Legacy of Iraq war won’t be winding down

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in what is euphemistically called the end of the Iraq war portends anything but the end of the conflict.

The consequences of the war will be felt for many years to come. Former President George W. Bush and his advisers are to blame for engaging in a war that has ravaged Iraq and cost the United States not only economically but also the lives and well-being of hundreds of thousands of its soldiers.

As of February 2010, approximately $700 billion had been spent on the war. This figure is based on current expenditure rates from figures compiled by the Congressional Research Service and estimates by Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard University’s Linda Bilmes. According to Stiglitz and Bilmes, the total cost of the Iraq war will probably exceed $3 trillion by moderate estimates.

As Stiglitz has stated: “This number represents the cost only to the United States. It does not reflect the enormous cost to the rest of the world, or to Iraq.”

A major contributor to the war’s final cost will be the medical care and disability benefits provided to veterans. Medical consequences don’t become immediately apparent, and claims are likely to be filed for years after the war ends, adding to present costs.

It is estimated that 20 percent of those wounded in Iraq have suffered major injuries to the head or spinal cord. Another 18 percent have suffered serious wounds, and an additional 6 percent are amputees. More than 7,000 veterans with severe brain, spinal and other injuries will require expensive round-the-clock care.

At present, government medical facilities in the United States are overwhelmed by the needs of soldiers who served in Iraq. In addition, there is the high number of suicides among veterans, the mental health impact on those who survived and the costs to the well-being and economies of families.

These costs do not include the waste of resources or the costs to the Iraq treasury because of theft and corruption, both by Iraqi officials and by U.S. contractors.

As Iraqi civilian casualties continue to mount — a result of internecine conflicts exacerbated by the U.S. occupation — the effects on Iraqi children are staggering. More than half a million children have been traumatized by the war, according to UNICEF.

“Iraqi children, already casualties of a quarter of a century of conflict and deprivation, are being caught up in a rapidly worsening humanitarian tragedy,” warned that organization in 2007.

Twenty-eight percent of children suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder to some degree, according to Dr. Haithi Al Sady, dean of the Psychological Research Center at Baghdad University.

How could they not be so affected when they are still exposed to daily explosions, killings, abductions and turmoil in Iraq’s cities? More than 2 million children have been displaced from their homes as a result of the war. Children and their families have become refugees in neighboring countries. The sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees has overburdened recipient countries’ health and social services.

Meanwhile, the “brain drain” of doctors and other professionals forced to leave the country has had a negative impact on the quality of health services in Iraq.

“Iraqis are suffering from a growing lack of food, shelter, water and sanitation, health care, education and employment,” according to a 2007 report compiled by Oxfam and the nongovernment organization Coordination Committee in Iraq. Continuing violence since then has only made matters worse.

Hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, a ravaged infrastructure, a barely functioning and corrupt government, and a society terrorized by unending violence are the sad result of a greedy war waged in flagrant violation of international norms and treaties.

To call the Iraq war a “Pyrrhic victory” is an understatement.

Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., is an international public health consultant and a cowinner of the Overseas Press Club of America award.