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The Cost Of War, In Dollars And Lives


Victory, defeat, stalemate - no matter how historians ultimately view America's involvement in Iraq, this much is clear: all wars are paid for with the coffers of a nation's treasury and with many, many lives. We're going to spend the next few minutes with experts on how much of both had been spent in Iraq. And we start with Todd Harrison. He's a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. I asked him what should be an easy question: how much has America spent to date on the war in Iraq.

TODD HARRISON: The total cost of what Congress has appropriated for the war in Iraq, when you adjust for inflation, is about 824 billion dollars. So, that's what we have spent so far. It does not include interest and it doesn't include the longer-term cost of veterans' benefits associated with these wars.

CORNISH: And, of course, you mentioned interest because this war was essentially paid for with borrowing, correct?

HARRISON: Correct.

CORNISH: Do you have estimates about what the long-term costs of health care and benefits of Iraq veterans will be?

HARRISON: Yes, and that's where it get really complicated to try to estimate it. First of all, you can't very well separate Iraq and Afghanistan veterans' costs, because so many people served in both conflicts. But also the types of injuries that we've seen coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are substantially different than the injuries that we had in previous conflicts, like, you know, Vietnam and Korea. We're seeing a lot more traumatic brain injuries. We're seeing a lot more PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. And so don't really know what kind of care these injuries are going to require, you know, decades into the future. But, you know, the estimates I've seen range anywhere from $600 billion - veterans' benefits related costs - all the way up to another trillion dollars. So, that's in addition to what we've already spent and that will over the next 30 to 40 years.

CORNISH: Todd, is there anything in the data that surprised you? Costs that were higher than you would think it would be compared to other wars?

HARRISON: The cost per troop in Iraq has averaged around $600,000 per troop per year. But then when you compare it to Afghanistan at the same time, the cost pre troop is roughly double - $1.2 million per troop per year. And...

CORNISH: That's spent on outfitting them, paying them, housing them, protecting them?

HARRISON: Right. And very little of it is actually pay because their basic pay is actually not included in the war budget. It is really the cost of supporting our troops there and all the contractor support that goes to help them, to feed them and all of the munitions that get used up, you know, just in fighting the war. A large region for the difference is that the infrastructure, although it's not great in Iraq, in Afghanistan, it's much, much worse. And so one of the surprising things is how much of a difference a lack of infrastructure in the country makes in the overall cost.

CORNISH: That's Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Now, we turn to one of the most controversial issues in the Iraq War, the number of people who died in the fighting there, both military and civilian. And for that we turn to Michael White. He's the founder of, an all-volunteer website that has tracked casualties in Iraq since 2003. The site has earned a place as a primary source for many news outlets, including NPR. Michael White, thanks for joining us.

MICHAEL WHITE: Well, thank you very much. Glad to be here.

CORNISH: How many U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq to date?

WHITE: The total for U.S. troops in Iraq to date - and we hope that this is the final count - is 4,484.

CORNISH: And how many injured?

WHITE: Well, this is an approximate number - about 32,200.

CORNISH: Michael, why is it so hard to calculate or follow the number of wounded troops?

WHITE: Well, the primary obstacle is HIPAA regulations. We don't say that G.I. Joe was wounded in Baghdad and...

CORNISH: Ah, you're referring to the privacy laws in hospitals.

WHITE: Right. So, there are privacy laws that make it so that information is not public, and that is a good thing. So, what we have to rely on are the official announcements. And that total changes in a month that happened a year ago. Somehow they decide more people were wounded than they officially knew.

CORNISH: Now, one of the hardest numbers to track, I understand, is civilian casualties. Can you give us a sense of how many Iraqis have been killed during the war?

WHITE: The civilian casualties are extremely difficult to count. And trying to get an accurate count is just impossible. There are so many different methodologies that people have used, and I really don't want to go on record as stating that one total is correct and one isn't, so I can't give you a total. It's in the hundreds of thousands.

CORNISH: You said that civilian casualties are the hardest to track. Can you give us a sense of what the obstacles are there and is part of it that this is probably something that's a little bit more politicized?

WHITE: Well, it is more politicized. And we had to rely largely on reporting in areas where we did not have Western reporters so much. And so, say there was an incident in Fallujah and the initial report is that 48 people were killed in a bombing in a hospital. The next day, somebody would come back and say, oh, that wasn't 48 people, that was actually 22.

CORNISH: And lastly, Michael, what kind of response do you get from people for your work, and what is it like for you now that this war for the U.S. is coming to an end?

WHITE: Overall, the response was marvelously positive; people writing saying thank you, from journalists to parents of soldiers. There were some people who saw it as political, although I try to keep politics out of the site as best I could. And those were a little hard to take. But you got used to it and, you know, just let it roll off your back. It is quite a relief to know that there is one website that I will not be updating so much anymore.

CORNISH: Michael White. He's the founder of Thank you so much for talking with us.

WHITE: Thank you very much.


CORNISH: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.