Study finds cost of the wars up to $900B

By GIULIA LASAGNI, MEDILL NEWS SERVICE, Written for UPI  |  Oct. 1, 2010 at 9:55 AM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 1 (UPI) -- A new study estimates that the cost for the United States of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will reach about $900 billion over the next 40 years and there's no plan to pay for it.

The study, conducted by Nobel Prize economics laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, was presented Thursday during a hearing at the U.S. House of Representatives Veterans' Affairs Committee.

"The evidence from previous wars shows that the cost of caring for war veterans continues typically to rise for several years and peaks in 30-40 years after a conflict," Bilmes said. "The costs rise over time as veterans get older and their medical needs grow."

In 2008, Stiglitz and Bilmes wrote "The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict." In that study, they assessed the cost of the wars the United States is currently fighting at about $700 billion.

Two years later, however, reality proved quite different.

"As of this month, 5,700 servicemen and women have died and over 90,000 have been wounded in action or injured seriously enough to require medical evacuation," Bilmes said. "A much larger number -- nearly 600,000 -- have already been treated in military facilities."

In 2008, Bilmes and Stiglitz said that between 366,000 and 398,000 veterans would have filed disability benefit claims by 2010. The number is already 513,000.

Bilmes and Stiglitz projected the number of veterans who were going to be diagnosed with mental health problems in the next two years would be 20 percent. In fact, this percentage is 30-40 percent of returning servicemen and women, nearly double the original projection.

The costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan aren't only budgetary, the authors said.

A diminished quality of life, said Bilmes, is common among those who were deployed to war zones. Contractor casualties are another factor that isn't usually taken into account in official estimates of the cost of wars.

"These substantial social costs are not captured in the federal government budget but nevertheless represent a real burden on society," Bilmes said.

Bilmes and Stiglitz projected these extra costs at $295 billion-$400 billion.

"We have no financial plan to meet those obligations," Bilmes said.

The study's authors had suggestions for how to look ahead.

To provide for veterans' needs, Bilmes and Stiglitz recommend creating a Veteran Trust Fund that "would be funded as obligation occurs."

They also encouraged the Department of Veterans Affairs to improve its forecasting system to assess more efficiently which and how many resources veterans will need in 30 years.

The authors said, "The cost of any conflict that persists beyond one year should funded by current taxpayers, through war surtaxes, war bonds and other means."

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