The Sunk Costs of War and Terror

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.