Bearing the Cost of War

Why the U.S. Should Raise Taxes -- Just As it Has in Previous Conflicts

Courtesy Reuters

After the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, the costs of these wars ballooned. In 2010, the United States spent $167 billion on “overseas contingency operations” in these theaters -- a figure that includes expenditures by the Defense and State Departments and the U.S. Agency for International Development but excludes spending on the Department of Veterans Affairs. The economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes estimated in 2008 that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will eventually cost $3 trillion, and they now acknowledge that the number may be even greater. Much of the expense for these wars has been financed by debt or represents future obligations.

Now, with U.S. forces mostly out of Iraq, the debate in Washington’s foreign policy circles has focused primarily on the war in Afghanistan, with some critics, concerned in large part about the war’s costs, advocating an accelerated withdrawal strategy. The biggest controversy in Washington this summer, however, has been over the federal budget and debt limit. It is no secret that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have contributed to the debt and to budget deficits. Yet other than some symbolic antiwar suggestions, no political figures have proposed actually paying the cost of these military actions today. It is time for this to change: Congress should consider enacting a wartime surtax, as it has done for nearly all past U.S. wars.

The current arrangement is unfortunate, since it means that the vast majority of Americans share none of the costs of war; instead, the burden is shouldered almost exclusively by the men and women fighting the wars and their families. American military personnel have suffered through multiple deployments and endured disabling casualties; their families and personal lives have been disrupted and sometimes permanently shattered. Over 6,100 Americans have died, and more than 44,000 have been wounded (a figure that only counts physical wounds). In mid-July, I visited the National Naval Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland. The numbers of patients in the wards were as

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