Read more about InAlienable.Support Quixote Center’s InAlienable program!
September 11, 2019
18 years ago today, I was in a bagel shop in College Park, Maryland with my friend Dave watching the world come apart on television. We didn’t say much to each other, we just stared at the T.V. as the twin towers fell and watched the fire rage at the Pentagon not too far away. There was not any sense of immediate danger to us personally, but the deep feeling of unease and overwhelming sadness at the loss of life was suffocating. We left, walked around campus and eventually met up with other grad students. Everyone was in shock. Later that day I had to teach a class. Lots of students at the University of Maryland are from New Jersey and New York. Several of the young folks in my class had not been in touch with family members and were worried. There was no lesson to speak of, just a conversation. What had people heard? What do you think happened? Why? There was already talk of revenge. “What of the risk of killing civilians?” asked a student. “None of them are innocent,” was the reply. One student was cautious. He was not talking about war, but a measured response that treated the act as a crime to be investigated and dealt with accordingly. Bombing another country in response to this would sink us to the level of the terrorists, he said, and probably backfire in the long run.
Classes were cancelled for the rest of the week, and we all settled in to see what came next. Over the last 18 years, as the wars and death tolls have mounted due to the U.S. government response to that day, I have wished many times that this one student had been sitting in the White House instead of my intro to political science class.
In November of last year, the Cost of War project at Brown University reported:
The United States has appropriated and is obligated to spend an estimated $5.9 trillion (in current dollars) on the war on terror through Fiscal Year 2019, including direct war and war-related spending and obligations for future spending on post 9/11 war veterans. This number differs substantially from the Pentagon’s estimates of the costs of the post-9/11 wars because it includes not only war appropriations made to the Department of Defense – spending in the war zones of Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and in other places the government designates as sites of “overseas contingency operations,” – but also includes spending across the federal government that is a consequence of these wars. Specifically, this is war-related spending by the Department of State, past and obligated spending for war veterans’ care, interest on the debt incurred to pay for the wars, and the prevention of and response to terrorism by the Department of Homeland Security.
The current trajectory of costs would lead the total up to $6.7 trillion by 2023.
To put further perspective on this, the U.S. currently has counter-terrorism operations in 80 countries, including a network of bases and training programs. The creators of the map shared above note, “Because we have been conservative in our selections, U.S. efforts to combat terrorism abroad are likely more extensive than this map shows. Even so, the vast reach evident here may prompt Americans to ask whether the war on terror has met its goals, and whether they are worth the human and financial costs.”
What of the human costs? Of the places where U.S. ground troops have been present in significant numbers, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, the total number of direct deaths from combat operations is estimated at between 480,000 and 507,000, including U.S. personnel. Half of those killed are civilians. Indirect deaths, or those who die as a result of collapsing infrastructure, lack of access to health case and so on, are harder to measure. The Geneva Secretariat has argued that the number of indirect deaths in global conflicts can be estimated at 4:1 the number of direct deaths. In just these three countries then, the total number of people who have died as a result of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and parallel fighting in Pakistan, is likely between 2 to 2.5 million.
The conflict in Syria, the invasion of Libya, and the ongoing counter-insurgency campaign in Yemen each represents another tragic episode, with tens of thousands more direct deaths in conflict. Each of these wars has its own domestic roots to be sure, but the overflowing of these fights into regional, and even global alliances at war is directly related to the collapse of the tenuous balance of power that existed in the Middle East prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. That balance of power was itself predicated on support for autocratic and murderous regimes by the U.S. government, and hardly something to be celebrated. But the collapse of Iraq set in motion a process of regional realignment that we are still witnessing - that became a bloodbath.
There are 70 million people displaced in the world today. At least 18 percent of those are from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Syria. As we have written about elsewhere, many of the rest are fleeing conflicts or other circumstances set in motion by the global war on terror.
Was any of this worth it? This is often the question I hear asked - indeed there are polls that indicate 43 percent of U.S. Americans (41 percent of military service members) think we are less safe today than on September 12, 2001. Is that the appropriate measure? National Interest has a very good article from January that surveys impacts of the war on terror, and asks this question. Without giving a direct answer, the author writes,
All of this begs the question: is Washington’s counterterrorism strategy having the desired effect of enhancing the security of Americans? Or is the strategy simply creating more terrorists than it is killing, throwing more taxpayer money down the toilet, and further straining the U.S. military’s limited resources?
We won’t know the answer until President Donald Trump orders his administration to conduct an honest, impartial, whole-of-government appraisal of the current policy. When he does, perhaps Trump will be more likely to overrule his conventional national security advisers who continue to argue for an unconditional and timeless American military commitment in Syria and Afghanistan.
While I have no faith that this administration in particular, or really any other, will conduct an honest, objective appraisal, I might offer a different framework for the question. Is there ANY outcome, or benefit to the United States that is worth the death of close to 3 million people outside our border? What security could ever result from such means? Ever?
On September 12, 2001, the country’s leadership had a choice. They chose badly. An 18 year old honor student in my political science class saw the alternatives, as did many other people who were in the streets within weeks protesting the wars we all saw coming. Sadly too few listened. Nationalism run rampant, fear and loathing of the “other” became the justification for war, and a dramatic shifting of power to an “imperial” presidency.
And yet, the beat goes on. The Pentagon’s budget request is $738 billion for Fiscal Year 2020. How much will be appropriated in the end? Who knows? China’s defense budget is, by comparison, $167 billion. The Department of Homeland Security is requesting $51.7 billion - including provision for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain 54,000 people a day.
For most of the world, September 11 never ends.