Whole cost of combat

The head-rolling that’s gone on in the wake of the scandal over poor conditions at the Walter Reed Medical Center is ironic. In the grand scheme of things, the fact that outpatient residential facilities at the famous hospital are dirty and in disrepair—as shameful as it is—is hardly the biggest problem resulting from the United States’ disastrous foray into Iraq.

If anything, the Walter Reed scandal is just a symptom of a much larger problem: the huge number of seriously injured military personnel needing care and the long-term cost of providing that care.

Veterans Administration facilities can’t keep up with the huge influx of patients. Already some 180,000 claims have been filed by veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq theaters, of which 132,000 have been granted, and the number is certain to go up. The VA, which has an excellent recent record, is simply unable to cope with the workload it faces.

The cost is astonishing, both in human suffering and finances. One-fifth of injured veterans suffer from serious brain or spinal injuries or the severing of more than one limb, and another one-fifth from amputations, blindness or deafness, severe burns or other dire conditions. One-third suffer from mental disorders or post-traumatic-stress syndrome.

The numbers are sure to increase. Of the 1.4 million soldiers deployed in the two conflicts, 900,000 are still on active duty. Experience shows that many of them will seek medical help following discharge.

Many of the injured veterans are going to require lifelong care. Most will receive a disability pension for the rest of their lives. According to an article in the respected British newsmagazine New Statesman, Linda Bilme, a former Clinton administration economist, and Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate economist from Columbia University, estimate the medical costs as high as $536 billion.

And that is only a fraction of the mind-boggling financial reckoning that the nation is confronting, the analysts state. Actual combat already has cost more than $400 billion, with Congress now being asked to approve another $235 billion through 2008. Add in what it will cost to replace and replenish the military equipment that has been destroyed or is now in use and the ancillary costs of the war—the deployment of civilians as reservists and the increased cost of oil because of the instability in the region—and you have a total estimated cost of around $2.5 trillion.

What if that money had been spent instead, Bilme and Stiglitz ask, on a Marshal Plan for the Middle East designed to win friends there rather than create enemies? Instead it’s given us a civil war in Iraq, instability in the Middle East, the hatred of people around the world, the deaths of more than 3,000 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis, and a monstrous debt that will take generations to pay off.