On April 6, the hundred year anniversary of the United States’ entrance into World War I, President Trump ordered 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles to be fired at Syria’s Al Shayrat airfield. The strike came after Syrian President Assad’s most recent use of chemical weapons against rebel units and citizens living in opposition-controlled areas. Although officials claim this strike is a “one-off,” as we look back at another war –– one that may seem distant –– many parallels emerge to our current War on Terror, and warn of the danger of sending additional forces into Syria. Americans would do well to remember that wars usually cost more than assumed and that they invariably erode the domestic freedoms that the fighting is supposed to protect.
As any good student of history or economics will tell you, wars are expensive and have long-lasting consequences for decades or even a century. Yet, the start of a conflict is often greeted with a bizarre degree of enthusiasm, only for voters and governments to later realize the terrible price. In 1914, crowds cheered in every European capital as politicians predicted glorious victory that would see the boys home “before the leaves fall.” The war would last until 1918 and cause 41 million military and civilian casualties, about 20 million killed and 21 million injured. Moreover, the financial burden was billions of dollars, leaving the major European powers weakened and in debt. The Great War also hit Americans with a bill that would amount to $334 billion in 2014 dollars. This pattern of underestimating the price of war has repeated itself in subsequent conflicts, including our present day ones.
When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, officials said the war would be short and estimated the cost at no more than $200 billion. Yet mission creep, the phenomenon when military and political objectives of using force keep expanding, set in. With a vaguely-worded authorization for the use of military force passed by Congress, soon the goals and enemies multiplied as the conflict spread across the globe. Including U.S. military involvement in at least five wars: Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. The combined War on Terror has cost at least $3.6 trillion. That rises to $4.79 trillion when requested spending and projected costs are taken into account.
Spending an amount similar to World War II would be alarming enough on its own, but borrowing at such a level when combined with ongoing U.S. entitlement costs is unsustainable. One fact many hawks on the left and right keep ignoring is that the national debt is now greater than America’s GDP and is about to hit $20 trillion.
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