Rome simply taxed its citizens into ruin and
clipped the coinage to pay for its armies. Higher taxes, a lower standard of
living and unending wars will drive the US to the same end.
Jon Basil Utley, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is associate
publisher of The American Conservative. He is also a writer and advisor for
Antiwar.com and edits a blog, The Military Industrial Congressional Complex.