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The self-inflicted costs of a ‘war of choice’

by Hiroaki Sato

In mid-July when Mumbai was attacked with three explosions, The New York Times carried photos of some of the bloodied casualties up front — at least in its online version — and I wondered: If the newspaper for “all the news that’s fit to print” had carried photos of victims of American bombing and gunning from the moment the United States assaulted Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 and invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003, would Americans have put up with the destruction of these countries so long?

Had the New York Times shown day after day some of the bodies blown apart, mangled and torn to bits, would Americans have tolerated the disasters that their country’s staggering firepower was bringing to remote lands month after month, year after year?

As early as 2006, the number of people “killed in the violence of the war that began with the U.S. invasion in March 2003″ was estimated to be at least 600,000. It came from a team of public health experts from Johns Hopkins University, Al Mustansiriya University (Baghdad), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Their report was called “The Human Cost of the War in Iraq.” The estimate was based on a mortality survey. Before the U.S. invasion, the mortality rate in Iraq was 5.5 deaths per 1,000 people each year, whereas, over the span of 40 months, it averaged 13.2 per 1,000, an increase by 2.4 times. During one year, from June 2005 to June 2006, it reached as high as 19.8 deaths, an increase by 3.4 times.

The number of the war dead and the length of the period covered bring to mind the U.S. Civil War. The four-year war 150 years ago created 620,000 deaths, when the U.S. population was 35 million. The Iraqi population in 2006 was 27 million.

Last month, the Eisenhower Institute of the Gettysburg College published a study, “Costs of War.” Under this simple title, the study covers not just Iraq but Afghanistan and Pakistan, and gives a far more “comprehensive picture” of what America has brought to the region. It is a collaborative work of two dozen scholars in law, history, anthropology, environment, public policy, communications, medicine and economics. The human toll so far, the report concludes, is 225,000 war dead, half of them civilians. Neta Crawford, who headed the study, had expected some to protest the figure as too low. But she chose the ascertainable numbers, she has explained, so as to “bypass” the endless arguments that would otherwise ensue.

So, there are deaths not counted among the war dead. The war has raised the infant mortality rate and toxic pollution has created grave mutation problems. In the most intensely bombed Iraqi city of Fallujah, the rate of infants dying prematurely at 80 per 1,000 births between 2005 and 2009 was four times that of Egypt, 10 times that of Kuwait, 11 times that of the U.S., while the ratio of male births to female births was 860 to 1,000, compared to the expected 1,050 per 1,000.

(This brings to mind the 2000 study of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on the consequences of the U.N. sanctions against Iraq following the Gulf War. In the most affected regions of that country, the infant mortality shot up to 108 per 1,000.)

The Eisenhower Institute puts the number of refugees at 7.8 million — equivalent to all the residents of Connecticut and Kentucky forced to flee their states to live elsewhere. It would be as if 90 percent of those living in Tokyo’s 23 wards were forced to evacuate and live in tents and such in alien lands to survive on handouts. Among other consequences that “Costs of War” assesses is environmental destruction — a subject that tends to be overlooked while the war rages.

Only after the Vietnam War ended did Americans talk about Agent Orange and the contours of mountains, hills and river flows that extravagant American bombing had affected. The destruction of forests and wetlands in Afghanistan has reduced the number of birds using the main migratory route by 85 percent.

Besides the bombings, there are the military bases the U.S. has built or is building across the land — 700 of them large and small at one count, some mindlessly large. The number of snow leopards has been cut to perhaps 100 to 200 survivors in the wild. One cause is habitat destruction. Another is the popularity of their fur — not just among military personnel but aid workers as well. Despite the total ban since 2002, poor Afghans hunt and kill them.

All this carnage and destruction and suffering requires money to do it. In March 2008, as the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq approached, Joseph Stiglitz, the economist at Columbia, and Linda Bilmes, the public finance specialist at Harvard, put the cost at $3 trillion.

Their estimate was for the U.S. operations in Iraq alone. It did not count the economic consequences in Iraq.

But the two scholars included in their calculations “the costs hidden in the defense budget,” the money needed to “help future veterans,” and money for replacing war materiel, which together they put at $1.5 trillion. They also calculated the direct as well as long-term costs to the American economy and society, which accounted for the remaining $1.5 trillion.

Later that year, their argument was turned into a book, “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict.” In September 2010, when the U.S. was ending its combat mission in Iraq, Stiglitz and Bilmes said their estimate 2½ years earlier was “too low.”

This time they included “what economists call opportunity costs” — the costs of things the U.S. might have been able to do for its economy and society had George W. Bush not pounced on the “grotesque war of choice,” as Nancy Pelosi called it less than a year after he started it.

Hiroaki Sato is an essayist and translator in New York.