Thursday, May 3, 2007

Costs of War - It Ain't Cheap

I support the troops. But George W. Bush, he's another story.

At the risk of typing out a long string of profanity, I am thinking about my President. I still capitalize the word President, though I notice a lot of people don't.

But back to Bush. He vetoed the war spending bill. No timelines for withdrawal. Cut and Run. Give our troops the resources they deserve. Don't second guess the military commanders. Etc., etc., etc.

Bush wants victory. Or at least success. He doesn't want to have any limits on what it takes to get it. And his veto was upheld, so our political system supported his position. But something tells me that there is, in fact, some limit to what America is willing to give to continue the war. How about we give it a little thought. What is this war worth to you?

I know it's hard to articulate. It requires us to know what we want, and then to say it. A good way to start this thought process is to create our outside parameters. The parameters that define our "buy it" or "don't buy it" decision. Though here it's more of a "stay" or "get out" decision.

We have already spent a lot. So far, this war has cost around 3,334 dead soldiers, over 50,000 wounded soldiers, somewhere around $800,000,000,000.00 of cash, the killing of an uncertain number of Iraqi civilians, and the destruction of Iraq as a functioning country. But these are sunk costs. We won't get them back no matter what happens going forward.

So, as difficult as it is to think that we just wasted all those lives and money, in order to make wise decisions for the future we need to set that aside and look at where we are today and where we can realistically get to.

First, what do we want? We want the Maliki government to bring all of the Sunni, Shiite, Kurd, and other groups into the democratic fold, respecting and participating in the new Iraqi government, recognizing it's authority to resolve disputes, give up their separate militias, love America, hate Iran, beg us to keep permanent military bases, and maximize oil production. Did I miss anything?

Oh yes, of course. If they happen to find Osama bin Laden, fedex his head and hands to the White House. (Apparently he can both run and hide.)

There, now that we know what we want, what are we willing to give up to get it?

Since this is not an all cash deal, we need to understand the currency we will be dealing in. We also need to understand that this is not a simple buy/sell situation. This is a high risk investment. That means we could lose everything we put into it, even if we pay full price. Let's say that again. We could put everything we have into Iraq and still not get what we want.

So what does that mean to this mental exercise? It means that our outside parameter is not a price we are willing to pay for success, it is the limit that we are willing to invest without succeeding, before we refuse to invest anymore. In other words, it is the maximum we are willing to lose.

We will also be dealing in several types of currency. First is cash. By the end of 2007, we will be sunk for a cool trillion bucks. That's a lot of money. Next is dead soldiers. At the current rate of slightly above 100 per month, by Christmas our war dead will be at around 4,200. Third is injured soldiers. Figuring about 800 a month in military wounded, we should be right at 60,000 by year end (although it is hard to find concrete data on this.)

I think this is enough to consider for now. If we try to quantify all of the costs like the mental and emotional scars on our returning soldiers, all of the dead and injured Iraqi people, increased world-wide oil prices, the continuing loss of a functioning country, and of course our national lost opportuity costs, it just gets too complicated. Overwhelming even. That might make the whole war look like a bad idea, and I don't want to appear unpatriotic.

So, cash, dead, wounded. That should be manageable.

First, figure our low, "buy" parameter. Usually this is the parameter that makes a deal a "no brainer" to get into. However, since we are already locked into this one, it will be the cost for us to get out asap. Figure that logistically it will take a year to get all the guys and gear home. That's about $200,000,000,000.00 cash. We could probably knock our casualty rate down by half by not having any new offensive operations. So figure 600 dead and 5,000 wounded over 12 months. That's the least this deal is going to cost us if we decide to cut our losses now.

But hold on a moment! Let's not get overly pessimistic about this option. Remember, we'll be trying to cut deals with all sides as we go. And there isn't any enemy sufficiently large and organized (like North Vietnam) that will automatically take over if we leave. So even though we are cutting our losses, it's not an automatic loss for us. Iraq has a lot of non-governmental social leadership floating around. Tribal leaders, religious leaders, militias. Chaos is not inevitable. These people were organized as a country before we arrived, and it is possible that they can pull themselves back together. We could leave and still come out OK.

Now the tough one. The "don't buy" parameter. How much more do we put into this project before we decide it's enough? Let's start with an absurd "all in" suggestion and work backwards toward the "no brainer" parameter.

We have 300,000,000 people and a $13,000,000,000,000.00 ($13 trillion) a year gross domestic product. We have about 1,400,000 military. So what price is obviously too high? Using Vietnam as a starting point, let's say that 60,000 dead soldiers is too many. Let's also say that $10 trillion is too much money. (I got tired of typing all the zeroes.) Let's also say that a million wounded is too many.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? It's your decision to make. If in 2016 President McCain gets on tv and says that to pull out now would mean that our 60,000 dead soldiers had died in vain, would you say, "No, no more." Or would you pack your son's duffel bag and tell him how proud you are that he's serving his country?

Let's stop here and realize the point of this exercise. It is a grotesque calculation.

But you know what is even more grotesque? Not doing it. Continuing to feed our young soldiers into the meat grinder without a calculation of the costs. With no limit in sight. That's grotesque.

Condi Rice said nobody made any casualty estimates before invading. Am I the only one who thinks that is criminally negligent? My only comfort is that I don't believe her. She is a proven liar. Remember when she said that nobody could have imagined that terrorists would try to fly airliners into skyscrapers? How do these people keep their jobs?

We need to manage our costs in this war. Our costs here include the lives, bodies and minds of our most patriotic young people. It is criminal not to hold them dear.

When is enough enough? It's not rhetorical. It's a real question.