Catherine Lutz: “magical thinking” and the costs of war

Catherine Lutz delivers her conservative Costs of War accounting in a calm teacherly tone, but her reckoning is nothing short of outrageous: it was a 5 Trillion Dollar War after all, this ten-year response to 9/11. She is counting, on top of the direct military allocations, something like a trillion for the lifetime care of American service men and women injured in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan; and probably another trillion in interest on a credit-card war, financed without war taxes or even a pretense of shared sacrifice. She is not counting the war damages our force inflicted on invisible, mostly innocent villages and families under our guns. She is not counting the “opportunity cost” in jobs, profits, and sustainable growth in the US if the war investment had gone to the basics of a modern economy, like science, education, and infrastructure.

The multiples in relation to the World Trade Center attacks are astonishing. The ratio of war dead over ten years to the 3000 lives lost on September 11, 2011 is more than 80 to 1. The dollar ratio is grotesque. If indeed the satanic Osama bin Laden was calculating a pin-point assault to provoke an enfeebling, self-ruinous fit of reaction, his payoff in a $5-trillion war to answer his $500,000 attack was 10-million to 1.

‘It’s phenomenal,” notes Lutz, though she is keeping her professorial cool. “One could talk about over-reaction to 9/11. But I think we also have to talk about what the Iraq War was all about. We know that it had nothing to do with 9/11 — that 9/11 was the pretext for that invasion. So all of the lost lives and dollars for Iraq were not even intended as remedy. But we have to ask ourselves: how did that happen, and how does it continue to happen?”

Catherine Lutz, the Brown University anthropologist, with Neta Crawford of Boston University and Linda Bilmes of Harvard, led a score of scholars in tabulating what the government and the loyal opposition might have been arguing about over the last decade — what the networks and newspapers should have been clarifying. War “without a scorecard” has hardened us to a cruel, fruitless succession of imperial campaigns that, despite the evidence, reinforce a heedless faith in the war remedy. At the ten-year mark, Professor Lutz is saying, we are overdue for a public conversation “about our overestimation of the utility of force. We could talk about why we believe force works. I think there’s a kind of magical thinking in this. People assume that if something bad didn’t happen to us, it must be because we deployed force in the Middle East. That doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. There’s no good evidence that any significant part of that investment panned out.”

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  • nother

    It is refreshing to hear a reasoned and researched take on the costs of war. I was surprised however that Ms. Lutz did not mention the elephant in the room – she did not talk about oil in her calculations. In his 2007 memoir Alan Greenspan wrote: “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil,”

    Ms Lutz mentions the figure two and 1/2 trillion as a true cost but the hawks would tell us that is only a fraction of the cost we would entail if we lose our influence in the petroleum industry. About 80% of the world’s readily accessible reserves are located in the Middle East and 24% of the oil consumed in 2004 went to the United States alone.

    Ms. Lutz says that we went to war with a “very quick impulse and very little information.” Again I don’t think she gives these guys enough credit, the neocons were laying the groundwork for this for years and they (still) believe they have the long view. Their cost/benefit ratio is different from ours. If we are to reveal the DNA of this misbegotten doctrine we must confront their “benefit” side of the equation head on.

    Anyway my solution has been and will always be to send the war hawks to Brazil for Carnival.
    “Why fight?” Batista said. “With all the pleasures, beach and sun. War? Forget it. Soccer? Let’s watch a soccer game. Let’s go to the beach. Let’s drink a beer.”
    – Eike Batista (Brazilian tycoon in an interview with Steve Kroft from 60 min for the segment “Brazil: The world’s next economic superpower?”)

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  • Potter

    Condoleeza Rice is still saying that the Iraq war was necessary on her book tour. Such nerve.

    The questions -why don’t we know these figures now? Why don’t we (as a country) collect this information for the future, to learn from it? What were the true costs? What are the benefits that we are getting from all of this war spending? Why do we knee-jerk try to solve problems (even before considering them fully) through military action? What is this government, this leadership, that we have that can make a decision to take us to war so impulsively with very little consideration before, and now after, about the full costs and consequences? Who is paying the price? Who will pay the price? We should, I can only, keep repeating some of these questions. Keep broadcasting the astonishing figures… don’t bury this page.

    I venture a guess why an anthropology professor and her colleagues are left to do this and this is not going to be done by John Kerry and not for a long long time here formally and honestly in this country, if ever, by our government: the answers to these questions are devastating. This makes us all complicit, but especially the Bush and Cheney administration. You would have to add to these costs, the cost of reparations (which I never considered but we would owe) including cost to every soldier sent to a war unnecessarily. This would make raising a future (motivated) army very hard. Why would anyone join if they knew that they could be sent to such wars? Today, military families and many others, ordinary citizens, still believe that we went to war because we had to, for freedom (!). This, they still say. They can’t face knowing. They can’t face such sacrifice made in vain. They cannot face how our government has been corrupted.

    So we cannot be accountable to ourselves.

    If we answered the questions rationally and honestly we would be forced to pay endless reparations to countries and to individuals- including perhaps even to soldiers sent into war unnecessarily. These vested interests in war have a hold on our President and our government.

    It was such a disappointment to hear Obama say that we must turn the page. This was, for me, his first cowardly act.

  • Potter

    From– BBC transcript: President Obama Iraq speech

    (picture of )US President Barack Obama addresses returning troops at Fort Bragg, North Carolina

    BBC intro to the full text: US President Barack Obama has given a speech at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, hailing the nation’s military as the operation in Iraq is brought to a close.

    My clips:

    Because of you, we’ve begun a transition to the Afghans that will allow us to bring our troops home from there. And around the globe, as we draw down in Iraq, we have gone after al-Qaeda so that terrorists who threaten America will have no safe haven and Osama bin Laden will never again walk the face of this Earth.

    It was a special forces operation run by the CIA as Catherine Lutz points out.

    regarding wars in Iraq and Afghanistan….

    …..So here’s what I want you to know and here’s what I want all our men and women in uniform to know: because of you we are ending these wars in a way that will make America stronger and the world more secure. Because of you.

    That success was never guaranteed. And let us never forget the source of American leadership: our commitment to the values that are written into our founding documents and a unique willingness among nations to pay a great price for the progress of human freedom and dignity.

    This is who we are. That’s what we do as Americans, together.

    The war in Iraq will soon belong to history. Your service belongs to the ages.

    Never forget that you are part of an unbroken line of heroes spanning two centuries – from the colonists who overthrew an empire, to your grandparents and parents who faced down fascism and communism, to you – men and women who fought for the same principles in Fallujah and Kandahar and delivered justice to those who attacked us on 9/11.

    Looking back on the war that saved our union, a great American, Oliver Wendell Holmes, once paid tribute to those who served.

    “In our youth,” he said, “Our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing.”

    All of you here today have lived through the fires of war. You will be remembered for it. You will be honoured for it, always.

    You have done something profound with your lives. When this nation went to war, you signed up to serve. When times were tough, you kept fighting. When there was no end in sight, you found light in the darkness.

    And years from now your legacy will endure in the names of your fallen comrades etched on headstones at Arlington and the quiet memorials across our country; in the whispered words of admiration as you march in parades and in the freedom of our children and our grandchildren….

    We will be gone before there is accountability from the government, if ever. Notice how both wars are connected to 9/11 by Obama.

  • The Parrot

    Thank you Catherine & Chris. Superb discussion. Putting karma aside (impossible task, and yet …) is there any quantitative/qualitative benefit from oil ‘access’ due to regime change? That is, if ‘we’ have actual ‘access’? Any sort of ‘peace’ dividend? Putting Bush/Cheney double talk aside, these conflicts always seemed to me to be largely about oil and ‘our’ access to it. The ‘we’ and ‘our’ denote market economy’s that exercise hegemonic domination at a global scale (the players are not simply the U.S. and it’s posse).

    Regarding the pigs-at-a-full-trough syndrome: the pigs won’t leave and will demand a steady-state of goodies in the trough. Status quo must be maintained for any profiteering stakeholder to achieve expected ROI. For such stakeholders, there is no moral nor ethical dimension, it’s bottom-line, cost-benefit, risk management, and ceasing opportunities for profits. In short, the code of the bean-counter + investment class.

    Neocons/conservatives are Keynesian’s when it comes to war. One can allow one’s government to spend its future capital on current security interests (or the psychological appearance of security). I can imagine a supply-side argument to support U.S. policies. That is, war (of any scale apparently) is not only economically feasible, but productive and raises all boats as the productiveness trickles down. Or, as J.K. Galbraith describes it “‘If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.”

    Will we learn anything from these conflicts? I’m not optimistic, but I must cling to hope. Will we do this again? Yes. We’ve seen these types of global exercises before, we’re seeing them now, we’ll see them in the future. It seems implausible that an entity such as the U.S. which spends tremendous capital resources on it’s military, views it as an asset and not a liability, won’t use such it in the future. The spending will constantly nag it’s justification.

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