If a war costs trillions of dollars, and no one pays for it, what is its true cost? Since the 9/11 attacks, America has poured $3.2 trillion into its wars, according to a new study from Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. The estimate includes what the U.S. government has spent or pledged to spend through 2016 on homeland security, medical and disability care for wounded veterans, and the military and diplomatic campaigns against terrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria.
When you factor in the interest America owes on the money it has borrowed to finance these wars, the number rises to almost $3.7 trillion. When you add in likely expenses for 2017 and spending obligations to veterans over the next four decades, the total increases to nearly $4.8 trillion.
It’s not just that America’s post-9/11 wars include some of the longest wars in U.S. history. Taken together, they’re also currently the second-most expensive after World World II, though defense spending as a percentage of the U.S. economy is lower today than it was during many previous conflicts.
And for 15 years now, the United States has been putting these wars on a credit card. Past U.S. wars were largely “pay as you go” affairs for which the government raised taxes, slashed non-military spending, borrowed money from the American public by selling war bonds, or chose some combination of these and other options, according to Neta Crawford, the author of the study and a political scientist at Boston University. The George W. Bush administration, by contrast, cut taxes in 2003, engaged in deficit spending after using up a budget surplus that it inherited from the Clinton administration, and sold only a small number of war bonds. (The Obama administration has taken a similar approach, though taxes have risen for people earning more than $400,000.)