The Costs of War

When the rich wage war, its the poor who die” (Jean-Paul Sartre)

Great is the guilt of an unnecessary war” (John Adams)

Older men declare war, but it is the youth that must fight and die” (Herbert Hoover)

“War, h’uh
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothin uh-huh, uh-huh
War, h’uh
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothin”   (Edwin Starr)

Since 1776 when America declared our independence we have been at war 225 of our 242 years. That means we have been at war 93% of our history. During the last 100 years America has sent more than 39 million of our citizens to fight in foreign wars and at least 630,000 did not come home alive. Another 1.2 million came home seriously injured. Author Craig Biddle accurately summarizes the experience for those who died or were injured:

Each of these Americans was or is a real person with real values, goals, dreams, loved ones. Each experienced his or her body in some way being violated, impaled, crushed, blown up, or torn apart. The families and friends of each have suffered a kind of pain for which there are no words. General W. T. Sherman famously said war is Hell. But war is worse than Hell. War is real, and it destroys people’s lives.”

As a society we often get so caught up in “who won” a particular war that we forget the real questions such as how many people died or were displaced and how much money was spent.

Here are a few facts about America’s most recent wars:

  • Since the 9/11 attacks in 2001 America has spent more than $5.6 trillion (yes, with a “t”) fighting wars abroad, primarily in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. At current interest rate projections that $5.6 trillion will add another $7.9 trillion to the U.S. debt by 2056.
  • Approximately 10.1 million Afghans, Iraqis, and Pakistanis have been displaced from their homes since 2001. At least 200,000 civilians have died as a direct result of these conflicts, and that is a VERY conservative estimate. Almost 400,000 people (including military personnel, etc.) have died. Several groups actually estimate the death toll at 1.3 million.
  • Every hour Americans pay $2.25 million to cover medical expenses for veterans who have waged our war on terror in those and other countries. The total cost at this point is almost $290 billion.
  • Every hour we also pay about $10 million on the interest on war debt incurred since 2001.

What about other wars?

  • World War I took the lives of about 9 million soldiers (116,500 were Americans) and 12 million civilians. Another 21 million soldiers were wounded.
  • In World War II more than 405,000 American soldiers died. A total of approximately 60 million people died, 2/3 of whom were civilians. 
  • The Vietnam war took the lives of at least 58,200 American soldiers, 1.1 million North Vietnamese fighters, and up to 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers. It is possible as many as 2 million civilians died.
  • Approximately 5 million people, half of whom were civilians, died during the relatively brief Korean War. Almost 40,000 Americans died and 100,000 were wounded.


  • During the seven year civil war in Syria a half million Syrians have died and another 11.7 million have been forced from their homes. Most of the dead were civilians.
  • Thanks to the war about 50% of Syrian school-age children are currently not in school.
  • By the end of 2014 the unemployment rate in Syria had reached 57%. Compare that to an American unemployment rate of about 4%.


  • In 1994 almost 1,000,000 members of the Tutsi community were slaughtered in 100 days by ethnic Hutu extremists. Neighbors killed each other and even some Hutu husbands slaughtered their Tutsi wives to avoid being killed themselves. Thousands of innocent Tutsi women were kidnapped and forced into sex slavery.

Any other depressing statistics?

  • Yes. But I think I’ve made my point.

The reasons humans go to war are too numerous to list. Wars are fought over territory, religious differences, socioeconomic factors, conflicting ideologies, economic gain, revenge, nationalism, to bolster a political leader’s popularity with voters, and for countless other reasons.

Although the causes of war are often unclear one fact is almost universally true: those choosing to wage the war are probably not the ones most directly harmed by it. The poor, the disenfranchised, women and girls, and children suffer disproportionately. In general, war is waged by folks from the more privileged classes and they tend to suffer the least.

President and former general Dwight D. Eisenhower said it best:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense.”

But military expenditures are great for corporations that provide equipment, munitions, and military-related services to the government. In fact the United States Government spends about $600 billion per year on military and weapons technology. In 2015 that consumed about half of all federal discretionary spending. Lockheed-Martin, consistently the top beneficiary of such spending sold the government more than $36 billion in equipment that year. Expenditures on war and war machinery mean less money government has available to spend on education, infrastructure, and social programs.

War causes civilians to suffer in other ways. Unlike in the old days when soldiers from opposing armies just lined up and charged each other thus killing lots of soldiers but almost no civilians, modern warfare uses techniques that do not differentiate between killing soldiers and killing civilians. During the two world wars, for example, wide-scale bombing was employed against military-related targets but “collateral damage” (civilian deaths) became the norm. The same is true of current bombings in Syria and other countries. Notice that in all the statistics provided above civilians died in higher numbers than did soldiers.

And soldiers obviously suffer. Many suffer permanent physical damage to their bodies, but it has long been recognized that exposure to the violence of war also has a permanent impact on the psychological well-being of many soldiers. The U.S. military recognizes this reality and provides a number of treatment options for those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after seeing combat.

I’m not naive. I understand the need for military and I know that at times countries are placed in situations making it difficult to avoid war. However, I also know that nations sometimes (often?) go to war using flimsy evidence or other questionable motives.

Can war be avoided in contemporary society? Probably not unless we could somehow pass a universal law requiring the political leaders themselves and their families to be active combatants. I really doubt most leaders would declare war if they personally had to actually fight!

I apologize for getting you to this point and not having concrete solutions. The literature on war’s causes and ideas regarding how to avoid it is extensive but inconclusive; there are just too many variables and too many different reasons war erupts. I can offer a few ideas to consider, however.

  • Pay attention. Don’t get drawn in by the sword rattling of political leaders who try to convince us that war is unavoidable.
  • Begin electing more women to political power. It is almost universally true that men start wars and display greater aggressive behavior than do women. Men are more likely to commit crimes and engage in cruel behavior than are women. It is time to begin turning control of the planet over to women. Providing education for girls throughout the world is essential.
  • Promote democracy and capitalism. Countries guided by principles of freedom, individual rights, and economic competition rarely go to war with each other. Instead they tend to cooperate because of trade advantages.
  • Find ways to reduce the gap between rich and poor throughout the world. Although many groups claim religion as their cause for violence the truth is that many of these young men are poor and disenfranchised and see no hope for the future.

I keep hoping for a global shift in consciousness that would not tolerate war, but I’m a child of the 60’s. I do believe that, like slavery, war was invented by humans and enlightened societies can eliminate or at least minimize it.

If you’ve followed my blog you know that I’m a dreamer.