When Donald Trump wanted to “do something” about the use of chemical weapons on civilians in Syria, he had the US Navy lob 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield (cost: $89 million). The strike was symbolic at best, as the Assad regime ran bombing missions from the same airfield the very next day, but it did underscore one thing: the immense costs of military action of just about any sort in our era.
While $89 million is a rounding error in the Pentagon’s $600 billion budget, it represents real money for other agencies. It’s more than twice the $38 million annual budget of the US Institute of Peace and more than half the $149 million budget of the National Endowment of the Arts, both slated for elimination under Trump’s budget blueprint. If the strikes had somehow made us—or anyone—safer, perhaps they would have been worth it, but they did not.
In this century of nonstop military conflict, the American public has never fully confronted the immense costs of the wars being waged in its name. The human costs—including an estimated 370,000 deaths, more than half of them civilians, and the millions who have been uprooted from their homes and sent into flight, often across national borders—are surely the most devastating consequences of these conflicts. But the economic costs of our recent wars should not be ignored, both because they are so massive in their own right and because of the many peaceable opportunities foregone to pay for them.
Even on the rare occasions when the costs of American war preparations and war making are actually covered in the media, they never receive the sort of attention that would be commensurate with their importance. Last September, for example, the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute released a paper demonstrating that, since 2001, the United States had racked up $4.79 trillion in current and future costs from its wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, as well as in the war at home being waged by the Department of Homeland Security. That report was certainly covered in a number of major outlets, including The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, and US News and World Report. Given its importance, however, it should have been on the front page of every newspaper in America, gone viral on social media, and been the subject of scores of editorials. Not a chance.