The Staggering and Lingering Costs of American Wars

This is part 2 of Washington DC: The Unaffordable and Unnecessary War Capital of the World.

Since WWII was arguably the nation’s last “good war”, an illuminating way to measure the folly that has unfolded during the seven decades since then is to unpack the cost of veterans disability compensation and medical care by cohort of war service. The following figures are extremely conservative and exclude survivors, dependents, pensioners, housing, education and other VA benefits. But they do encompass roughly $180 billion or 52% of the current $346 billion per year Veterans Administration (VA) budget.

The disability compensation cost for each cohort is detailed by the VA, while the cost of medical care is assumed to be equal to the current annual average of $8,200 for each of the 9.18 million enrollees. Self evidently, the $286 million cost for WWII beneficiaries is a rounding error.

Number of beneficiaries and current budget cost for Disability Compensation And Medical Care:

  • WWII: 11,488 vets and $286 million.
  • Korean War: 59,092 vets and $1.4 billion.
  • Vietnam Era: 1,385,131 vets and $44.3 billion.
  • Gulf War era: 3,374,670 vets and $112.1 billion.
  • Other Peacetime: 831,932 vets and $20.5 billion.
  • Total: 5,662,273 vets at an average of $31,705/beneficiary= $179.5 billion.

For want of doubt, it is now nearly universally agreed that the two Iraq wars were sheer folly in which upwards of $1.5 trillion was wasted, to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed or injured by these pointless invasions and occupations. Yet the compensation and medical care cost for the 3.375 million disability beneficiaries of this cohort currently totals $112 billion per annum.

While that figure seems exceedingly large by any standard, it is evidently driven by the huge number of beneficiaries, not the $33,480 cost for each. As it happens, fully 41% of the 8.193 million Gulf War Era veterans are on disability – a reminder that Washington’s Forever Wars are no less a human meat-grinder than the historic wars that have gone before, and not withstanding all the high tech battlefield safeguards now available.

In any event, given an average life expectancy of 75 years the Gulf War Era vets alone will generate deferred costs in current dollars of purchasing power (FY 2024 $) equal to about $5.6 trillion (50 years at $112 billion per year).

That’s right. The deferred cost of just one set of pointless Forever Wars amounts to 155% of the entire regular military budget of Russia on an annual basis; and on a lifetime basis, it’s actually equal to 17% of the entirety of the nation’s current towering public debt of $34 trillion!

Needless to say, Washington’s budgetary green eyeshades are happy to keep these staggering deferred costs out of the so-called “defense budget” entirely. Under proper accounting, of course, the lifetime cost of disability compensation and VA medical care would be amortized over each person-year of combat deployments.

That’s a number, however, which the Sunday afternoon warriors of the beltway would assiduously prefer not to know. Yet just consider the aforementioned 41% of Gulf War era veterans who will receive a lifetime of disability and medical benefits at the VA. Assuming an average 50 years on the VA rolls, the lifetime cost per beneficiary would be about $1.675 million in today’s dollars.

Next, amortize that over the 6.5 years of average military service for current armed forces active duty personnel, and you get an annual accounting charge of $105,000. So the true annual cost of sending one soldier into the Forever Wars is not the current already high figure of $136,000, but is actually nearly one-quarter of a million dollars per year!

As we said, the beltway warriors would rather we didn’t know. By way of historical example, if the American public had been told it would cost $250,000 per year to send a US serviceman into Kuwait for the purpose of defending the Emir’s right to drill directionally into Saddam Hussein’s oil in the border-straddling Rumaila field, they might not have waved so many stars and stripes in response to the CNN Gulf War Extravaganza.

Indeed, they might well have been happy to allow Saddam to collect the $2.6 billion he claimed the Emir stole from Iraq by such means as he felt necessary. After all, this local spat between the gluttonous Emir of Kuwait and the Butcher of Baghdad had absolutely nothing to do with the liberty and security of the American homeland.

In a word, there is something really haywire here. Official Washington is so caught up in its role as War Capital of the World that it does not even notice that the deferred cost of now long-forgotten wars in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf exceed the defense budgets of every friend or foe on the planet by a long-shot, and that only 0.1% of the current massive $346 billion VA budget is attributable to surviving veterans of the last war which arguably contributed to homeland security.

Needless to say, the issue goes far beyond the startling dollars and cents of the matter. What is actually at issue is the entire framework of post-WWII foreign policy that generated a permanent Warfare State and entailed the extension of a Washington-based empire across the length and breadth of the planet.

But that shift from a peaceful Republic thriving socially and economically behind the great ocean moats to an Empire straddling the globe was more than the fragile machinery of our Madisonian democracy could successfully handle. Elected officialdom was soon caught up in the excitement and intrigue of managing the Empire, trotting the globe and touring the allies, vassals and provinces as visiting plenipotentiaries of the Indispensable Nation.

So doing, they became shills for a global policeman narrative that served the interests of arms merchants and national security bureaucrats alike. Both were conferred missions and budgets that wouldn’t have been remotely imaginable under the old republican regime.

That is to say, after America’s bouts with war in the 19th century and also even after WWI and WWII there was a total demobilization of the war machine and its civilian apparatus. After WWI, for instance, the US military budget plunged by 92%, from $9 billion in 1919 to barely $750 million by 1923. And even after WWII, defense spending dropped by 89%, from $83 billion in 1945 to $9 billion by 1948.

So, we do mean demobilization. If you put these defense budgets in 2024 dollars of purchasing power, the 1945 wartime peak was $1.63 trillion, which figure had collapsed to just $123 billion by 1948.

That is to say, Washington was on its way to reverting to the peaceful Republic modality that had served America’s homeland security well for 160 years. But that’s all she wrote.

Prodded by the red scare of 1948 to 1950 drummed up by the likes of Winston Churchill, Henry Luce, Richard Nixon and the Wall Street cadres which had taken over the Departments of State, Defense and the CIA, Washington was soon on the way to its incarnation as War Capital of the World.

The previous demobilization trend was precipitously reversed and in its place arose a full blown Warfare State with the Marshall Plan, NATO and the Korean War build-up after June 1950. Again in 2024 dollars of purchasing power, the Korean War bloated defense budget was back up to $650 billion by 1953 – representing a gain of 430% from the 1948 demobilization low.

Ironically, one of the principal architects of the Cold War, Dean Acheson, had only a few years earlier dismissed the 1945 truce line at the 38th parallel in Korea as a mere “surveyor’s line” of no material relevance to national security, and it actually was. There was never any homeland security point to the Korean War because neither Communist China nor even Stalin’s Russia had the remotest capacity to threaten American national security.

During his term, the great Dwight D. Eisenhower did succeed in lowering the real defense budget by nearly 30% to $475 billion in today’s dollars. But LBJ soon had the defense budget back up to the Korean War level of $650 billion owing to his Forever War on Vietnam.

At that point, the die was cast. The whole thrust behind the Washington crusades against purportedly falling dominoes and in support of so-called “collective security” institutions like NATO, SEATO and the re-extension of American military power to Europe and the Far East was essentially a cover story for:

  • Permanently reviving the military industrial complex that had been abruptly shutdown after 1945.
  • Cranking up the political, diplomatic and intelligence machinery of global hegemony that was latent in the wartime operations of the national security agencies on the Potomac.

Thus, under the old verities of the American republic, as exemplified by the quotes from Washington, Jefferson and John Quincy Adams cited in Part 1, the VA budget today would be well less than $1 billion per year, not $346 billion. That’s because there would not be 5.7 million disabled veterans, or nearly 10 million enrollees in the $100 billion VA hospital and health care system.

These are the fruits of all the unnecessary wars from Korea to Iraq and the present fraught conflicts in Ukraine and the middle east, too. None of the domino theories that supported these wars were ever valid, nor was the idea that America’s homeland security required NATO allies in Europe or the idea that Israel is an allied unsinkable aircraft carrier or that the Persian Gulf is an American Lake that needs be patrolled and safeguarded by the 7th Fleet.

Even aside from the massive $500 billion per year of excess military spending on top of the $350 billion that would be required for the triad nuclear deterrent and a Fortress America continental defense, we also have $70 billion of expense in the so-called International Affairs budget that tells the same story of Warfare State aggrandizement and excess.

For instance, $20 billion annually goes to military and security assistance, of which nearly $4 billion is for Israel alone. Yet, again, the denizens of the War Capital of the World are so mesmerized by the false narrative of Empire that they cannot see the forest for the trees.

The fact is, Israel’s GDP amounts to $550 billion and $55,000 per capita. That is to say, Washington’s annual stipend could be covered by a mere 1% of GDP in additional taxes on the Israeli public to fund the kind of aggressive policy vis-à-vis its Palestinian citizens and Arab and Islamic neighbors that its electorate seems to prefer.

Yet the denizens of the War Capital of the World pay no never-mind to the absurd facts of the situation. The GDP per capita of both Israel’s more hostile neighbors, as well as it more friendly ones, is but a fraction of its own $55,000 figure.

So why shouldn’t Israeli taxpayers bear the fiscal freight of their own security policy? After all, the latter is apparently based on mowing the lawn in both Gaza and the West Bank until the Palestinians who live there are no more.

How that’s in the interest of America’s homeland security would be hard to explain, indeed. Except in the War Capital of the World, the question is not even raised.

Current Per Capita GDP of Israel and Its Neighbors:

  • Israel: $55,000.
  • Syria: $500.
  • Yemen: $650.
  • Lebanon:$4,100.
  • Egypt: $4,300.
  • Iran: $5,000.
  • Iraq: $6,000.
  • Saudi Arabia: $30,400.
  • UAE: $53,000.