I’m in my mid-30s, which means that, after the 9/11 attacks, when this country went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq in what President George W. Bush called the “Global War on Terror,” I was still in college. I remember taking part in a couple of campus antiwar demonstrations and, while working as a waitress in 2003, being upset by customers who ordered “freedom fries,” not “French fries,” to protest France’s opposition to our war in Iraq. (As it happens, my mother is French, so it felt like a double insult.) For years, like many Americans, that was about all the thought I put into the war on terror. But one career choice led to another and today I’m co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.
Now, when I go to dinner parties or take my toddler to play dates and tell my peers what I do for a living, I’ve grown used to the blank stares and vaguely approving comments (“that’s cool”) as we quickly move on to other topics. People do tend to humor me if I begin to speak passionately about the startlingly global reach of this country’s military counterterrorism activities or the massive war debt we’re so thoughtlessly piling up for our children to pay off. In terms of engagement, though, my listeners tend to be far more interested and ask far more penetrating questions about my other area of research: the policing of Brazil’s vast favelas, or slums. I don’t mean to suggest that no one cares about America’s never-ending wars, just that, 17 years after the war on terror began, it’s a topic that seems to fire relatively few of us up, much less send us into the streets, Vietnam-style, to protest. The fact is that those wars are approaching the end of their second decade and yet most of us don’t even think of ourselves as “at war.”
I didn’t come to the work that’s now engulfed my life as a peace activist or a passionate antiwar dissenter. I arrived circuitously, through my interest in police militarization, during my PhD work in cultural anthropology at Brown University, where the Costs of War Project is housed. Eventually, I joined directors Catherine Lutz and Neta Crawford, who had co-founded the project in 2011 on the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan. Their goal: to draw attention to the hidden and unacknowledged costs of our counterterror wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and a number of other countries as well.
Today, I know—and care—more about the devastations of Washington’s post-9/11 wars than I ever imagined I would. And judging from public reactions to our work at the Costs of War Project, my prior detachment was anything but unique. Quite the opposite: It’s been the essence of the post-9/11 era in this country.
Numbers to Boggle the Mind
In such a climate of disengagement, I’ve learned what can get at least some media attention. Top of the list: mind-boggling numbers. In a counterpoint to the relatively limited estimates issued by the Pentagon, the Costs of War Project has, for instance, come up with a comprehensive estimate of what the war on terror has actually cost this country since 2001: $5.6 trillion. It’s an almost unfathomably large number. Imagine, though, if we had invested such funds in more cancer research or the rebuilding of America’s infrastructure (among other things, Amtrak trains might not be having such frequent deadly crashes).