WASHINGTON _ The true cost of war is incalculable.
But if you piled up a stack of $1,000 bills to pay for the US-led invasion of Iraq that began 10 years ago this week, how high would it reach?
If it was merely the $50 billion that US officials confidently predicted at the outset, it would stretch about 17,500 feet, or 3.3 miles.
In fact, the actual number of greenbacks with the image of President Grover Cleveland it would take to settle up from the second longest war in American history would be about 250 miles high, reaching farther than the International Space Station.
That is one way of picturing the new research by a Harvard Kennedy School economist on the full bill of toppling Saddam Hussein and occupying the country for more than eight years.
Professor Linda Bilmes has concluded that both the direct costs of fighting the conflict from March 2003 until the US military withdrew in 2011 and the continuing financial burden of providing health care and other benefits to millions to veterans is far higher that was estimated even a few years ago.
“The minimum that it could cost now is $4 trillion,” Bilmes told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington on Thursday. “We have trillions of dollars that have sort of sneaked up on us.”
For example, a few years ago Bilmes and Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz predicted in their landmark book, “Three Trillion Dollar War,” that about 45 percent of the troops sent to fight in the conflict might require disability compensation. Now it looks like 56 percent will.
“Our estimates were far too low,” said Bilmes, who reviewed hundreds of thousands of disability claims and whose updated research will be made public on Friday. “This reflects a great deal of suffering.”
The numbers are likely to climb further, she said, noting that the peak year for supporting veterans of World War I was 1969—more than 50 years after the conflict, when surviving veterans required geriatric care.
Then there are the so-called societal costs to take into account, including the price of oil, which she believes went up from $25 a barrel in 2002—where it had been for decades—to $140 a barrel three years later in part because of the war. It is now hovering at around a $100 a barrel.
“It set off a chain of events that had far reaching consequences,” said Bilmes, who thinks the war’s financial burden on the US Treasury may have also contributed to the US financial crisis in 2007-2008.
But none of the costs, including those that could have been predicted, were actually budgeted for.
“The US has borrowed all the money,” she said.
Bilmes, who is also a member of the US Department of Labor Veterans Employment and Training Advisory Board, is putting forward a series of recommendations to policy makers to avoid some of the budgeting mistakes.
One is to establish a veterans’ trust find “at the time we go to war” to help pay for some of the cost of taking care of the men and women who are sent to fight it. Another is include funding to fight the war in the regular budget, not in so-called “supplemental” funding bills that do not get included in the federal government’s balance sheet.
“The us lacks any kind of system to track war costs,” she said. “By ignoring the costs [in Iraq] we made it much easier to make poor choices.”