20 Years After 9/11: The Costs

By John Dorschner

Twenty years after 9/11, we have to ask: What the hell did America gain by its global wars on terror?

About 900,000 died in the global battles — mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq. That includes more than 350,000 civilians, according to Brown University’s Cost of War studies.

Why did the wars plod on for so long? American politicians always meant for them to be low-cost background noise that voters wouldn’t bitch about.

Not using the draft eliminated a lot of protests. While close to 50,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam, a “mere” 7,000 died in the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. One way to hide the death toll was to use US contractors: An estimated 8,000 U.S. private contractors also died in the terror wars. (Unless otherwise noted, all figures are from Brown’s extremely thorough analyses.)

What’s more, the war didn’t cost taxpayers anything. Well, not right away.

The latest estimates from Brown show that at least $6 trillion has been spent on the post- 9/11 battles (including getting rid of non-existent nuclear weapons in Iraq). There’s another estimated $2 trillion in future expenses yet to come. But taxes were never raised to pay for fighting. The cost was simply added to the debt.

And yes, that means the costs will go on for years. Interest payments alone are expected to rise to $6.5 trillion by 2050. Our children and grandchildren will be paying the bill for decades.

And then there are the veterans. There are already 1.8 million veterans from the 9/11 wars who’ve been granted lifetime disability benefits. An astonishing 40 percent of those who fought ended up with disability, including a high percentage with mental traumas. Their costs will naturally increase as they get older. (The most expensive year for WWII vets was 1986.)

Brown estimates that these vets will cost another $2 trillion over the coming decades.

And then there’s an additional human cost. A detailed study by Brown and Boston University found that, as of July 2021, 30,177 active-duty service members and war veterans of the post 9/11 wars have died by suicide.

These are only the easily quantifiable numbers. Uncertain are how many millions were displaced from their homes, were injured or died of malnutrition because of the wars.

You could talk for years about the psychic drama of creating a Western world for hundreds of thousands of Afghans, then abandoning them. Or how the United States spent tens of billions to create a corrupt military that folded as soon as American soldiers departed. Or how the Defense Department became one of the biggest creators of greenhouse gases in the world. Or what better uses the war money could have been put to.

It’s tempting to say that with U.S. soldiers leaving Afghanistan, the global war on terror is finally over. But we can’t really say that. The President still has the easy ability to throw troops at any problem in the world that he cares to.

Two blank checks, known as Authorizations for Use of Military Force (AUMF) remain in effect: One passed by Congress in 1991 to authorize the Gulf War, the other in 2002 to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

Getting rid of these wars-by-presidential-whim has been stuck in the Senate. But recently there’s been a bit of movement there, as a committee has voted, with support from two Republicans, to get rid of the decrees. The full Senate has yet to act.

If you want to know how much your grandchildren will be paying for the war on terror, there’s a great discussion of the “credit card wars” at:


The Costs of War research can be found at https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/

A detailed study of vets’ suicide rates is at https://www.hsdl.org/c/high-suicide-rates-among-united-states-service-members-and-veterans-of-the-post-9-11-wars/

A Miami journalist for a half-century dedicated to peace, equality and environmental protection. Author of Verdict on Trial, available on Amazon.