The Lies, Damned Lies of War – and the Statistics to Prove It

Heidi Peltier Senior Researcher, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University and the Director of the Costs of War Project. Heidi Peltier has been a contributing author to the Costs of War Project since its inception in 2010 and joined the staff in 2019. Peltier is an economist who has written on military-related topics including the employment impacts of military and other public spending; military contracting, or what she calls the “Camo Economy;” and other areas at the intersection of militarism and public finance.  She has also written widely on the employment impacts of a transition to a low-carbon economy, and is the author of the book, Creating a Clean-Energy Economy: How Investments in Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Can Create Jobs in a Sustainable Economy.

I spoke with Heidi by Zoom yesterday.  Here is the edited transcript of the interview.

John Hawkins: You are part of the Costs of War Project at Brown University. Can you say more about the project and what your role has been?

Heidi Peltier: The Costs of War project at Brown University was created in 2010 – a decade after the events of 9/11 — in recognition of the fact that when American citizens are told about the costs of war, we’re not really getting the full price tag from the Department of Defense.  What we hear is really just one slice of war spending. The Costs of War project was created to show that the budget contains a lot more costs than what they tells us, including not only the Pentagon’s war numbers, but also increases to other aspects of the Pentagon, and veterans costs, and homeland security costs, and the interest costs on the debt, and all of that. And then there are also all the non-monetary costs: psychological effects, the political effects, the human rights violations, the environmental effects. And so the Costs of War project was created in order to look at all of these costs specifically related to the post-9/11 wars and get a true assessment at that point. And here we are 20 years later, we finally just exited Afghanistan. So now the project itself is at a strategic moment — what’s next and all of that.

Hawkins: Well, this information is coming to the public from the DOD mediated by the MSM. We don’t appear to be getting the full picture from them. And there’s obviously some kind of partnership between corporate media and the DOD, that’s preventing ordinary people from getting the message. Is there a reason for that? Why aren’t we getting true costs information from the press?

Peltier: Yeah. I mean, there are certainly financial interests that benefit from having high defense spending, political interests that keep defense spending high, whether that’s pro war or pro contractors who are getting a lot of the money spent. And so I don’t think that there’s a lot of public call for this information coming from the media. I don’t know if there’s necessarily any suppression of what gets out. There might be. I just don’t know.

Hawkins: So where is the project drawing its data from? I’m sure that a lot of people are curious about where you get all of these numbers you crunch.

Peltier: Well, most of it is publicly accessible information that we get from different government reports and government websites. With some digging it’s available to anyone. So we get numbers from various DOD websites and databases. We get numbers from, say, USA Spending dot gov.  We use Congressional Research Service information and reports by the Office of Management and Budget. One of the things we do is aggregate all of these various public sources of information into reports or digestible facts in a way that nobody within government is doing. So, for instance, the Congressional Research Service might put out a really valuable report on defense spending or contractor spending or something like that, but it’s not going to make its way to the public. A researcher can find it, and we tend to rely on those kinds of sources.

Hawkins: Something like Steven Aftergood and the Federation of American Scientists site ?

Peltier: Yeah, yeah. That sort of thing. And so one of the services that we offer, as a project, is to comb through all the public data that’s out there and put it together in a way that’s understandable and digestible. But it’s all evidence-based, research-based reporting that.

Hawkins: It’s a fantastic service that you’re offering to the public, but the thing is that some people would argue that even though the information has the strength of being statistic-based, those stats come from an information database, and when you filter through any database you pull up information for specific areas that you want to draw together for a specific purpose. So in this case, the costs of war.  Critics might argue that you’re still applying a kind of political procedure to it — drawing the specific information to bolster an argument. How do you keep your neutrality in the data gathering for a specific question, like the costs of war?

Peltier: When we’re doing the research, we use a peer review process, where we’ll have different people, within the project and outside, read our reports and give us feedback and make sure that we’re being transparent about what we’re doing. We always are very careful to cite all of our sources and, like I said, we use publicly available data so anybody would be able to replicate anything that we do. If they disagreed with our findings, they could go back and see for themselves what they would find. So I think the peer review process is probably the best test for us. And other than that, basically, we’re as neutral as possible.

Hawkins: Okay, great. So, it’s 20 years in now. Over that time, are there a couple of stats, one or two stats that came out of the data, that really stand out – stats that even you, as a senior researcher, were surprised by?

Peltier: It’s the magnitude of military spending when we put it all together. A new update comes out every year, and, according to the most recent estimate, we’ve already spent or obligated $5.8 trillion on the post-9/11 wars. And once we include the future costs for veterans care, that’s at least another 2.2 trillion. So the price tag, as of now, is about $8 trillion for the post-9/11 wars. So that’s a pretty staggering figure.

Another stat that stands out is how much we’re spending on contractors. About half of all military spending, half of DOD spending goes to contractors. And many of those contractors are earning billions of dollars profit on that spending. So the last time I looked at it, the DOD was spending roughly $800 Billion a year and roughly 400 billion was going to contractors that year. We had a paper come out this past year by Bill Hartung, and he found that since 2001, the DOD has spent $14 trillion and about 7 trillion has gone to contractors, and a large chunk of that has gone to the big five (Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman Corp).

Hawkins: Wow. That’s staggering.

Peltier: Exactly. Exactly. And there is a big issue with a lack of oversight and just a lack of transparency with the contracting system in general. This is both true for DOD and other departments. You get to know the prime contractors directly with the department and then they subcontract and further subcontract and you can very quickly lose sight of where the money is flowing. And there was a 2011 congressional report, the Commission on Wartime Contracting, that found about a third of contract spending was lost to waste, fraud, abuse, other types of corruption. And in some cases, that was getting into the hands of the insurgents that we were there to fight. So not just corruption that benefits the contractors themselves, but actually the undermines the mission of the US Army.

Hawkins: How do you expect the project to affect change from legislators who offer up more and more taxpayer money to the Pentagon? You would think that this data would lead to closing the public purse for more spending, but, in actuality, it seems to be going the other way.

Peltier: They do seem to be going the other way. And that’s incredibly disheartening. And it’s one of the big challenges of the project. And, you know, one thing we’ve seen is, even with the end of the post-9/11 wars, military budgets for the next few years are projected to go up. So there’s no decline in sight even before, you know, any assistance to Ukraine, which is a tiny fraction of defense spending, even before any assistance there. You know, the defense budget was projected to go up for the next five years. They are passing budgets that are bigger than what Congress or the president is asking for, or bigger than the DOD or the president is asking for. And, you know, and a lot of that is going to contract. Those who are spending millions and millions of dollars on lobbying. So there is.

Hawkins: Is there a figure on their lobbying?

Peltier: I know that in recent years, the big five tend to spend somewhere in the range of 12, 13, $14 million a year on lobbying. So the last time I looked and this comes from a website called the Open Secrets dot org. And the last time I looked at it, which was probably a few months ago now, corporations like Lockheed and Northrop Grumman and Raytheon were spending somewhere around 12, 13, $14 million a year. For instance, you can look at employees of a company that are making contributions to certain congress people, so that that company will benefit from whatever laws or funding will come their way. And there are certainly corrupt practices as well. But short of corruption, there’s just the ability to pay people to put pressure on Congress to enact legislation that’s favorable to them.

Hawkins: Right.

Peltier: And for us, in order to effect change, I mean, I think we still kind of follow the model that information can change minds. And I know that’s not always true, but we still believe that information can change minds. And one of the things that we do is to try to get our research into the hands of legislators and their staff to let them know. And sometimes they’re surprised. For example, by how much is going to contractors or what the overseas costs are. So that’s one of the lines of research I’ve worked on. Like if we spend $1,000,000 on the military versus on clean energy or infrastructure or health care, how many jobs could we create in one sector versus another? And sometimes showing that research to congress people and their staff is a way to make them aware of something they might not have been aware of in the hopes that they’ll make different decisions. And in the Progressive Caucus, there is a base of congress people interested in shrinking the defense budget. It’s just that that base is not big enough to actually make that change. But the bigger picture, the hope is to keep electing people into Congress who will want and push for smaller military budgets.

Hawkins: Yeah. One cost of war that doesn’t seem entirely addressed by the project is the sociopolitical aspect – what such a constant state of politics revolving around war and security issues does to our world views and decision-making. How it leads to conservatism. Spending money on security rather than on new roads or health care, or that kind of thing. I talked with Andrew Bacevich the other day, and he noted that America no longer even has a two party system. He just calls it a one War Party system. Democrat or Republican — both sides are for war. The trillions of dollars spent.. How can such a diversion of funds away from improving the American standard of living being be addressed by the project?

Peltier: Yeah. One perspective is looking at jobs. So. We’ve done some of that research on the opportunity cost. What are we forgoing by spending this much on war instead of by channeling some of it to climate change mitigation or the clean energy industry, infrastructure, health care or so on? I think that is one place that we can get Democratic support if we have people who are interested in funding education or interested in funding health care. And if the funds aren’t there and yet funding keeps going up for the military, even when we’re technically not at war, there’s sort of a natural place where we’re in some transition or some shift of funds could happen. But one of the ways that the defense industry has been very successful in maintaining its funding is that contractors are spread throughout all the different congressional districts, and even some of the big contractors themselves will locate different plants and different offices in kind of spread throughout the US so that it makes it harder for any congressperson to then cut funds if they know their district is going to be potentially losing money and jobs.

Hawkins: Yeah. Speaking of jobs, another cogent point Bacevich made was how many people are joining the military for a better life they can’t find as civilian. The all-volunteer army is made up of economic desperadoes, in a sense. You know, people joining the army now, for economic security.

Peltier: Yeah, it’s not area that we have yet done, but it’s something we’re looking into doing. Kind of looking at what the occupational and employment crossover is between military jobs versus what other alternatives would be out there for the same levels of skills and education and experience and so on. Because it’s true that the military is an employer that’s basically always willing to hire. And, after the pandemic, you see more employers willing to hire, but they’re not necessarily the jobs people want. And so when you think about the loss of kind of blue collar jobs, manufacturing jobs that were steady and had decent benefits. The question is how to replace those kinds of jobs. An answer that I see is in an industry like clean energy, where there’s going to be demand for more types of clean energy, the need for manufacturing and installation and servicing and all kinds of different occupations. So I see that as something that can compete with or has the possibility of competing with the military. But we’re not there yet. And the military right now is in some sense kind of an employer of last resort, which is what some progressives would think the government should do generally, but not through the military, right?

Hawkins: Yeah. We’re good. Similarly, how can you use the data to help see the long term psychological effects of national security thinking on the people? For instance, it’s well known that 400 million guns are on the loose in America, which is a frightening statistic in itself. Can the accumulation of so much symbolic paranoia, be yet another cost of war that we don’t calculate?

Peltier: Well, certainly so. There are a couple of papers that I can think that relate to that question that have already been published with the project. So one was published in September 2020 – “The Wars Are Here: How the United States’ Post-9/11 Wars Helped Militarize U.S. Police.”  And one of the aspects there is looking at how the military gets rid of some of its old equipment and sells it or donates it to police forces. And now you get these police forces, with tanks and the types of weaponry that are just overkill, no pun intended, for what they need as a police force. And then also, just as you mentioned, just all these extra weapons that are kind of floating around. So that’s one aspect that we’ve looked at: militarization. Another aspect we’re looking at now is just the increase in security state ideation, including surveillance and the attitude change post 9/11, where government surveillance is the norm and it’s “necessary” and we should always “be afraid” and, therefore, you know, we should all subject ourselves to surveillance. So that’s one thing we’re looking at right now.

Another aspect — the psychological aspects of war. We had a paper come out last year, I think it was in June, by Ben Suitt, “High Suicide Rates Among United States Service Members and Veterans of the Post-9/11 Wars.” And that one has gotten a lot of traction in the in the media as we looked at the effects and the various kind of the various channels that lead to mental health and suicide issues among veterans, whether it’s moral injury or traumatic brain injury or just a loss of purpose when they get back. But but I do think so one of the points that you alluded to is this idea that, like, there’s always a risk or a security issue out there for us. And, you know, with 9/11, the government, I think, very much seized on this idea of terror, really promoted this term. It’s the war on terror, the global war on terror, and that we shouldalways be afraid and therefore, anything is justified to keep the nation safe. You know, increased military spending, increased global presence, increased surveillance, all of that.

Hawkins: Yeah. I mean, ‘terrorism’ has sort of replaced ‘communism’ as the abstract noun of choice.  Communism has become so passé. Another potential aspect of war costs is unilateral economic sanctions the US likes to impose on a nation-state as an act of war.  Have folks at the project considered how making the economy scream, as Kissinger would put it, can be added into the cost of war. The famous example, of course, is the late Madeleine Albright’s seeing such sanctions on the Iraqi people that lead to the deaths of a half million children as “worth it” for America to get its way there and ostensibly prevent going in with ground troops. This sort of unilateral sanctions regime is itself a kind of a cost of war that gets added on to as a preliminary to the full out war.

Peltier: We haven’t, as a project, really talked much yet about sanctions or about some of the things you just mentioned. One of our co-directors, Neta Crawford, who’s a political scientist at B.U., co-edited and wrote some of a book a few years ago, How Sanctions Work (1999).  But that was in her role as a political scientist, not as a cost of war project itself. So I don’t have too much to say about that question.

Hawkins: Fair enough. Well, I suppose it may be premature to analyze the real costs incurred in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but what are some of the areas we should be watching as we’re following the events there to gain an understanding of the hidden aspect of what’s happening there?

Peltier: I think some of what’s happening there, that relates to recent work of ours is, number one, how much US contractors are benefiting from this. And you can see that in their stock prices. There’s a quote from the CEO of Raytheon who’s saying this is going to be good for us. And so I think that’s one thing to watch is that contractors and some contractors are benefiting from this and we’ll have no incentive for the US to minimize its intervention. That’s one fear. And if we hear for a push to increase the US presence or involvement in any way, my next question would be, well, who’s benefiting from that? And is this actually the right strategic move or is it just profitable for the people who are going to benefit? Because we know that some of these contractors really do.

You know, one thing I just read yesterday was that some of the some of the equipment and weapon systems that are being sent to Ukraine right now are not coming out of US stockpiles, which they could be, but rather that they are being manufactured newly, which is, you know, not only a waste, but also another way that the contractors are kind of increasing demand for their own products.  And U.S. taxpayers are footing the bill for that. So that’s another concern. And we’ve increased how many troops are stationed overseas. So that increases the budget for the Pentagon, that increases how much the Pentagon is spending, that increases the carbon footprint of the Pentagon.

That’s another consideration and something that over the last couple of years that the project has been looking at — what are the emissions related to the Department of Defense? So these so those are a few of the costs.  And then I guess I would mention refugees and the migration that happens as a result of what’s going on in Ukraine. And there was a paper for the Costs of War, “Creating Refugees: Displacement Caused by the United States’ Post-9/11 Wars,” by David Vine, and some of his colleagues, looking at the millions of refugees that have that became refugees because of US wars and other wars. And this will be another cost that the US might bear some of and might not bear a lot of. But it’s certainly a global cost of the invasion right now.

Hawkins: One last thing. Andrew Bacevich  rightly noted that we lost the Afghanistan war. So 20 years for nothing, all those trillions of dollars down the tubes. And we had a chance, at the end, the silver lining might have been just a chance to sit back, rest for a while, and try to learn from the experience. But here we are right back amping it up with the Ukraine-Russia thing.

Peltier: That’s an astute point he makes: We didn’t even have a chance to kind of sit back and assess what did we do wrong? What could we have done differently? What should we not do next time? And one way we’re seeing it repeated right now is, you know, here’s this this leader [Putin] that we want out and we have to liberate the people who are being killed… So I certainly hope that the US doesn’t end up invading or having military intervention against Russia. I hope that they learned that lesson in Afghanistan. I don’t know if they did.

But, you know, one thing that’s sort of dismaying about the whole thing is even when, and as I mentioned earlier, we knew the war in Afghanistan was over, the budgets for the next five years for the US federal government show defense spending increasing. There is no planned war in the next five years and yet the budget keeps going up for the Department of Defense. It doesn’t even have a small blip downward after the withdrawal from Afghanistan. So that to me says, you know, they were not prepared to learn any lessons from Afghanistan. That’s the part I worry about right now.

The one other thing I’d mention is just this idea that I think has long been in the American consciousness, especially post 9/11, is that we need war spending for the economy. And in a way, it’s been around since after the Second World War that we need these industries that depend on war spending. That war is good for the economy. And I think the when you talk about the psychological effects on the public, I think this is one of the things that has happened is people have been convinced that military spending is not just necessary for national security or for our own security, but that it’s necessary for the economy. And that is a mistake. And I think that’s one of the things that we show at the project, that that is certainly not the only solution to creating jobs or increasing GDP, that there are other industries that can do that. And I think one of our tasks is to kind of dispel that notion in the public mind.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.