How Costly Is Too Costly? Finding the tipping point for Vietnam — and for Iraq
By Mark Engler
Published on February 23, 2006
In the center of the CostOfWar.com home page, an upward-racing ticker, presented in a large, red font, keeps a steady tally of the money spent for the U.S. war in Iraq. Every time I visit, it takes a moment to sort through the counter’s decimal places and make sense of it. The hundreds of dollars fly by too quickly to track. The thousands change a little faster than once a second. As I write, the ticker reads $239,302,273,144.
It is worth staring at the site for a while to see the vast sums accumulate. Yet this exercise in wartime accounting quickly becomes unsatisfying. First of all, few Americans have any frame of reference for evaluating a number like $239 billion. The National Priorities Project, the organization hosting the counter, attempts to remedy this by allowing visitors to compare war costs with expenditures on pre-school, health care, and public housing, noting, for example, that this much money could provide basic immunizations for every child born worldwide in the next 79 years. Even then, the incomprehensibly large number ticking away on screen turns out to be no measure at all of what we will eventually pay for the war. Depending on what estimate you use, it could be off by almost a factor of ten. After all, it lacks a place for the trillions.
So how much will the war cost? The question occasionally appears in the media, never a new issue, never a settled one either. Still, there are some certainties about the costs of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. One is that it keeps going up. The President has now submitted a “guns over butter” budget to Congress that increases Pentagon spending to $440 billion, while taking away funds from social services at home and development assistance abroad. One of the great curiosities of this huge sum is that it does not include funding for the wars we are actually fighting. Those are appropriated separately — this year, the White House will reportedly be asking for another $120 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, roughly equal to what it spent in 2005.
Another certainty of wartime accounting is that the cost of the war in Iraq will remain far higher than the Bush administration wants anyone to think. It’s already stratospherically beyond the initial estimate of $50-60 billion used to sell its war to the public. That number was meant to conjure memories of the previous Gulf War — Operation Desert Storm — an engagement Americans recall as swift and relatively painless, in part because an array of allies helped pay for it. The U.S. ponied up only $7 billion for that conflict. The administration’s other magic trick was taking Larry Lindsey, the White House economic advisor who publicly suggested in late 2002 that a military return to Iraq would cost closer to $100-200 billion, and making him disappear.
In the years since Baghdad fell, several analysts have sought better estimates for the war’s true cost. In August 2005, Phyllis Bennis and Erik Leaver at the Institute for Policy Studies issued a paper predicting that the total cost could reach $700 billion at the then-current spending level of $5.6 billion per month. Like the CostOfWar.com tally, this figure included only direct expenditures.
Last month, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard’s Linda Bilmes released a report that took a wider view. Hinting at the human cost of the occupation — which, of course, requires its own ghastly page in the ledger of wartime accounting — the report factored in the government-assigned “value of statistical life” for troops killed in combat. (It did not include the loss of Iraqi lives.) It tallied items such as the costs of health care for wounded veterans, increased recruitment spending for a hard-up Pentagon, and the opportunity costs of more productive public investments that might have been made if funds had not been diverted overseas. Following Congressional Budget Office predictions for troop deployment, the report considers the possibilities of full U.S. withdrawal by 2010 to 2015. All told, the two economists put the cost to the U.S. at between $1 trillion (their most “conservative” estimate) and $2.2 trillion (their “moderate” one).
Sixty billion, 239 billion, 2.2 trillion dollars. The more such figures swirl, the more necessary it is to change the question. The real matter at hand is not, “How much will it cost?” but, “When does it start to matter?”
Vietnam Tipping Points
The answers provided by past experience are imperfect. The Oxford Companion to American Military History places the direct costs of the Vietnam War at $173 billion (equal to $770 billion in 2003 dollars). Veterans benefits and interest payments add another trillion to Vietnam’s costs, calculated in 2003 dollars. Thus, the estimates for the cost of the Iraq war already place the two conflicts at similar levels, although Vietnam expenditures represented a larger percentage of the Gross Domestic Product.
There seems to be no single point at which costs become too great. Different parties reach their moment of decision at different times, independently determining that “victory” is not worth the price being paid. Disaffection builds as financial and human costs rise. And so looking at turning points, in Vietnam or in Iraq, involves twisting the question once again. We must ask not only, “How costly is too costly?” But also, “Too costly for whom?”
For many who opposed the war on moral terms, the conflict was too costly from the start. The lives and money sacrificed since then merely serve as tragic affirmations of a conviction already reached. Others more traditionally supportive of presidential decisions to take the U.S. to war can, however, be swayed by mounting costs, once victory doesn’t come.
One Vietnam tipping point came in late 1967 when, for the first time, opinion polls showed that a bare majority of Americans considered the conflict a “mistake.” The size of this majority surged after the start of the Tet Offensive in January 1968. In a watershed moment in the wake of that onslaught, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite both echoed and solidified public sentiment by famously indicating that U.S. could not win the war. “To say we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past,” he told his television audience. “To say that we are mired in a stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.”
Bad news from the war front helped to turn the public, but domestic dissent went far in shaping public reactions to developments abroad. The same 1967 polls that registered the first antiwar majority also showed that most Americans deplored the growing antiwar movement. Nevertheless, antiwar protesters had a critical (and sometimes unexpected) impact. Historian Melvin Small offers one example of when “the antiwar movement dramatically affected policy”: After mass protests at the Pentagon in October 1967, “Lyndon Johnson launched a public relations campaign that emphasized how well the war was going. When the Communists [then] launched their seemingly successful nationwide Tet Offensive most Americans felt that they had been deceived by their own government.”
A turn in elite opinion followed on the heels of public disaffection. Although rarely remembered, the defection of a previously supportive business community formed an important part of this shift. A lack of business enthusiasm for the war sprang from military developments in Vietnam, but was also spurred by war-related economic doldrums (which have resonance today). As Small explains, “For many economists, the last truly good years for the economy were 1962-65 with almost full employment, very low inflation and a favorable balance of trade.” As the war escalated, “an increasingly unfavorable balance of trade, related in part to spending for the war abroad, contributed to an international monetary crisis involving a threat to U.S. gold reserves in 1967-68. That threat helped convince some administration officials and Wall Street analysts that the United States could no longer afford the war.”
In March 1968, Clark Clifford played a vital role in convincing a doggedly hawkish Lyndon Johnson that a seismic shift had, in fact, occurred among influential patrons. Clifford was a prototypical Washington insider, a polished and well-connected lawyer who for decades served as a counsel to the president and maintained close ties with the giants of corporate America. He felt comfortable speaking truth to power, and power listened, knowing Clifford had its best interests at heart.
In January 1968, Clifford replaced Robert McNamara as Secretary of Defense. Although recruited as a hawk, he formed a new assessment of the war after examining the military realities and polling his well-heeled contacts to gauge the domestic outlook. Historian Gabriel Kolko cites Clifford’s recollections from March 1968, when he told several White House aides, “I make it a practice to keep in touch with friends in business and the law across the land… Until a few months ago, they were generally supportive of the war… Now all that has changed. These men now feel we are in a hopeless bog.” He went on to say, “It would be very difficult — I believe it would be impossible — for the President to maintain public support for the war without the support of these men.”
That same month, Clifford helped organize a two-day meeting between President Johnson and his Senior Advisory Group on Vietnam — nicknamed the “Wise Men.” These were veteran operatives and diplomats with powerful connections to the business and financial communities. As David Halberstam relates in The Best and the Brightest, they “quietly let [Johnson] know that the Establishment — yes, Wall Street — had turned on the war… It was hurting the economy, dividing the country, turning the youth against the country’s best traditions.” As libertarian economist Murray Rothbard notes, just a few days later Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection and started the U.S. on its long exit from Vietnam.
Iraq: The Politics of Withdrawal
Though the obvious “Wise Men” figures of this moment, like the elder Bush’s confidant Brent Scowcroft, remain out in the cold when it comes to the younger Bush’s Iraq policies, business leaders are one group that might yet be turned by a cost-benefit analysis of the Iraq War. In their report, Stiglitz and Bilmes consider, among other factors, how the war has hurt the economy by increasing global and domestic insecurity while contributing to a boost in oil prices. Outside of a few energy companies and defense contractors that continue to directly benefit, America’s corporations have generally been adversely affected by these costs. A significant number of corporate leaders have begun complaining about a damaged Brand America and a chilled climate for doing business abroad. Certainly, business leaders have reason to doubt that a neoconservative foreign policy works in their favor, and they may yet decide to cut their losses. If some CEOs and other executives reevaluate their allegiance to the White House — becoming more vocal supporters of realism in Republican foreign policy or even of the Democratic Leadership Council’s multilateral brand of corporate globalization — the turn could make the discussion about the war in upcoming electoral contests significantly more contentious.
As for the public at large, polls on Iraq started showing majority disapproval as early as the summer of 2004. Antiwar opinion now regularly registers as high as 60%. John Mueller, Professor of Political Science at Ohio State University and an expert on wartime public opinion, has argued that eroding support for Iraq matches patterns for wars in Korea and Vietnam. “The most striking thing about the comparison among the three wars is how much more quickly support has eroded in the case of Iraq,” he writes in Foreign Affairs. By the start of last year, with just 1,500 American troops dead, public opinion on Iraq had dropped to depths only reached in the Vietnam War after Tet, when some 20,000 Americans had been killed.
Mueller concludes, “If history is any indication, there is little the Bush administration can do to reverse this decline.”
That might be cause for celebration, if only it were the end of the story. Mueller’s formulation may sound simple, even deterministic, but the reality of withdrawal is not. True, public support for the Vietnam War never rebounded after March 1968. Yet U.S. military involvement in the conflict dragged on for another five years. The ticker for that intervention kept racing higher because President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger were willing to take the tragedy Johnson made and adopt it as their own. A lesson for us now is that no set pattern will guarantee a satisfying end to the situation we face, a situation in which another unpopular war threatens to stretch on for years.
The fact of the matter is that the majority of the country has already decided that the war in Iraq has become too costly. Americans have rejected the prospect of funding a massive and prolonged occupation. In that sense, we have already tipped.
Questions about the price of war keep resurfacing not because there’s a credible argument for most Americans that the price is reasonable, but because our elected officials thus far have only pushed those costs ever higher. What remains, then, is for the public to hold accountable those who would carry forward the neoconservative crusade — to make their stance a costly one in public life. What remains is for us bring the political price of war into line with the human and financial costs that we will continue to bear.
— Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, can be reached via the web site www.DemocracyUprising.com. Research assistance for this article provided by Kate Griffiths.
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