March 24, 2013 in Opinion

Cost of war marches on

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The 10-year anniversary of the Iraq War is a reminder of the almost cavalier attitude our leaders have about the costs of war. Not just the price of waging combat, but the costs associated with maintaining and rebuilding an invaded country and the ongoing payments to military veterans as decades tick past.

Before the invasion, the threat of Saddam Hussein was played up, and the cost of taking him out was played down. The executive branch low-balled the financial toll and said troops wouldn’t need to stick around very long. During the same year as the invasion, President George W. Bush pushed through a second installment of tax cuts. Taken together with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, those tax cuts will account for half of the nation’s projected debt by 2019, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

But all you hear today from the public relations commandos who promoted war is “Benghazi!” and “Obama deficits!” Where was that careful attention to detail before nearly 4,500 American troops were killed and tens of thousands of others injured?

One of the hidden costs of war is how much the government spends on veterans. An Associated Press analysis found “more than $40 billion a year is going to compensate veterans and survivors from the Spanish-American War from 1898, World War I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the two Iraq campaigns and the Afghanistan conflict. And those costs are rising rapidly.”

Some relatives of Civil War veterans are still receiving payments. Though the Vietnam War ended nearly 40 years ago, payment to those vets is still rising, and the annual amount is twice the FBI’s budget. It took 46 years for payments to World War II vets to peak.

When then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked about the duration of the Iraq War, he said, “Five days or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last longer.”

In fact, our obligation to those who sacrificed will continue throughout this century. That’s something to consider the next time an administration is itching to invade and dismisses the idea that non-uniformed Americans should sacrifice, too.

Some gratitude. One of the oddities of the Iraq War is that the current head of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, was the general who told Congress that “something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would be needed once the invasion portion of the mission was accomplished. Rumsfeld shot down that estimate, saying it would take far fewer troops. Shinseki lost the argument, even though he ended up being right.

But at least he as a chance to help survivors of the war. And how’s that going? The government’s gratitude is missing in action.

The VA is not only overwhelmed by the number of people applying for benefits, it’s doing a miserable job of managing claims. The Center for Investigative Reporting obtained internal agency documents showing that young veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are waiting up to 327 days for their claims to be addressed. Furthermore, the number of veterans waiting more than a year has increased 2,000 percent from 2009 to 2012.

After spending four years and $537 million on a new computer system, CIR found that 97 percent of veterans’ claims remain on paper. The agency sometimes asks applicants to resubmit documents, because that’s easier than looking through the piles of files. This isn’t just an appalling display of bureaucratic bungling, it’s potentially deadly.

On average, 22 veterans commit suicide every day. The lumbering response of the government stands in contrast to the urgency with which it chooses to commit troops and their families to wars that never really end.

Associate Editor Gary Crooks can be reached at garyc@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5026. Follow him on Twitter @GaryCrooks.


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