Has it been worth it? 3,841 days ago, four airliners were hijacked in a beautiful, blue September sky. Two crashed into Towers 1 and 2 of the World Trade Center. A third slammed into the Pentagon. The fourth was destined for the Capitol Building, but its hijackers plowed it into a Pennsylvania field after passengers charged the cockpit. The United States was traumatized. The September 11th Attacks killed 2,996 individuals and wounded more than 6,000. An estimated 18,000 have developed respiratory conditions after being exposed to dust from the event. The single most destructive, heinous act of terrorism in modern American history shattered our sense of omnipotence and invulnerability. An unprecedented War on Terror was declared. No distinction would be made between individuals who conspired against the United States and those who harbored them.

Every action has a cost. It is unclear whether the horrors of that day, as great as they were, can justify the human cost of the two major military actions undertaken as a result, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. To date the War in Afghanistan has killed 1,824 American troops and wounded 14,793. These numbers will continue to grow, perhaps rapidly, due to backlash from the recent Koran-burning fiasco and the massacre of 17 civilians, mostly children, by a United States Army Staff Sergeant. The Iraq War, which officially ended last year on the fifteenth of December, claimed the lives of 4,487 American troops and wounded 32,226. A further 47,541 were injured or affected by disease or some other medical condition as a direct result of their involvement in the operation. These figures may be incomplete and do not include casualties among military contractors, which particularly in the case of Iraq have been significant.

This is obvious, right? Nothing new, nothing shocking. That is the problem. The deaths on 9/11 were and are a tragedy but the ongoing loss of American life overseas is a statistic. An enemy killed thousands of Americans on American soil and our government reacted by sending roughly three times that number to their deaths. The majority of those deaths occurred in a country with no established connection to al-Qaeda. Actuarial measurement of human lives and deaths against each other is despicable, but I would argue that the numbers are worth considering. American military deaths and casualties have grown beyond the scale of the horror used to justify them, but because they are soldiers, because they are volunteers, because they die on foreign soil, because they have been dying only a few at a time, we apply a different standard.

Every time an American service-member dies, we are told that his or her sacrifice meant something. Yet the value of a sacrifice is measured in what is gained, not what is lost. Loss will always be tragic. War will always be hell. The relevant question is whether we have gained anything in the last decade of fighting. I am not sure what the members of our armed forces are fighting for at this point. Their primary mission has not been the defense of the nation for many years. I do not ultimately fault them. They are given their mission by our political leaders. Although I do not think our political system validly represents the views and interests of the citizenry, its empowerment of our nation’s leaders is still worth considering as well.

Another common hawk refrain is that each sacrifice justifies a renewed commitment to the same cause. This fallacy of sunk cost is even more difficult to accept. As a general principle, avoidable losses are a signal that an actor’s current strategy is sub-optimal. The losses from a preemptive war of choice in Iraq were certainly avoidable. So too most of the American deaths in Afghanistan, more than a decade after the invasion there. These deaths cannot be held up to justify themselves and the prospect of more to come. Sadly, the rhetoric of President Obama, of President Bush before him, and of the non-libertarian candidates seeking the Republican nomination to the Presidency has consistently embodied this backward calculus. We must honor those whose lives have been sacrificed by continuing to sacrifice.

While observing the decimation of Union troops charging up a hill at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Confederate General Robert E Lee is said to have remarked, “It is well that war is so terrible—otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” Our leaders have grown fond of military action as a solution to geopolitical problems and obligations, many of which (such as nation-building) are self-imposed. War’s terrible cost has been forgotten by those who do not bear it.

11 Responses to The Sunk Costs of War and Terror

  1. [...] and, yes, skepticism that allowed us to challenge previous worldviews (why on earth did I support the Iraq War?!) may give us a false sense of comfort and certainty that now, finally, we understand the human [...]

  2. Lois says:

    U.S. foreign policy reminds of the old adage, “cut off your nose to spite your face.” Our economy is in shambles and our citizenry are less healthy with no relief in sight. This is the true cost of the war on terror.

  3. I understand Gale West’s decision to vote for Kunich and Grayson, but I’m going a different path. I refuse to vote ever again in a national election. I do NOT believe in the “two party” system (which is actually one and the same) and I do NOT believe “your vote can make a difference.” I don’t know what we can do to change our present bloodthirsty ways, but I know electing more of the same isn’t it.

  4. sd21 says:

    ‘Every action has cost’, very ‘horrors’ of that date. true. But the clock did not start on 9/11 as you well know mr oh so devious author. Why not asked what caused the horror? Is it the horror that the US with its lap dog ‘israel’ has committed every day for last 60 years in its illegal and brutal occupation of Palestininain lands? Is it the 10 years of bombing and sanctions of Iraq, leading to the death of 1/2 million childen? Is the support for brutal dictaorships all over the middle3 east? Is the carnage and terrorism the US commits on people with use of drones, and other WMD’s in any country not of its liking?

    Finally my friends, it is not even a war in Afghanistan. The Afghanis fighting the imperialist invader has no army, no navy, no airforce, no command. The brave resistance fighters are up against the worlds only super power which cowardly uses all its might, inclusing F16′s, helicopter gunships, depleted urnium, tanks, etc. The resistance fighters are doing a good job despite the odd—they have right on their side–the ameriacans are the invader, the terrorist, and every one knows it.

  5. rosemerry says:

    “The single most destructive, heinous act of terrorism in modern American history” What? You mean the only one ON the USA rather than BY it. How can you even think that this justifies the huge response??
    30000 USans die in vehicle crashes each year. 9/11 is ludicrously overemphasized, as is the “terrorist” threat.

  6. Gale West says:

    I refuse to vote for more of the same murderous revenge, with a tyranny forged pass, to continue illegal wars against smaller nations, without the weaponry to defend themselves. The mental acceptance alone is enough to stifle a clear retrospect about injustice disguised as justice; the war lords support heinous crimes against the natural well being of people throughout the world. Starvation used as an instrument of war as implemented by bush,sr that continues starvation everyday without interruption.

    Liability has replaced liberty until, we the people, stop the leadership for mass murders against innocence. I will vote for Senator Kucinich and Al Grayson. What is the best thing for bush/obama solidarity? Arrest them for who they are and what they’ve done spilling innocent blood: Traitors and serial killers on a very large world-wide

  7. phillip nero says:

    I would like to see ALL war hawks and their eligible kin be the first to be drafted and sent to the front line.

  8. MK Ultra says:

    Oops! And one important aspect I forgot to mention in my first post, then, there’s the other advantage of this War of Terror which has made it possible for Fascism to finally come to Amerika.

  9. MK Ultra says:

    At first glance, this could be categorized as the old “cut your nose to spite your face” adage. However, anyone familiar with the US and its imperialist ways knows that it’s not as simple as it looks/sounds at face value. Yeah, sure, they’ve lost more than they’ve gained but those are losses bore by the working people not the plutocrats in charge. They have amassed fortunes beyond their wildest dreams, from Bush & Cheney all the way to EXXON & Halliburton, it’s been nothing but a dance of billions. And that makes it all worth it since it’s not their blood and treasure that’s at stake.

  10. We challenge you to provide hard evidence that a AA Flight 77, a Boeing 757, crashed into the Pentagon.

    Here’s our evidence to the contrary http://www.twf.org/News/Y2010/0911-Pentagon.html AND to put this in context, please download the free book “9/11 Unveiled” — link at top of this page.

  11. Spot on. Everytime you used “sacrifice” should be changed to wasted.

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