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The Watson Institute released its report ‘Costs of War,’ showing astronomical costs of $5.9 trillion and at least 500,000 killed due to the never-ending war on terror. Is there an alternative? The report was published on the heels of the news that the Pentagon failed its first and only audit

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner and it’s great to have you with us.

Before we start this conversation, which will expose the reality that the United States has spent over 5.9 trillion dollars on defense since 9/11, while failing an audit of the Defense Department which was the first audit in that agency’s history, I want to remind you the reason you watch Real News is for conversations just like this. We’re beginning or end of the year campaign to raise 400,000 dollars to keep and grow programming just like this. You know you love it, that’s why you’re here, that’s why you’re watching. So please, show your support today by hitting that donate button on this website and make your tax deductible contribution to The Real News.

And as I indicated, we’re now about to talk about the Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs’ recently published study called Costs of War. It’s revealed that since the attack on 9/11, the United States has spent five point nine trillion dollars on defense as it pursues its war against terror in 76 countries, which is approximately 39 percent of the world’s nations. This, or I should say, these wars of no end have cost at least 480 to 507,000 lives since the post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. And this doesn’t include the more than the half a million deaths from the war in Syria that’s been raging since 2011, nor does it include civilians killed in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan that have been uncounted or unaccounted for.

It’s likely that more than 370,000 people have died indirectly because of these wars due to malnutrition, damaged infrastructure and environmental degradation. And on top of that, the Pentagon just failed to pass an audit of its finances and expenses. The audit, which took a year and cost 367 million dollars was the first one in the entire history of the Pentagon. Deputy Director of Defense Patrick Shanahan told reporters that we failed the audit, but we never expected to pass. So we’re going to explore what all that means, what the consequences of all this are, the spending, the war, filling the audits, where do they really take us? What are they all about? What are the alternatives, and how can we get there?

Our guests are Lindsay Koshgarian, who is Program Director of the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, and Dr. Neta C. Crawford, Professor and Chair of Political Science at Boston University. Well, Lindsay and Neta, welcome. Good to have you with us here on The Real News.

So it’s almost this confluence of events that we’re facing here with this audit that failed and what that means that it failed. I mean, it seems very obtuse at the moment, and this huge number that we see in terms of spending. So Lindsay, let me start with you. To me, this is kind of a strange confluence, that these both came out at the same time. And we, really from the things I’ve read, don’t know what the failure of the audit really means. What are we missing here?

LINDSAY KOSHGARIAN: Well, right now our military has a budget of over 700 billion dollars, it’s more than half of the trillion dollar budget that Congress allocates every year. The first report that came out this week by the National Security Commission was suggesting that the military budget needed to be even higher by as much as more than 250 billion dollars more, would bring it to almost a trillion dollars and would be by far the biggest military budget this country has ever had. So that was the first thing that happened, and then that was followed the next day by a report on the Pentagon’s first ever audit. It’s been only just shy of 30 years in the making, it was first required in 1990 and here in 2018 they are doing the first audit ever. And they failed.

MARC STEINER: So what does it mean that they failed? I’m trying to wrap my head around what it means.

LINDSAY KOSHGARIAN: It means the numbers didn’t add up. So if you’ve ever worked at a business or a non-profit or any kind of place where you bring money in and money goes out, and those numbers don’t have to equal each other, but you need to be able to account for the differences, you need the numbers to add up. And the Pentagon numbers for this audit did not add up. There were a few small parts of the Defense Department, like the Defense Health Agency and a couple others where those small bits, the numbers added up. But elsewhere, on the whole, and for the biggest branches of the Department of Defense, the numbers did not add up. So essentially what that means is that the Department of Defense does not know where they’re spending their money.

MARC STEINER: So Neta, I think for most people, these numbers are almost hard to put your hands around. Well, there’s the 5.9 trillion dollars we’re talking about that was being spent over the last 17, 18 years by the Department of Defense, the numbers of people who have been killed in response to that, Neta. And then, fill in the audit. I mean, I want to ask both of you, let’s say for argument’s sake, Neta, you are on Capitol Hill right now and you both were Congresswomen. So Neta, let me start with you. What questions would you demand to be asked, answered I should say?

NETA C. CRAWFORD: Yeah, this is Neta.

MARC STEINER: Neta, I’m sorry, go ahead.

NETA C. CRAWFORD: First of all, I would ask, what’s the plan to end these wars? After 17 years in Afghanistan, the war’s at a stalemate. Is there a plan? The Pentagon says that they anticipate being in Iraq and Afghanistan for the next five years at least, but what is the plan to end these wars? The second question I’d ask is, how is it that you’re thinking about the long term implications of these wars in terms of the other major security priorities that the United States has? For example, the Pentagon, at least before Trump, acknowledged that climate change was a major concern. That is, the instability and the effects on bases and so on that climate change posed. How is this government going to deal with that? Thirdly, I’d ask, what is the reason for increasing the budget? Is there a connection between a strategy of presence of the United States in the world and this large military budget? There is no rival to United States right now that spends this much. All of our major rivals combined will not spend this much. And what’s the relationship in any budget between risks, threats and of the cost of it all? Are we spending so much that we can’t meet our other priorities?

MARC STEINER: And at the very least, Lindsay, here, half a million people have been killed in this period of time and maybe another 300,000 plus more have died as a result of the war. A quarter of those, at least, were civilians of the original number. And these things come tumbling out. And I think in some ways we’re so disengaged from the Defense Department budget in ways we haven’t been, because nobody seems to be directly involved in war as we used to be, and this almost glosses over. But it’s a huge number we’re talking about, especially given the things we say we need in this country and the planet really needs. Lindsay?

LINDSAY KOSHGARIAN: Yeah, yeah. As Neta’s report shows, we’re on the hook for 5.9 trillion dollars just for the counterterror wars. That is not all the money that we’re spending on militarism and war around the world and at home. Those are just the counterterrorism wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Syria, et cetera. So there’s a disconnect there when you think about political arguments about, well we can’t afford things like Medicare for all or free college tuition or even debt-free college tuition. But yeah, we can afford six trillion and counting on a war that we don’t know when this war is going to end, there’s no plan to end any of this. So it could go on and on and the trillions could keep piling up. Meanwhile, we’re not doing any of these other things and there’s just a dishonesty there. It’s not that we can’t afford those other things, it’s that what we are choosing to do is make war instead of making our lives better.

MARC STEINER: And Neta, it also seems – please, go ahead.

NETA C. CRAWFORD: I just want to add something there.

MARC STEINER: Please do.

NETA C. CRAWFORD: Just think about it the more than three million veterans who have come home from Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Syria. Those veterans, in fact that number will increase, and by 2039 it will be more than four million veterans and we’re obligated to spend for the health care of these veterans and we can’t keep spending like this on Pentagon and then assume that there will be money that will be available for the increasingly high health care costs of the veterans, not to mention the other needs that the U.S. faces. And then, I wanted to drill a little bit deeper into these numbers.

MARC STEINER: Please, please.

NETA C. CRAWFORD: So about a quarter million civilians have been killed in the major wars. And there are other wars that the United States has been engaged in, other operations. There are over 80 to 90 countries in the world where the United States is operating. Each one of those, with these special operations forces, we don’t know much about, but we do know that there are unintended consequences. So for each civilian that is killed, people are distressed and dismayed and angry, and we’re creating actually by harming civilians, we haven’t killed all of these civilians, other people have as well, but the civilian death increases the insecurity and instability in these places. It’s not helping make the world safer. So we need a strategy that’s connected to the outcome of ending the risk of terrorism. And this strategy is not going to get us there.

MARC STEINER: So let’s explore for a moment where we think the country is in terms of both these things that we just found out about, both the audit and the incredible amount of money we’ve spent on war over the last 18 years in this country. And if you look at this last election we had, that the defense budgets didn’t come up in the election hardly at all in any of the campaigns nationally, and that what we have instead, though, is people giving homage to, and understandably so for many people, to people who serve in the armed forces. That’s become the focus, to honor our veterans, and not what it costs to wage war. So the question is, I wonder politically how both of you think you begin to address these two realities that we’re faced with in the news, in terms of what you say to begin to make America think about this in a different way. Lindsay, why don’t you begin.

LINDSAY KOSHGARIAN: Yeah, well first of all, war is not good for troops, war is not good for veterans, war is not good for military families. Ask any family that’s had a family member of parent deployed multiple times over the last 15 plus years. This situation is not helping our troops. It’s not what they need. And so the fact that it’s not working, we’re not making the world safer for ourselves or for anyone else, we’re not winning, and we’re not supporting our troops by doing this either. So the idea that we’re supporting our troops kind of falls apart when you look at what’s actually happening. So I think one thing is to recognize that, but the other is really to recognize the lost opportunity here. Now we have a Pentagon that’s out of control, it doesn’t know where their own money is going, and that racking up trillions of dollars on this still unpopular war.

We could be doing so many other things. I think a lot of people across the political spectrum would agree that there is a number of things we should do instead. We could pay down the debt, we could institute Medicare for all, we could work on our crumbling infrastructure, we could address climate change. There are so many possibilities. I think showing that people, so they can understand what we’re losing by spending this money on the Pentagon and war is an important piece of it.

MARC STEINER: And Neta, historically, these things have never been an easy thing to kind of unravel for the American people, because it’s almost like the Department of Defense is the untouchable.

NETA C. CRAWFORD: Well sure, that’s the real third rail in politics, is military spending and armed forces and patriotism, which then merges into nationalism. But if you think about it, the entire budget of the United States has been militarized in a way. So in my report, I don’t just talk about the almost 2.1 trillion on just the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria. I’m talking about Department of Homeland Security spending is nearly a trillion dollars on counterterror missions. Now if the counterterror spending by the Department of Homeland Security was actually what was keeping us safe, great, then we don’t have to be abroad. So these issues are complicated, and the reason why it’s difficult for Americans to sort of get a handle on them is we haven’t had the kind of leadership in Congress which would hold hearings and tease out, what does keep us safe, if anything, and what’s the link between things that we’re doing in safety? Could we be doing more efficient and effective policies?

But I think you really hit the nail on the head there with the idea that we don’t talk about these questions because they’re somehow verboten. And I think that goes to a sort of underlying sense that we’ve all been told that wars will be efficient and quick and effective. And by quick, I mean people will be home, let’s say, by the end of the summer, or in a few months, or that the people that deliver it will greet us with flowers. And time after time, since the Civil War, World War I, The Korean War and Vietnam Wars, wars have not led up to these rosy expectations. And Americans need to recall that and think about this set of wars in particular as part of the same old thing, where we have these great promises, but they’re actually not realistic, and often, the wars are ineffective.

MARC STEINER: And there’s the rub, Lindsay, I think that we have to get to when we talk about what the new Congress has to do and the questions they have to ask. One of the things I think we just said here was that the question is, what makes us safe? And so, people are very nervous about taking money from the military because they see people coming to the border as being pushed as a threat, when Mattis says that this is like going after Pancho Villa in 1917, or when you have the dangers that are facing the world after 9/11. This is a country that is kind of on edge in many ways on this and thinking they’re safe because they’re spending this money. This is getting to the heart of that conversation in terms of what makes us safe and what we can spend to make us even safer economically if we did something differently, is really difficult to get to. Not saying it’s impossible, it’s just difficult.

LINDSAY KOSHGARIAN: But I think it’s important that people have been sold a bill of lies about this. The Bush White House, at the start of the Iraq War, estimated the Iraq War might cost 60 billion dollars. Now, I haven’t done the math on exactly what the difference is between that billion dollars and the nearly 6 trillion that Neta’s now estimating, but it’s a factor of 100 that they were off by. So there’s a complete disconnect from reality about this. And I think if people understood that what they were being told is going to happen is different from what actually happens, that trust that they have in the military and in our troops to keep us safe, might start to crack open a little bit. And honestly, that’s what needs to happen.

MARC STEINER: I wonder, Neta, is as someone else, well probably both of you do, who has a deep sense of history in understanding what led us to this point. I mean, has it been a point in our history in this country, other than the Vietnam War that I can think about, maybe the disagreement with the wars in the Philippines that happened in the early 20th century by some in Cuba. Have there been points in our history where this has actually been important to people, to say, oh we’re spending too much money, we have to stop this, we could be doing something else.

NETA C. CRAWFORD: Oh, many times in American history, people have questioned both the amount of spending and the missions and what kind of country the United States should be. During the Indian Wars, there were protests about the treatment of Native American peoples. You mentioned the Philippine wars. There were questions about the waterboarding that was occurring there and other techniques of torture, and whether in fact it was worthwhile to send people, year after year, into jungles where people didn’t want to be ruled by the United States. The U.S. war with Mexico, there were protests and questions about that in the middle of the 19th century. And then you go into the 20th century, of course there were concerns long before the United States got out of Vietnam. By 1968, the American public was definitely against the War in Vietnam, and only in 1973 did the last troops leave.

So these particular wars have been unpopular as well. There were massive protests against the start of the Iraq war. But I think that the consensus often is patriotic and unquestioning at the outset of wars, when people feel threatened and are given these sort of optimistic pictures. And usually, support for the war fades. And that’s often when countries get out, because they can’t afford it. Now, these wars in particular, and the mobilization for Homeland Security spending and the extra cost for veterans and the sort of ballooning of the Defense budget in general have been extremely damaging. In a way, it’s sort of like having high blood pressure, it’s hard to see. And what I mean by that is you can have high blood pressure and not know that you’re sick. Well, we have extremely high deficits and we’re paying a lot in interest on this debt. And the opportunity costs on the debt for military spending, and these wars in particular, are enormous. Again, the interest payments on the debt for these wars is actually greater since the war started than this year’s military budget.

MARC STEINER: So, we have to close here. And Lindsay Koshgarian, as we close down, I wonder, since your work day to day is how to do work on alternatives to this, where do you take this discussion, very quickly?

LINDSAY KOSHGARIAN: I would add that not only have there been times when the American public has questioned wars and the results of the wars that we’ve been in, but there have been times when we spent a lot less. In the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, after the Gulf War I and before 9/11, military budget overall was about half of what it is now. And there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to get back that. So I think it’s important not to get discouraged, and to realize that this is not inevitable, but that there is a precedent for doing things what we’re doing right now, and that’s what’s to going to take is some political power and some leadership and some courage in order for us to get there.

MARC STEINER: Well, Lindsay Koshgarian and Neta Crawford, I want to thank you both so much. This has been a great conversation. I appreciate you taking the time today. And we’ll continue to look at this, because it’s really critical. And I’m glad these two things came out for us to kind of wrestle with. You all have a lovely day and thank you so much for being with us.

NETA C. CRAWFORD: Thank you.


MARC STEINER: Thank you. And on our way out, don’t forget to go to the donate button and make your contribution to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner for The Real News, thanks for joining us. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.