The True Cost of War

The true cost of war is higher than the materiel consumed and the armed forces casualties, as illustrated by Afghanistan and Iraq examples.

All wars are expensive, in terms of both the financial cost and the effect on people’s lives.  After the two world wars in the 20th century, the United Nations was created to prevent further such incidents – but in the 21st century there have been two major wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and many smaller ones.  Studies of these two wars have shown costs in the trillions of dollars and floods of refugees that represent human misery and political complications.


In answering the question Afghanistan: What has the conflict cost the US and its allies?, a BBC Reality Check quoted a study by Brown University which put the true cost of war in Afghanistan at $2.3 trillion which “includes interest on debt used to finance the war and expenses such as veterans’ care” and “includes spending in Pakistan” (but “because of heavy reliance on a complex ecosystem of defense contractors, Washington banditry, and aid contractors, between 80 and 90 percent of [immediate] outlays actually returned to the U.S. economy,” a Foreign Policy analysis noted).

The human cost was huge.  A Watson Institute report on Afghan Civilians states that “About 241,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan and Pakistan war zone since 2001. More than 71,000 of those killed have been civilians.”  Its figure for Afghan Refugees is 5.9 million, but the full effects of the US departure are yet to be felt.


In a Washington Post article, The true cost of the Iraq war: $3 trillion and beyond, Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes argued that wars create other economic liabilities – which include the costs of government borrowing, the cost of treating injuries and the loss of productive labour.  They calculated that the total cost to the US of the invasion of Iraq will exceed $3 trillion, compared to “the Bush administration’s 2003 projections of a $50 billion to $60 billion war”.

An MIT report, Iraq: the Human Cost, quotes a Lancet report that “650,000 people (civilians and fighters) died as a result of the war in Iraq”.  And according to a Watson Institute report on Iraqi Refugees, nearly 20 years after the invasion, “[a]s of 2021, 9.2 million Iraqis are internally displaced or refugees abroad.”

Wider impact

The above figures exclude some of the wider consequences of the invasion of Iraq, such as the rise of ISIS (7.3.3) – which mounted terrorist incidents in the West and exacerbated numerous conflicts in the Middle East and Africa.


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/7466.htm.