Maybe We Fought the War Wrong?

National Journal has a fascinating article comparing the cost-benefit of the war against al Qaeda with that of other wars. It puts the cost of the war at $3 trillion–less than just the defense costs of World War II. But it didn’t bring the same kind of return.

By conservative estimates, bin Laden cost the United States at least $3 trillion over the past 15 years, counting the disruptions he wrought on the domestic economy, the wars and heightened security triggered by the terrorist attacks he engineered, and the direct efforts to hunt him down.What do we have to show for that tab? Two wars that continue to occupy 150,000 troops and tie up a quarter of our defense budget; a bloated homeland-security apparatus that has at times pushed the bounds of civil liberty; soaring oil prices partially attributable to the global war on bin Laden’s terrorist network; and a chunk of our mounting national debt, which threatens to hobble the economy unless lawmakers compromise on an unprecedented deficit-reduction deal.

All of that has not given us, at least not yet, anything close to the social or economic advancements produced by the battles against America’s costliest past enemies.

Just as one example, here’s how it contrasts WWII’s cost-benefit calculus.

World War II defense spending cost $4.4 trillion. At its peak, it sucked up nearly 40 percent of GDP, according to the Congressional Research Service. It was an unprecedented national mobilization, says Chris Hellman, a defense budget analyst at the National Priorities Project. One in 10 Americans—some 12 million people—donned a uniform during the war.

But the payoff was immense. The war machine that revved up to defeat Germany and Japan powered the U.S. out of the Great Depression and into an unparalleled stretch of postwar growth. Jet engines and nuclear power spread into everyday lives. A new global economic order—forged at Bretton Woods, N.H., by the Allies in the waning days of the war—opened a floodgate of benefits through international trade. Returning soldiers dramatically improved the nation’s skills and education level, thanks to the GI Bill, and they produced a baby boom that would vastly expand the workforce.

It’s a perhaps cold way to discuss war, but a fascinating one. (Note, here’s another cost-benefit analysis, one which shows we invest far too much in security theater given the extent of the threat we face.)

Given such analysis, can we perhaps consider the question of whether we fought this war wrong? Just as an example, I perhaps too glibly considered the plight of al Qaeda, which is reportedly now considering derailing trains for an anniversary attack. I was glib primarily because, given our aging rail stock, derailments are a fairly common occurrence even without a terrorist’s involvement. Similarly, I noted the silliness of a big domestic spying effort to find potential threats to pipelines when utilities themselves seem to be ensuring pipelines blow-up.

What if, instead of dumping billions into domestic surveillance, we instead spent some of that on training, but much of that on making our infrastructure much more resilient–resilient to terrorist attacks, but also common decay? What if, rather than encouraging consumers to go deeper in debt to make sure the economy looked good on paper, we had invested to make it more resilient while making the country more self-reliant?

It seems that responding to terrorism in that manner would have had the kind of benefits our other wars had–and would have better prepared us for other tremendous threats, like climate change.

  1. radiofreewill says:

    If I recall correctly, bin Laden’s investment in 911 was estimated to have been about $150,000…

    • radiofreewill says:

      From the 911 Commission Report:


      The 9/11 attacks cost somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000 to execute. The operatives spent more than $270,000 in the United States. Additional expenses included travel to obtain passports and visas, travel to the United States, expenses incurred by the plot leader and facilitators outside the United States, and expenses incurred by the people selected to be hijackers who ultimately did not participate.

  2. allan says:

    What if, rather than encouraging consumers to go deeper in debt to make sure the economy looked good on paper, we had invested to make it more resilient while making the country more self-reliant?

    That sounds suspiciously like a jobs program. And of little benefit to the financial sector.

  3. BoxTurtle says:

    EPU’d from the prior thread:

    Those of you who consider this to be a small time plan, look at the freight train next time you stop at a crossing. It’s just LOADED with tank cars full of chemicals, box cars full of flammables and other wonderful stuff. Dump it, mix it, and light it and you could have a major evacuation on your hands. in 1986 near me, 20K people were evacuated due to just ONE tank car with Phophorous busting open. The people in Chernobyl were making Maimisburg jokes for awhile.

    Boxturtle (If that same car had derailed just 60 miles later, 1M people in Columbus would have had to evac)

    • PJEvans says:

      My favorite sight in the freight yard next to one of the stations: flats with shiny green tractors being shipped somewhere. (Also: lumber flats and car carriers. Yeah, we have chemical tankers (and corn-syrup tankers – it is an industrial chemical) and cars full of Ghu-knows-what, but a lot of stuff seems to be pretty safe.) As far as the chemical stuff goes, you can see a lot of it on the highways, too.

  4. joanneleon says:

    For the record, I never once thought that you were being insensitive or too glib in the article about AQ planning rail attacks. And anyone like me, who has read you for years, and has witnessed how you have poured your time and energy and passion into causes that are foremost about fairness, equity and compassion, knows that.

    We have taken this War on Terror to the point of absurdity, and it is a relatively rare event when a cogent analysis is done comparing the risks of foreign terrorists coming here and causing some complex catastrophe, vs. the risks we face from our own neglect, putting profit above all else, and the fact that we have simply given away vast amounts of our intellectual property and our industrial base.

    We are living in an era of absurdity and the reason it has reached this level of absurdity is because the lies have to keep getting bigger and bigger to perpetuate the myth of exceptionalism, and to hide the fact that the primary reason that we do anything is for profit and power, while we try to make people believe we still have noble causes.

    We have to do a major reset, or this whole clattering train is going off the rails. We need to withdraw, reflect, and rebuild or we will find that death is in charge of the clattering train.

    Who is in charge of the clattering train?
    The axles creak and the couplings strain;
    The pace is hot and the points are near,
    And sleep has deadened the driver’s ear;
    And the signals flash through the night in vain,
    For Death is in charge of the clattering train.

    (That is a version adapted for an HBO movie, the full poem is here )

  5. scribe says:

    There’s no maybe about it, EW.

    But, without writing a term paper on it in the comments section, let me put it this way. When 9/11 happened, four things took place in the administration that made the place where we are now – a trillion dollars shot and nothing to show for it save a dead terrist – pretty much the inevitable destination.

    These four things were:
    1. an attack which was the analog to Pearl Harbor, but without the corresponding analog of pre-war preparation that had been going on for a couple years prior to Pearl Harbor.
    2. an Admin whose ideology was directed at diminishing civil liberties, lining the pockets of the rich, and whose central tenet was that government does not work, i.e., government is not the solution but is the problem.
    3. a crew of incompetents (Rumsfeld, Bush, AGAG), asskissers and bureaucratic empire builders (Tenet, Mueller, Petraeus, various of the Joint Chiefs), and outright fascists (Cheney, Addington, Yoo, Haynes, Geoffrey Miller) in positions of authority.
    4. an ideologically-based decision to not pursue national mobilization to remedy the problems and pusue the publicly-stated objectives, but rather choosing to address the problem terrorism presented as a business opportunity.

    As to 1. If one bothers (as I have, to some significant extent) to read the histories of the buildup to WWII, one will notice that the US was building its Navy (e.g., the Essex class carriers which formed the backbone of the Pacific Fleet were ordered beginning in July 1940 and building prior to Pearl Harbor, meaning their design had been going on for some years prior) and to a somewhat lesser extent Army (all 18 National Guard divisions had been federalized and were on active duty beginning in October 1940) and Air Force (similar) since at least 1938, i.e., prior to war breaking out anywhere. Moreover, there was during that time significant government spending on building bases and facilities for training, operations and supply of those forces. All along, the Rethuglicans and Conservadems of those days were carping about the cost, carping about the spending not being necessary, about how this was the end of ‘murca, and a myriad of other reasons why it should not be done (and if it was to be done, why it should be spent on their supporters and in their districts, regardless of efficacy). FWIW, that is one of the contributing reasons for the many Army posts in the south – buying off the Conservadems (though, to be sure, factors of similar importance were the availability of large tracts of land for less money in the rural south and better weather for year-round training in the south).
    In 2001-2008, the carping Rethuglcians and Southern Conservadems (who switched parties post-Southern Strategy) were in charge. We got “OK, you’ve covered your ass” when it came to a direct warning about bin Laden, and Condi Rice ignoring Clarke’s warnings for months on end. We now see what would have come in WWII had they been in charge.

    As to 2.: The Rethugs were far more interested in effecting their social, fiscal and political agendas than in winning the war. It’s that simple. They saw the terrists as a useful bogeyman to wave about – and Fox’ fearmongering proves that – to allow them to effect their agendas. With effecting their social, fiscal and political agendas first in their minds, cutting taxes in wartime (a fortiori, cutting them as radically as they did) makes perfect sense. They have as their long-term goal destruction of the New Deal programs and creating the kinds of deficits we now struggle under (and deficit hysteria, when the Admin is Democratic) leads ineluctably to the prescription of cutting those programs. There were three exits from the Bush tax cuts: rescind the cuts and raise taxes on the rich, cut programs, or inflate the currency. You know how that debate is going.

    As to 3.: We’ve spent plenty of time on these clowns. ‘Nuf said. None of them can hold a candle to Stimson, Marshall, King, etc.

    As to 4.: What we got when 9/11 happened was: “Go shopping. Show the terrists that they can’t affect us by buying more plastic crap made in China. Hang an American flag (Made in China) on your car window.” People would show up to enlist and be turned away.

    It’s really reminiscent of the way the Germans approached industrial mobilization in WWII: they didn’t, until it was far too late. Some of you may know I like to fish, hunt and shoot. You can peruse the internet ads for medium to fine shotguns and find, without too much trouble, high-grade sporting shotguns made in Germany in 1940, 1942, even Autumn 1944 (you can tell from the proof-test date stamped on them)- beautiful craftsmanship, superb wood, high-art engraving. Let that sink in for a minute. In the depths of a global war, with enemies on every side and in an existential battle on all those fronts, Germans were still cranking out luxury consumer goods.

    On the other hand, a couple weeks after Pearl Harbor, FDR had a meeting with the heads of the US auto industry and laid out the scope of the mobilization that would be going on – hundreds of thousands of trucks, tanks, you name it. It’s said the executives were taken aback and told the President it would take years to convert and get started on the project while trying to meet consumer demand. To which FDR responded that there would be no consumer demand, because the auto industry would be devoting its full effort to the war effort. We devoted our full attention to reconfiguring our industry, at the direction of the government. And we had rationing, and government price controls, and income surtaxes and bond drives and all the rest.

    But, to the Rethugs, all those government interferences in the “free market” were anathema. So, we see what they left us: too much money in too few hands being spent on speculation while public infrastructure crumbles everywhere.

    It’s unsurprising, if only because it’s what the Rethug/Blue Dog ideology promised (if you bothered to look).

  6. nextstopchicago says:

    A little off-topic, but I thought it was interesting to compare this report in the Guardian:

    to this morning’s NPR interview with “former Pakistani President” (i.e., military dictator) Musharraf.

    Could have made for great radio if they’d pressed the “former President” on whether he really exploded in Karzai’s face when presented with evidence in 2007 that bin Laden was in a town a few kilometers from Abbottabad.

  7. lsls says:

    Sure have been a lot of IED’s goin’ off all over Merika for the last 10 years…

    It is not a matter of what it costs the US…it is a matter of the profit the war-profiteers make…and they are laughing all the way to the bank..or from the bank..or

  8. donbacon says:

    Apples and oranges.

    The National Journal is being sophomoric, suggesting that wars are fought for “social or economic advancements” and by those standards The War on Terror has been a failure.

    Wars are fought principally for profit, and by that standard the GWOT has done quite well.

    One example is Dianne Feinstein — the ninth wealthiest member of congress—has been beset by monumental ethical conflicts of interest. As a member of the Military Construction Appropriations Subcommittee (MILCON) from 2001 to the end of 2005, Senator Feinstein voted for appropriations worth billions of dollars to her husband’s firms. From 1997 through the end of 2005, Feinstein’s husband Richard C. Blum was a majority shareholder in both URS Corp. and Perini Corp.

    URS has been involved with Louis Berger, a company recently named in a New York Times article on a cash-cow road building project in Afghanistan. from the NYT:

    “The United States Agency for International Development, which has financed the project, turned it over to a joint venture of the Louis Berger Group, a New Jersey consulting and construction services firm, and Black & Veatch, a construction company in Kansas. In November, the Louis Berger Group paid one of the highest fines ever in a wartime contracting case to the federal government for overbilling.”

    That’s just one U.S. senator. There are maany others who have profited.

    “War is a racket. . .the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”

    — MajGen Smedley D. Butler, USMC, double recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, 1939

    • emptywheel says:

      Shorter donbacon:

      Oh no, the war served its purpose, the problem is just that the rich aren’t sharing the wealth as much as they did after WWII?

      • donbacon says:

        Change the header to The War Is Fine But Maybe We Taxed The War Profiteers Wrong?

  9. Knut says:

    security theater

    This phrase sums it all up in a thimble.

    I’m sure there are people in the Establishment who take national security seriously, and we can be thankful for that. But the big policy decisions going back to Vietnam have been dominated by the PR aspects of the problem. Johnson, and before him Kennedy, allowed himself to be persuaded into the Vietnam quagmire by the apprehension that the Thugs would do another ‘who lost China’ campaign. Recall that McCarthy’s reign of terror had occurred only 10 years earlier, and that a number of eminent East Asian specialists, including John Fairbanks at Harvard and the Wrights at Yalewere keeping their heads low for fear that what happened to Owen Lattimore would happen to them. Grenada was all PR. Desert Storm is the only war that is arguably not PR, but it was in no way vital to US defense. Since then, it has all been ‘security theater.’

    Most of the security theater is due to Republicans, because their social and economic policies (if known) are not popular. The Dems have been terrified of the ‘stab in the back.’ It all goes back to Yalta, which provided the Rethugs with an opening on defense (where they were incredibly weak in the years leading up to WWII), which they have never relinquished.

  10. lsls says:

    All roads lead to Saudi Arabia. BTW, why is oil dropping..did someone take the Donald’s advice and tell them to STFU? It’s too early to drop oil..too far from the election.

  11. WilliamOckham says:

    The problem is that we fought a war when we really just needed to execute an effective law enforcement action.

    • lsls says:

      Why didn’t they put OBL on the FBI wanted list for 9/11, if they had clear evidence they could have had a criminal case…they didn’t have evidence. Besides, the PTB want to rule and monetarily rape the world in the name of freedom.

      • bobschacht says:

        OBL was already under indictment and on FBI most wanted list for previous crimes. It is a sad thing that Holder used the AUMF justification for the OBL raid, rather than pointing out that he was under indictment and wanted for previous crimes.

        Bob in AZ

      • PJEvans says:

        Think POLITICS, as in Cheney and Bush wanted a war: police work was too slow and boring for them. And wouldn’t lead to getting control of oil reserves.

    • emptywheel says:

      Well, I’d have preferred a police action. But I do think we need to make ourselves more resiliant. Too many soft targets largely bc our infrastructure has been neglected or privatized.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        It’s the balance that seems to have been thrown off completely. The mushroom cloud imagery was meant to derail the substance and legitimacy of criticism about goals and costs. Arguing about a billion in cash here or ten billion in contracts there seems petty when the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

        Instituting a police action is a heightened but routine exercise of government. It would be subject to the rule of law, to budgetary and operational oversight, to public criticism about costs, benefits and risks.

        Success in such an action would enhance government; failure would subject it to criticism and demands for change. Delays in halting an existential threat are merely an signal to work harder and sacrifice more of ourselves, our treasure and our liberties.

        Another reason, I suspect, is that governments that succeed in achieving discrete goals for a public purpose document their competence and legitimacy – not something the right has an interest in promoting.

        The routine functioning of government is also routinely subject to the Constitution, to statutory and customary laws and to social norms – “That’s not how we do things here.” Sweeping those away – for the benefit of a few political leaders and their corporate sponsors – seems to have been a significant purpose for why we treated a small-scale threat, but one capable of great harm, as if it were a portent that the sky was falling.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          That imbalance is also reflected in having an opposition party that is willing to hold America hostage to protect its election prospects – in this case, by preventing government from dealing with real threats today. It prefers to immobilize government – and hopefully the Democrats’ re-election prospects – by focusing on snakes under the bed. From Krugman’s column today:

          D.C. economic discourse is saturated with fear: fear of a debt crisis, of runaway inflation, of a disastrous plunge in the dollar….

          [N]one of these scare stories reflect anything that is actually happening, or is likely to happen. And while the threats are imaginary, fear of these imaginary threats has real consequences: an absence of any action to deal with the real crisis, the suffering now being experienced by millions of jobless Americans and their families….

          [T]he destructive effect of focusing on invisible monsters [is that]…the clear and present danger to the American economy isn’t what some people imagine might happen one of these days, it’s what is actually happening now….

          By looking for trouble in all the wrong places, our political class is preventing us from dealing with the real crisis: the millions of American men and women who can’t find work.

  12. MsAnnaNOLA says:

    You have pretty much hit on one of my main objections to the Iraq war from the beginning. We spent an awful lot of money shoring up their infrastructure that we tore down, meanwhile we have bridges collapsing in Minnesota, salmonella outbreaks regularly, boil water orders because water treatment plants are broken, sewers are leaking and water mains are breaking all over the country.

    Meanwhile we are borrowing money to build giant new embassies and other infrastructure in Iraq that don’t even work right. Really? This is the best greatest use of our money borrowed from China?

  13. bluewombat says:

    Jet engines and nuclear power spread into everyday lives

    Ah yes, nuclear power. How can we not be grateful for that?

    * cough * Fukushima *cough*

  14. bobschacht says:

    I’m surprised that you didn’t include a reference to Rachel Maddow’s show on Tuesday, which began with a 17 minute segment on OBL’s strategic thinking— which focused not on killing, but on luring the U.S. and other centers of capitalism into an expensive war that would bankrupt us. See especially 3:00 to 6:00 minutes into the segment. Ezra Klein wrote an article in the NYT that same day, on the same theme: Bin Laden’s War on the U.S. Economy.

    The Twin Towers were, in a sense, Bin Laden’s shiny objects to distract us from his real strategy.

    Bob in AZ

    • donbacon says:

      War profiteers are easily “lured” because to them war represents an income and not an expense, so they share OBL’s strategy. See Diane Feinstein, #12 above.

  15. Ironcomments says:

    “The direct use of force is such a poor solution to any problem, it is generally employed only by small children and large nations.”-David Friedman

    “When the rich wage war, it’s the poor who die”.-Jean-Paul Sartre

    “There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.”-Sun Tzu

  16. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Better responding in the way we did to WWII would have put the money into the wrong pockets. It would have established, in effect, public goals for the use of those taxpayer funds that seem starkly at odds with how the money has and is still being used to privatize the military, the intelligence apparatus, and the government generally, goals that still seem hidden to many.

    It would publicly have established more goals than targeting OBL and a handful of criminals. By doing so, it would have given a platform to those who might critically review whether those were the right goals and whether they were being achieved at an acceptable cost in light of the articulated risks.

    The difference, in short, is between public vs. private government.

  17. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    Totally OT, but it’s the bottom of the thread: anyone know what’s up with Iran? The Guardian is reporting that:

    Supporters of Khamenei say that Ahmadinejad is surrounded by “deviants” in his inner circle, including his controversial chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who wants to undermine the involvement of clerics in Iran’s politics. Mashaei and his allies have recently been accused of using supernatural powers and invoking djinns (spirits) in pursuing the government’s policies.[italics mine]

    Invoking djinns? (Also, fairies. I kid you not — the Guardian article reports it.)
    I swear, these people are psychological kin of Sarah Palin and her exorcist rituals.

    Very weird…bizarro world, indeed.