As Taiwan tensions rise and Ukraine conflict drags on, it’s time to reckon with high cost of war
- Whether Ukraine eventually ends up being a loser or a winner, the cost to the country of Putin’s ‘special military operation’ is already catastrophic
- The US$8 trillion price tag and the high death toll of the 20-year conflict in Afghanistan shed light on the cost of a protracted conflict
Rather, it was a time to focus on the tragic cost and stupidity of war. It was a time to remember one of the most painful lessons of history: that, if all costs are considered, even war’s “winners” are invariably net losers, and that the losses of the losers are significantly greater than any gains claimed by the winners.
As the Cato Institute’s John Mueller wrote in his latest book The Stupidity of War: “War has come to seem not only futile, destructive and barbaric, but profoundly stupid.”
Whether Ukraine eventually ends up being a loser or a winner, the cost to the country of Putin’s “special military operation” is already self-evidently catastrophic.
So far, a third of the population has been displaced, thousands are dead, numerous cities have been reduced to rubble, a third of all bridges, roads, railway lines and waterworks have been damaged or demolished, and the cost of rebuilding is expected to be at least US$750 billion – more than four times the country’s 2020 gross domestic product.
As warmongers flex their muscles, it is for the moderate, rational middle to reflect on the appalling cost of war through the centuries and the recent evidence at hand.
The Watson Institute at Brown University in the US calculates that the country has spent around US$8 trillion on wars and defence since the September 11 attacks, more than 10 per cent of the government’s budget, and around half of its discretionary spending.
More than US$1.1 trillion was spent on “homeland security”, almost US$900 billion on “increases to base budget”, and almost US$1.1 trillion on the interest costs of debt servicing.
As the Quaker-controlled Friends Committee on National Legislation recently observed, this US$8 trillion “did not eradicate violent extremism, and it won’t solve today’s emerging threats”.
The Watson Institute calculates the cost of the war in Afghanistan at US$2.313 trillion, with about a quarter of this spent on servicing incurred debts, and more than 10 per cent on “veterans’ care”.
Worst, out of the 243,000 people killed during the conflict, 70,000 were civilians and 78,000 were the US-supported Afghan and Pakistani military. Almost 86,000 Taliban and other opposition fighters were killed, which means civilians and US allies suffered almost two-thirds of the fatalities.
The fruits of such war are sour – not just for the people of Afghanistan, but for the millions of US citizens who would have felt massive benefits from the diversion of those trillions of dollars away from the military.
If analysts are right that, for example, a single Russian Amarta tank costs around US$8 million, and a Kamov helicopter US$15 million, then Putin has already run through an arsenal costing billions.
A 2015 UN report on the price of the Syrian conflict is grim: 220,000 people killed, 3.8 million refugees, a US$202 billion blow to the Syrian economy, and 58 per cent without a job. A quarter of schools had been closed or destroyed, and a half of all hospitals. Life expectancy for a Syrian citizen collapsed from 75.9 years before the conflict to 55.7 years. That is surely a tragic price to pay for supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s “victory”.
One can only pray that Beijing’s bristling leaders are today taking careful note of such appalling figures. And apart from the venerable guidance of Sun Tzu, they might recall Lawrence Wittner, professor emeritus at State University of New York: “A case can be made that it is better for a nation to win a war than to lose it. But perhaps it is time to learn from the world’s tragic blood-stained history that there is a third way: using our intelligence and creativity to solve conflicts without war.”
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view