THE COSTS OF WAR by Bob Meroney

“The cost of war in human lives is constantly spread before me, written neatly in many ledgers whose columns are gravestones.  I am deeply moved to find some means or method of avoiding another calamity of war.”                                                                                            General George C. Marshall, Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, 1953.[1]

War is sometimes a tool for nations to achieve a goal by imposing their will on other nations.  War-winning nations impose their will on the losers and weaker nations.  Of course, there are multiple costs of war:  human lives, financial debt, environmental destruction, psychological health, and social disarray.  But others would argue that there are advantages and profits to war:  economic wealth, technological advancement, acquisition of land and resources, international power and prestige, and national pride and patriotism.  Sometimes war is argued to be the only solution to a bad peace:  ending slavery, thwarting Nazism, or removing a feudal system or an abusive authoritarian regime.  Thus, there appear to be both advantages and disadvantages to war.  War is always bad, even an obscenity, but we persist in the savage belief that we must occasionally, at least, settle our arguments by killing one another in a “just” war.[2]

All to often we conclude that war is the “better” solution, but, usually, we have not considered the full costs of a war declaration.  Let’s take a moment to consider “the costs of war.”

The Economic and Financial Costs of War 

When we consider the US involvement in war around the globe, we usually assume that the consequences will be favorable, that the costs are acceptable, and that the wars are better than the alternatives.  Real numbers challenge these assumptions.  The Costs of War Project at Brown University has detailed statistics concerning the impacts of US involvement in military operations around the world:[3]

  • War and defense policies are costing the US more than we realize:  ~60% of our annual discretionary budget, more than $5.9 trillion or $23,300/taxpayer since 2001,[4]
  • Military spending impacts the US gross domestic product (GDP) growth negatively, and underlies macroeconomic instability and low growth during the last decade,[5]
  • War is extremely costly in the long-run in terms of democracy and freedom, rarely are democratic principles strengthened by war, (e.g. consider countries where we have intervened such as Nicaragua, Haiti, Libya, Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myra-mar, Israel, Algeria, Somalia, Sudan, Congo, etc. etc.)  In many cases economic collapse and recession followed wars in these lands.[6]
  • The US military-industrial complex is the world’s largest arms manufacturer with exports of $10 billion/year; thus, supplying about half of all arms in the world,
  • The US is over-extended in terms of its bases, military training, and direct military action with 40 military bases or outposts, 65 training programs, 26 military exercises, 14 direct action or combat operations, and 7 air and drone strike operations in over 80 countries,[7]
  • Even if we dropped all US war and defense commitments immediately, future interest payments on past wars will add more than $7.9 trillion to the national debt, and
  • The costs of war are likely to destabilize the United States economy.[8]

Neil Crawford, Co-Director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University summarizes his

concerns by noting that “high costs in war and war-related spending pose a national security

concern because they are unsustainable. The public would be better served by increased

transparency and by the development of a comprehensive strategy to end the wars and deal

with other urgent national security priorities.”

Costs in Human Lives of War 

In 1953 Raymond Dart hypothesized that violence is a fundamental part of human psychology and that mankind’s instincts are rooted in his evolution from the “killer ape.”  Perhaps that explains why during the past 3400 years humans have been at peace during only 268 years, or just 8 percent of recorded history.[9], [10], [11]  Today, combined world armed forces is about 21.3 million people, and the United States has about 1.4 million in active peacetime service.

  • It is estimated that ~108 million soldiers died in the 20th century, and over all history ~1 billion died from war which is about 1% of all human life until today,
  • Combat deaths for Americans since 1775 are over ~666,000 and another 674,000 died during training, injury and from disease.[12], [13]
  • Typically, US fighters inflict about 10 to 20 times higher casualties on the enemy than it suffers itself, so US fighters may have inflicted injuries on another 27 million people.

Environmental Effects of War 

Air, water and soil are affected by wartime activities.  Weapon destruction, oil field spills and fires, and chemical spraying impact both plants, wildlife and humans.  A list of war related factors affecting the environment would include:

  • Unexploded ordinance and land mines,
  • Agent Orange and other defoliates,
  • Nuclear armaments testing, dispersal of Strontium 90,
  • Fossil fuel use, green house emissions, (oil spill by Iraqi forces in 1991 into the Persian Gulf during Gulf War was the world’s largest spill),
  • Land and resource use and damage, population displacement,
  • Fires, oil field fires, building fires, (WW2 urban destruction in Hamburg and Dresden, Germany; Tokyo, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Japan), and
  • Additional climate change induced by war activities.[14]

Psychological and Social Costs of War   

It is known that conflict situations can cause more mortality and disability than any major disease. Wars destroy communities, families, and health infrastructure.  They can damage the social and economic fabric of nations.  Death as a result of wars can be considered only the “tip of the iceberg.”  Wars affect both the mental health of soldiers, civilians and refugees.  Consider,

  • Effect on soldiers and their families,
    • 68% suffer depression, 72% see anxieties, 42% see PTSD, and
    • The WHO estimated that, in the situations of armed conflicts throughout the world, “10% of the people who experience traumatic events will have serious mental health problems and another 10% will develop behavior that will hinder their ability to function effectively. The most common conditions are depression, anxiety and psychosomatic problems such as insomnia, or back and stomach aches”.
  • Refugees and population displacement,[15]
    • As of 2018 there were 68 million people forcibly displaced out of their home country,
    • As of 2018 there were 42 million people displaced internally in countries,
    • Children make up 50% of refugees, and
    • Asylum seekers as of 2016 were 3 million.

Possible Alternative Investments in Peace Rather Than War 

One might paraphrase the old weather quote to “Everybody talks about war (the weather), but nobody does anything about it.”[16]  Let’s end this war costs discussion with several alternate suggestions on how to avoid national confrontations leading to war.  Any alternative is likely to be less costly.

  • Support multinational organizations like the United Nations to negotiate between conflicting states,
  • Hold an international peace conference among all parties emphasizing restorative justice principles,[17]
  • Offer aid and support to nonviolent movements, humanitarian aid, economic and technological support that can reduce fiscal or resource tensions that often initiate conflict,[18] and
  • Create a nonviolent international civilian peace force of trained arbitrators and negotiators. The peace force would provide witnesses that could testify concerning human abuses and could also open safe spaces for discussion.[19]


“For how many thousands of years now have we humans been what we insist on calling “civilized?” And yet, in total contradiction, we also persist in the savage belief that we must occasionally, at least, settle our arguments by killing one another.  While we spend much of our time and a great deal of our treasure in preparing for war, we see no comparable effort to establish a lasting peace. Meanwhile, emphasizing the sloth in this regard, those advocates who work for world peace by urging a system of world government are called impractical dreamers. Those impractical dreamers are entitled to ask their critics what is so practical about war.”                                                                                                                                                                             Walter Cronkite address at UN, 1999[20]

[1] General Marshall was the architect of the Marshall Plan that helped to rebuild Europe after WW II as a safeguard for peace into the future. America gave $12 billion (nearly $100 billion is 2016 dollars) in economic assistance to rebuild Wester European economies after the war (1948-1952).

[2] Others like Quakers, Mennonites and Buddhists have held to a strictly pacifist position in all circumstances.


[4] Figures do not include costs to state and local governments for caring for veterans, donations of equipment to other countries, and costs for American presence outside of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and the US in 75 other countries.


[6] War is also extremely costly morally and emotionally to the perpetrators for twisted excuses for military intervention often have been hidden, amoral, violent and contrary to publicly espoused positions.


[8] Paul Kennedy (1989), The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, argues that great nations tend to steadily overextend themselves with repeated conflicts and become militarily top-heavy for a weakening economic base.

[9] War is defined here as an active conflict that has claimed more than 1,000 lives.





[14] See Rotary Peace Builder Newsletter No. 15, November 2018.



[17] E.g. This is a tried-and-true solution that resolved the wars in Southeast Asia through the Paris Conference on Cambodia (1989), and in the Balkans through the Dayton Peace Agreement (1995).

[18] E.g. The Indus Waters Treaty (1960) resulted in the construction of the Tarbela Dam which was built to compensate Pakistan for the loss of head waters diverted by India for its own consumption.  Multinational and World Bank aid for this project in 1960 and again for an extension in 2012 forestalled an incipient war between Pakistan and India over water resources.



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