War is Hell, But
What the Hell Does it Cost?
One Week at War in Iraq and
Afghanistan for $3.5 Billion
By William D. Hartung
War is hell -- deadly,
dangerous, and expensive. But just how expensive is it?
In a recent interview, Nobel
Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz asserted that the
costs of the Iraq war -- budgetary, economic, and societal
-- could reach
That's a hard number to
comprehend. Figuring out how many times $5 trillion would
circle the globe (if we took it all in one dollar bills)
doesn't really help matters much, nor does estimating how
many times we could paper over every square inch of Rhode
Island with it. The fact that total war costs could buy six
trillion donuts for volunteers to the Clinton, Obama,
McCain, and Huckabee campaigns -- assuming a bulk discount
-- is impressive in its own way, but not all that meaningful
either. In fact, the Bush administration's war costs have
already moved beyond the human scale of comprehension.
But what if we were to try
another tack? How about breaking those soaring trillions
down into smaller pieces, into mere millions and billions?
How much, for instance, does one week of George Bush's wars
Glad you asked. If we
consider the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan together -- which
we might as well do, since we and our children and
grandchildren will be paying for them together into the
distant future -- a conservative single-week estimate comes
to $3.5 billion. Remember, that's per week!
By contrast, the whole
international community spends less than $400 million per
year on the International Atomic Energy Agency, the
primary institution for monitoring and preventing the spread
of nuclear weapons; that's less than one day's worth of war
costs. The U.S. government spends just $1 billion per year
securing and destroying loose nuclear weapons and
bomb-making materials, or less than two days' worth of war
costs; and Washington spends a
of just $7 billion per year on combating global warming, or
a whopping two weeks' worth of war costs.
So, perhaps you're
wondering, what does that $3.5 billion per week actually pay
for? And how would we even know? The Bush administration
submits a supplemental request -- over and above the more
than $500 billion per year the Pentagon is now receiving in
its official budget -- to pay for the purported costs of the
wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and for the Global War on
Terrorism (GWOT). If you can stay awake long enough to read
the whole 159-page document for 2008, it has some
For example, to hear the
howling of the white-collar warriors in Washington every
time anyone suggests knocking a nickel off administration
war-spending requests, you would think that the weekly $3.5
billion outlay is all "for the troops." In fact, only 10% of
it, or under $350 million per week, goes to pay and benefits
for uniformed military personnel. That's less than a quarter
of the weekly $1.4 billion that goes to war contractors to
pay for everything from bullets to bombers. As a slogan,
insisting that we need to keep the current flood of military
outlays flowing "for Boeing and Lockheed Martin" just
doesn't quite have the same ring to it.
You could argue, of course,
that all these contracting dollars represent the most
efficient way to get our troops the equipment they need to
operate safely and effectively in a war zone -- but you
would be wrong. Much of that money is being wasted every
week on the wrong kinds of equipment at exorbitant prices.
And even when it is the right kind of equipment, there are
often startling delays in getting it to the battlefield, as
was the case with advanced armored vehicles for the Marine
But before we get to
equipment costs, let's take a look at a week's worth of
another kind of support. The Pentagon and the State
Department don't make a big point -- or really any kind of
point -- out of telling us how much we're spending on
gun-toting private-contract employees from companies like
Blackwater and Triple Canopy, our "shadow army" in Iraq, but
we can make an educated guess. For example, at the high end
of the scale, individual employees of private military firms
make up to
10 times what many U.S. enlisted personnel make, or as
much as $7,500 per week. If even one-tenth of the 5,000 to
6,000 armed contract employees in Iraq make that much, we're
talking about at least $40 million per week. If the rest
make $1,000 a week -- an extremely conservative estimate --
then we have nearly $100 million per week going just to the
armed cohort of private-contract employees operating there.
Now, let's add into that
figure the whole private crew of non-government employees
operating in Iraq, including all the cooks, weapons
technicians, translators, interrogators, and other
private-contract support personnel. That combined cost
probably comes closer to $300 million per week, or almost as
much as is spent on uniformed personnel by the Air Force,
Army, Navy, and Marines.
By one reliable estimate,
there are more contract employees in Iraq alone -- about
180,000 -- than there are U.S. troops. There are thousands
more in Afghanistan. But since many of these non-military
employees are poorly paid subcontract workers involved in
cooking meals, doing laundry, and cleaning latrines, the
total costs for the services of all private-contractor
employees in Iraq probably runs somewhat less than the costs
of the uniformed military. Hence our estimate.
So, if $650 million or so a
week is spent on people, where does the other nearly $3
billion go? It goes for goods and services, from tanks and
fighter planes to fuel and food. Most of this money ends up
in the hands of private companies like Boeing, Lockheed
Martin, and the former Halliburton subsidiary, Kellogg,
Brown and Root.
The list of weapons and
accessories paid for from our $3.5 billion is long and
$1.5 million for M-4
carbines (about 900 guns per week);
$2.3 million for machine guns (about 170 per week);
$4.3 million for Hellfire missiles (about 50 missiles per
$6.9 million for night vision devices (about 2,100 per
$10.8 million for fuel per week;
$5 million to store and transport that fuel per week;
$14.8 million for F-18E/F fighter planes per week (one every
$23.4 million for ammunition per week;
$30.7 million for Bradley fighting vehicles (10 per week).
And that's only a very
partial list. What about the more mundane items?
"Laundries, showers, and
latrines" cost more than $110,000 per week;
"Parachutes and aerial delivery systems" cost $950,000 per
"Runway snow removal and cleaning" costs $132,000 per week;
Flares cost $50,000 per week.
Some of these figures, of
course, may cover worldwide military operations for the U.S.
armed forces. After all, by sticking the acronym GWOT in the
title of any supplemental war-spending request, you can cram
almost anything into it.
Then there are the sobering
figures like: $2.4 million per week for "death gratuities"
(payments to families of troops killed in action) and $10.6
million per week in "extra hazard pay."
And don't forget that all
the death and destruction lurking behind these weekly
numbers makes it that much harder to get people to join the
military. But not to worry, $1 million per week is factored
into that supplemental funding request for "advertising and
recruitment" -- not enough perhaps to fill the ranks, but at
least they're trying.
Keep in mind that this only
gives us a sense of what we do know from the public Pentagon
request; there's plenty more that we don't know. As a start,
the Pentagon's breakdown of the money in its "emergency"
supplemental budget leaves huge gaps.
Even your own congressman
doesn't know for sure what is really in the U.S. war budget.
What we do know is that the Pentagon and the military
services have been stuffing more and more projects that have
nothing to do with the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, or
even the war on terror, into those war supplementals.
Layered in are requests for
new equipment that will take years, or even decades, to
build and may never be used in combat -- unless the Iraq war
really does go on for another century, as John McCain
recently suggested. These "non-war" items include
high-tech armored vehicles and communications devices for
the Army as well as new combat aircraft for the Air Force.
Even though these systems
may never be used on our current battlefields, they are war
costs nonetheless. If they weren't inserted into the
supplemental requests for Iraq and Afghanistan, they might
never have been funded. After all, who wants to vote against
a bill that is allegedly all "for the troops," even if it
includes weapons those troops will never get?
These add-ons are not small
change. They probably cost in the area of $500 million per
Given all of this, it may
sound like we have a fair amount of detail about the costs
of a week of war. No such luck. Until the "supplemental"
costs of war are subjected to the same scrutiny as the
regular Pentagon budget, there will continue to be hundreds
of millions of dollars unaccounted for each and every week
that the wars go on. And there will be all sorts of money
for pet projects that have nothing to do with fighting
current conflicts. So don't just think of that $3.5 billion
per week figure as a given. Think of it as $3.5 billion… and
Doesn't that make you feel
William D. Hartung is the
director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the
New America Foundation.
He is the author of And Weapons for All (Harper
Collins, 1994) and How Much Are You Making on the War,
Daddy? A Quick and Dirty Guide to War Profiteering in the
Bush Administration (Nation Books, 2004). His
commentaries on military and economic issues have appeared
in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles
Times, Newsday, and the Nation magazine.
[Source Note: Readers
who want to check out the latest Department of Defense
supplemental request for war-fighting funds can
click here (PDF file) and read, "FY 2008 Global War on
Terror Pending Request" from the Office of the Secretary of