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The 302 Trillion Dollar War


Reviewed by Jeremy Rose for the Scoop Review of Books

3tw.jpgI'm no economist, and definitely not a Nobel Prize winning one, but by my calculations Joseph Stiglitz has under-estimated the cost of the Iraq war by a factor of 100 in his recently released The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict.

The difference in our calculations is simple enough: I've assumed that the citizens of the United States and Iraq have an equal value. Stiglitz and his co-author Linda Blimes, on the other hand, made a conscious decision to limit their calculations to the cost of the war to the USA.


Fifty billion of the three trillion they estimate the war is costing the USA is arrived at by putting a statistical value on the life of each American killed in Iraq (be they soldiers or contractors) of $7.2 million.

Using an estimate of 700,000 Iraqi dead, quoted by Stiglitz and Blimes, and applying the $7.2 million worth to each of those individuals we come to a cost of 5.04 trillion. And then if we assume that represents about one sixtieth of the total cost to the country concerned, as it does in Stiglitz's comprehensive estimates for the US economy, we come to a figure of 302 trillion dollars.

Okay, so there are a lot of assumptions in those calculations. It's clear that the cost to Iraq of its bombed infrastructure, the exodus of its professional class, the displacement of over 2.2 million people, the ongoing sectarian violence unleashed by the invasion and the hundreds of thousands of maimed individuals won't be exactly comparable to the price being paid by the USA - so the one to 60 ratio may be wrong. (You be the judge of whether it's likely to be too high or too low.)

I went along to hear Stiglitz take part in a discussion entitled The Cost of Iraq at Writers and Readers Week in Wellington, last week, hoping to hear an explanation for the decision not to include figures on the cost of the war to Iraqis - the victims of the illegal invasion.

It wasn't to be.

The session, ably chaired by TV3's John Campbell featured Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, English novelist and former journalist James Meek, and Australian theatre director Nigel Jamieson.

The cost to Iraqis was touched on only twice in the 75-minute session. Once in John Campbell's opening spiel when he mentioned the difficulty of knowing just how many Iraqis have died and then when James Meek read an excerpt from one of his last dispatches from Iraq. Written while he was an embedded journalist, the article described watching as a US lawyer dished out $500 to a family of an Iraqi killed by American troops.

It's a superb piece of writing and an important reminder that embedded journalists can - even if most don't - continue to do an important job.

The US Government pays $500,000 to the families of US service men and women killed in the conflict. Which raises an interesting question of the relative worth of US and Iraqi life.

The panel, sadly, moved on without confronting that issue.

It's plainly an uncomfortable topic and as Stiglitz explained to Mother Jones, one that he and his co-author decided was best left alone. Including Iraqi deaths in the calculations would have raised "the question of whether you should or should not value an Iraqi life differently from an American life. That raises fundamental ethical issues, and we didn't want a debate on those issues to detract from the fundamental issue of what America is paying for the war that it brought."

They've definitely avoided the distraction, but at the cost of exacerbating a growing tendency to view the war as a US tragedy rather than an Iraqi one.

If the cost to Iraqis was made clear, perhaps the international demands for reparations for the Iraqi people would grow to a point where they would be included in what America must pay for the "war that it brought."

Returning US soldiers are currently among the few voices calling for the US to pay reparations as Phyllis Bennis recently told the Real News Network. Could that be because they're among the few Americans who know anything about what's actually going on? As Bennis also reports, news about the Iraq war now only makes up one percent of total US news coverage.

The costs that the panel discussion did focus on included: the loss of America's moral leadership (No one laughed. I'm not sure that any state can really claim to offer moral leadership, but the idea that the government of the country that carpet-bombed Cambodia, trained generations of torturers for the dictatorships of Latin America and toppled democratic governments in Chile and Iran had any moral leadership to lose is surely worthy of a chuckle.)

Garry Trudeau spoke of the damage to America's soul caused by the torture at Guantanamo Bay. I'm sure he's right but wonder whether we wouldn't be better focusing on the damage being done to the bodies of its victims.

Stiglitz and Blimes do dedicate 12 pages of their book to the cost of the war to Iraq. They're excellent. They point out that if Iraqi civilian deaths were given the same statistical value they've placed on US lives the cost to Iraq by 2010 would be a staggering $8.6 triillion.

The problem I have with The Three Trillion Dollar War is not one of content but emphasis.

If the delusional Bush vision of a self-financing war had become a reality, would the war be any less objectionable?

After his searing indictment of the working conditions in American meat works, The Jungle, resulted in a commission of inquiry into the safety of the meat coming out those works, Upton Sinclair said he had aimed at the heart of Americans and hit them in the stomach.

By aiming so squarely at the pockets of middle Americans Stiglitz and Blimes seem to be saying their compatriots' hearts are too tricky a target to bother with.

Background interviews and articles

Joseph Stiglitz's homepage
Democracy Now! Audio interview

Jeremy Rose is the editor of the Scoop Review of Books and a Wellington journalist


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