Everyone in America Could Go to College for Free for the Amount of Money Spent on Mideast Wars

Students on the verge of entering high school have never known a time when the United States is not at war.

The United States is just three weeks into the latest phase of its effort in Iraq against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group—but already there are calls for it to escalate.

This past Sunday on CNN, Senator John McCain (R-Ala.) advocated for a greater number of U.S. ground troops to get directly involved in fighting the group. ISIS is “winning, we’re not,” McCain complained. McCain is not alone. His sentiments have been echoed by others in Congress and among key American allies around the world such as the United Kingdom and Turkey.

The problem is that the unfinished business in Iraq and Afghanistan shows us that scaling up the military campaign against ISIS will create severe costs that won’t be shouldered equally by all Americans. Sadly this fact is lost on many involved in the debate.

Before launching headlong into a third Iraq War it’s important to step back and review the costs of the past 13 years of combat. Not surprisingly, the sacrifice of war, monetary and otherwise are disproportionately borne by people of color and the young.

According to the Costs of War project at Brown University, the total costs for the second Iraq War and the ongoing one in Afghanistan is $4.4 trillion. Cost-wise, these two conflicts should be considered as one because it has long been established that the war in Iraq prolonged the one in Afghanistan by drawing away resources from it and causing it to drag on. Everyone in the country could go to college for nearly a decade free of charge with $4.4 trillion.

What’s astounding is that this eye-popping price tag could very well be the tip of the iceberg. As Costs of War points out “each additional month and year of war adds to that toll. In fact, total costs could stretch as high as $6 trillion in the coming years as veterans benefits and the like tally up.

Beyond the monetary issues there are others that are beyond measure.

Nearly 7,000 Americans have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. But these numbers exclude military contractors, the private paramilitary outfits hired by the government to supplement the work of the armed forces. Folding them into official casualty figures nearly doubles the number of U.S. deaths.

Fifty thousand American men and women were wounded in action, with another 330,000 having suffered some variation of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by their time at war. Added to these dramatic impacts is the grim fact that nearly 200,000 Afghani, Iraqi and Pakistani civilians have been killed in these conflicts since 2001.

Although the deaths and injuries cause unconscionable pain, the ramifications of these casualties are not spread evenly throughout society.

Nearly half of all those who’ve died in the war are under the age of 25. When it comes to race, close to two out of five of those serving in the U.S. armed forces is black or brown. And once they return from the battlefield, according to the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, black veterans are more likely than their white counterparts to be unemployed (PDF). 

The war has also impacted historically marginalized communities in other ways. Iraq and Afghanistan diverted the nation’s attention and financial resources from investments necessary to ensure that the working poor have an economic shot. For instance, additional capital promised to schools identified as struggling by No Child Left Behind wasn’t delivered as planned. In fact, during some of the Iraq War’s most active years, No Child Left Behind school assistance was half of what the law pledged. Schools serving the nation’s poorest children were hung out to dry for low test scores but were not provided the help needed to turn them around.

The two wars have done more economic damage than underfunding. The sky-is-the-limit approach to military spending since 2001 created the massive debt that’s been used to justify the rolling back of economic opportunity programs that helped build the middle class. The entire cost of Iraq and Afghanistan were not paid for directly, rather they were charged to the nation’s credit card. Concern over this mounting debt is what fueled the Tea Party. Once in office, conservative members of Congress went about slashing everything from food assistance, to housing help to pre-school education under the banner of getting the nation’s fiscal house in order.

As I have written before their arguments don’t hold up to scrutiny. The nation is nowhere near broke, but that was never the point. A wing of the Republican Party has always sought to run up the nation’s debt and then use it as an excuse to shrink the government programs they oppose. This even has an unfortunate name: “starve the beast.” Yet the money being shoveled out the door for the two wars was the sort of justification for which they’d worked for so long. They’ve spent most of President Obama’s time in office using it to advance their aims.

The United States is not fully into a third Iraq War, but it's important to remember that there students on the verge of entering high school who’ve never known a time when the United States is not at war. Hopefully as decision-makers and the national security establishment will consider what’s next in the Middle East they will recall the staggering economic, political and social costs that continue to reverberate across the nation from the last set of wars in the region.

Imara Jones writes about economic justice for Colorlines.com

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