Monday, September 29, 2008

The Long War - Consequences and Costs (Part II)

Second, Where we are:

To discuss where we are, I am going to have to use a number few of us – that is those of us not studying astronomy--ever heard before: trillion. When I was a student in the 1940s, I got more or less used to hearing the number million. Then when I went into the government, I had only just got used to billion. As I returned to academic life, I was astonished when trillion came along. It is still difficult for me to imagine a trillion dollars. You can think of it as a pile. If you stack up dollar bills, a trillion dollars will be miles high. But I would like to think of it in another way: a trillion dollars would provide health care for the 47 million Americans without it plus giving quality pre-school education to every American child and make college feasible for every American student. Just the interest on a trillion dollars (according to the World Bank) would eliminate starvation and malnutrition or provide primary education for every child on earth.

That speaks about our government’s priorities. What about us. How do we treat our economy?

First of all, we do not save. Privately and governmentally, we just borrow. We borrow from each other. Our National debt went up 70% under the Bush administration; we also borrow from foreigners. We had borrowed about $3 trillion as of a year ago; now our foreign debt is much more. Our projected government deficit for this year is $410 billion. Our children and grandchildren will inherit the debt of this last 8 years.

But you will hear, we are earning enough to cover it. Unfortunately that is unlikely. According to the chief of our Central Bank, the Federal Reserve, economic growth will stagnate or even fall; over 6 out of each hundred Americans who are trying to find jobs are out of work. About that many more have given up trying. Americans are losing their houses in record numbers. About one in each five owe more money on mortgages than their houses are worth. That is over ten million homeowners have lost their investments in their houses and foreclosures went up nearly 60 percent last year.

What has caused all this?

Partly it is our individual fault – visit the malls to see one part of the answer. The British were once derided as a nation of shopkeepers; we are a nation of consumers. We are real “junkies” in our shopping for things we don’t need.

But a part of the answer to our growing debt is our militarism: Our current Military budget is $541 billion. That is 58 cents of every dollar spent by US Government and it is more than combined defense budgets of all other countries and more than our combined spending on education, environment protection, justice administration, veterans benefits, housing assistance, transportation, job training, agricultural support, energy and economic development assistance.

We are told we need to spend this huge amount because our National Defense Strategy lays out our determination and “right” to make pre-emptive warfare, indeed to attack any country whose dominance even of its own neighborhood thwarts us. Coming into office in 2001 the Bush administration leaked information that it was ready to “target” up to 60 other countries. Is this just posturing? Look at the sequence: the war in Afghanistan led to Iraq which led for the second time to Somalia and now has us attacking the territory of Pakistan and planning an attack on Iran . Are these necessary for our safety? Are we gaining or losing security by our involvement in them? I will briefly review them:

Consider, first, Afghanistan:

If anyone still thinks in historical terms, we should remember that the Afghans inflicted the worst defeat on the British empire it suffered in the 19th century and they virtually wrecked the Soviet empire in the 20th. Are we more “successful?” With our overwhelming firepower, we have killed about as many Afghans as the Russians did, about one million and have far fewer soldiers. So far about 500 dead. Our invasion shattered what the Russians did not destroy of the Afghan economy. So the only remaining industry is the drug trade of which Afghanistan furnishes about 90% of the world’s market. Our enemies, the Taliban, had banned it, but now they need the income they derive from it to fight us. And, sober observers report that the Taliban are returning both to favor and to geographical control. They are now not far from Kabul . Meanwhile, the warlords, whom the Taliban chased away and whom we have either supported or tolerated are again on the decline.

Consider, second, Iraq:

One and a half million Americans soldiers have served in Iraq . We now have about 140,000 men and women there. In addition, which few Americans have even heard about, we have there some 180,000 private contractors at a cost so far of $85 billion. Over all, the Iraq war has cost us through the end of this fiscal year $922 billion spent in direct (that is, in Congressionally-appropriated) outlays and perhaps $3 trillion in costs to our economy at home. These costs have been disguised from us by government borrowing from us (our national debt has risen 70%) and from foreigners (our government has borrowed from them more than $3 trillion).

But these are the trivial costs. The tragic costs are measured in blood and misery. We have now lost over 4,100 dead. Then there are the wounded. The Bush administration admits to about 25,000 wounded but that is wildly, even ridiculously, wrong: this year alone some 300,000 servicemen and –women are in treatment. The real total of wounded is probably at least 500,000 of whom over half have severe brain damage – concussions -- which will cause memory loss, severe headaches and confused thinking, for the rest of many of their lives. They will be a burden on their families and communities. 22,000 of them tried to commit suicide this year. No one knows – yet – about the number of cases of cancer that will develop from the use of depleted uranium bombs and shells, but the numbers could be very high. In addition to the impact of these events on wives and children, just consider the cost of treating the wounded. The best guess is that, over their lifetimes, it will consume $1 trillion.

If you find these figures hard to believe, consider that from the effects of the 1991 Gulf War, which lasted only 100 hours, 300,000 men and women are claiming disability payments.

Then consider the Iraqis: According to a study made by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, we or Iraqis in the conditions we have created have killed at least 600,000 as of two years ago. The figure today is perhaps over a million and we have made or helped to make about 3 million into refugees. The physical damage is literally beyond count but could be several hundred billion dollars.

More important is the “collateral” damage: we have shattered the cultural heritage of the world’s oldest civilization, watching and doing nothing while its great antiquities museum was gutted and the national library trashed.

Worse we have destroyed the social contract between the people and authorities. Let me dwell on this intangible issue: if any American city lost its social contract – a concept that our founding fathers and other 18th century philosophers well understood – the entire American army could not keep a semblance of order. That is what has happened in Baghdad . And we cannot control it with the world’s most powerful army. The Neoconservatives advised our government that, by invading Iraq , we would create democracy. Instead, Iraq is a destroyed society.

We are told also that we are “winning” -- whatever that might mean – and that the “surge” is working: But the fact is that while violence has died down somewhat -- only 654 Iraqis were killed in May this year, making Iraq still the most dangerous country in the world – it is not more troops or a new strategy that have reduced casualties. It is the fact that neighborhoods have already been ethnically cleansed (so Iraqis are fighting less among themselves), we have built huge concrete barriers between them and we have drawn our troops back into secure bases from which they sally mainly in aircraft or tanks. These are tactical accommodations but do not lead to long-term solutions. In fact they lead in the opposite direction.

As even our former proconsul and current ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad secretly wrote to President Bush, “the proposal to send more U.S. forces to Iraq would not produce a long-term solution and would make our policy less, not more, sustainable.” Mao Tse-Tung, Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap could have explained why: we have provided more targets and angered more natives. Our much vaunted counterinsurgency (“CI” in the military acronym) is just a replay of what we did when we lost the Vietnam war; even the sales pitch is the same.

Consider, Third, Somalia:

Somalia had less to destroy than Iraq . It is a small country. Few of us have even heard of it except in the film “Black Hawk Down.” There we were shown our decent young men trying to free the Somalis from a bunch of murderous, raping thugs, the warlords. We failed and President Clinton pulled the plug. We got out. The warlords came back. Then the Somalis did a remarkable thing: they got rid of the warlords themselves without our help. But we didn’t like the way they did it. Like most Africans and Asians, they had given up on Marxism and had fallen back on religion. Their Islamic fundamentalism had some of the ugly features we have seen in Afghanistan . But we didn’t care about that. What bothered us was that we feared that their Islam would be hospitable to the al-Qaida people. So we sicked our Ethiopian friends, whose government is Christian and who have long wished to dominate Somalia , on them. Actually we didn’t just urge them to attack their neighbor; we joined in on the attack, not only with money and arms but also with our own aircraft, ships and troops. So we destroyed the Afghan Muslim government, the “Union of Islamic Courts.” Back to "Black Hawk Down": on the heels of our forces and the Ethiopians came the same murderous, raping warlords, now more or less our allies. So Somalia today is a crippled society, but one that bitterly hates us. So bitter is their feeling against all foreigners that even aid workers are now targets. Somalia too is a destroyed society with a shredded social contract as a result of our actions. We did not create terrorism in Somalia – the warlords did that – but Somalis’ hatred of them has now been redirected toward us.

Lastly, reflect on Terrorism:

Americans are obsessed by terrorism as a result of the September 11 attacks. There is, of course, reason to fear terrorism because of its unpredictability and randomness. But let us try to analyze it. Consider these facts:

  • more Americans were killed by lightening and very many more by traffic accidents in the year of the attacks than by 9/11;
  • we have never been opposed to “terrorism” as such. Our ancestors won the Revolution against the British using terrorism as a major instrument and we aided and abetted Afghan terrorism against the Russians in the 1980s. Then we renamed terrorists “freedom fighters” and, most important; and
  • terrorism is a tactic used by the weak when they have no other recourse.
When a country is invaded and crushed, we should know from history, patriots take up arms. Regard the action of the Greeks and French in World War II, the Algerians against the French in the 1960s and our ancestors in the Revolution. Since they were unable to defeat heavily armed military units, they resorted to hit and run tactics against the foreigners and terrorism against the waverers or Quislings in their own societies. Invaders nearly always face – and are usually defeated by – this fact. As the noted English expert on the Middle East, Patrick Seale, wrote: “Al-Qaeda did not exist in Iraq before America ’s criminally misconceived war. It was America ’s invasion and its continued occupation which gave Al-Qaeda the chance to plant itself in Iraq . Only when the U.S. finally withdraws from Iraq can Al-Qaeda be defeated there….it is only in opposition to Western aggression that it gains popularity.” Echo that for Afghanistan and Somalia and let it be a portent for Iran .