Why 2,245 is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Cindy Sheehan and Beverly Young’s arrests at the State of the Union for wearing opposing “protest” T-shirts is the latest illustration of how the Iraq War is the nation’s most provocative issue. The attack on free speech for both sides was in fact outrageous. But lost in the T-shirt battle is what really matters: President George W. Bush’s failure to tell the nation about the true costs of the war.

Any honest national discussion about the war must begin with the death of Sheehan’s son Casey and the other 2,244 soldiers who have died because of this conflict.

The number of soldiers killed boldly written on Sheehan’s shirt was a shocking, in-your-face accounting of the State of the Union over the last three years. As horrific as they are, those numbers are just the tip of the iceberg of the human costs of this war. Along those soldiers are 16,584 soldiers wounded in combat, and upwards of 100,000 needing mental health services, just to start with.

Bush didn’t mention the human cost of war because in part gross mismanagement by the administration has inflated it. For example, both Bush and members of Congress have pledged to fix problems with body and vehicle armor year after year. But despite promises to fix the situation, the military recently reported that 80 percent of Marines killed by torso wounds could have lived if they had better body armor.

That’s hard to swallow, especially when one of the makers of body armor, CEO David H. Brooks of DHB Industries, received $87,500 in compensation for “foregone vacation,” almost three times what an Army private makes in an entire year of combat. With complete disregard for rampant war profiteering, Brooks earned $70 million in 2004.

Those veterans who return from Iraq are finding Washington’s promises to care for them are violated with impunity. Last year, the Veterans Affairs Department suspended enrollment of 263,257 vets seeking health care. The VA underestimated the number of veterans needing care upon return from Iraq and Afghanistan by 300 percent, so qualified veterans were simply cut from the rolls. Maybe they thought no one would notice.

In addition to the war’s human costs, Bush overlooked the financial costs. Three days after the State of the Union address, budget officials announced another $70 billion will be requested. Such a large initiative should have been highlighted for all of the nation. With these funds, the U.S. will spend more than $320 billion in the Iraq War.

As astonishing as this number is, it does not include many of the indirect and long-term costs. Adding in estimates for future Veterans Administration and ongoing health care costs along with the interest on the debt, Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard budget expert Linda Bilmes recently estimated the long-term cost of the war at $1.3 trillion.

Instead of calling for a plan to pay for the shared sacrifice needed to cover the war’s costs, Bush urged Congress to make his tax cuts permanent. Surely the government could use these funds to offset the looming Social Security crisis he highlighted. Or the sorely needed reconstruction of those cities destroyed by Hurricane Katrina could be accelerated.

The irony of the war’s outrageous financial costs is that they hobble the very social and economic programs that keep this country strong. While Iraq staggers under the occupation-spurred violence, the war is exacting a huge toll at home.

The costs of war might be worthwhile if there was indeed a “plan for victory.” But squeezing the same lemon again and again isn’t producing very good lemonade. The lack of leadership and vision coupled with the tremendous loss of life and staggering economic costs make the Iraq War one of the nation’s greatest tragedies.

Ignoring the real human and economic costs of the war, it was easy for Bush to use his State of the Union speech to vow to stay the course. But while Cindy Sheehan and her tell-the-truth shirt from the Capitol were quickly removed from public view, the reality of the war is not so easy to hide.

Erik Leaver is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the policy outreach director for the Foreign Policy In Focus Project. He is the co-author of "The Iraq Quagmire: The Mounting Costs of War and the Case for Bringing Home the Troops."