Costing War and Non Violent Alternatives

When faced with the possibility of a military intervention, it’s vital to fully cost it over the long term and compare the costs of proactive nonviolent alternatives such as humanitarian aid, providing resources for CR structures within the UN, or establishing a reputation as an effective mediator on international issues. 

The community needs to compare such costings before irrevocable decisions are made by government on its behalf, because finally it is the community that pays. We all need to ask:

  • Are the costings presented realistic and transparent? 

  • What is really in the country’s best interests?

The cost to the USA of the Iraq war, according to the Nobel Memorial Prize winner for economics Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard University lecturer Linda Bilmes was some three trillion dollars. Most of us find it impossible to understand the magnitude of that figure until we know that we could arguably make a considerable impact on global illiteracy and health for less than that cost. And this figure takes no account of the cost to the people of Iraq. The lives of up to four million people were displaced, scores killed daily and a third of the population forced into poverty and the destruction of an irreplaceable cultural heritage.

War is expensive every time, but no-one takes the trouble to estimate what the cost of an alternative strategy would have been. If nonviolent alternatives to the Iraq war had been seriously entertained – and costed – then the citizens of the USA, Britain and Australia could have made an informed response about what their leaders should decide in their name.

The true cost of war is only ever accurately known with hindsight, but it is never less than the amount anticipated before the first bullet is fired. Should we include the sub-prime mortgage recession? Had the US economy leaked so badly from the effects of the Iraq war that it couldn’t sustain the jobs of people at the bottom of the financial ladder?

Even though we might never really have the answers to  such questions, it is not beyond the capacity of economists to model much of what a war might cost, nor is it beyond their capacity to model what alternative strategies would cost. The model would need to be wide ranging to factor in the entire cost of operation. For violent intervention it should go beyond the cost of hardware, munitions, consumables and wages. It should include things like death benefits for soldiers killed in action, the cost to the economy of families who leave jobs to care for wounded soldiers and a myriad of other foreseeable and measurable contingencies. We should also consider the social and psychological costs. War has a long-term effect on people’s lives. There is a diminished quality of life for those with physical and mental disabilities. [One in ten Australian troops who fought in Iraq returned with mental disorders such as post traumatic stress syndrome.]

If the strategy of seriously comparing alternatives was undertaken there would need to be agreement about who would conduct the costing or whether several alternative bodies should conduct independent studies. Perhaps this could be decided on by agreement between those with the various options to put forward. The resulting estimates and calculations would then be subject to review by those with differing proposals. 
The life blood of democracy is an informed population. On matters of the magnitude and seriousness of armed conflict it is highly desirable that the people are as fully informed as possible before their representatives make commitments which will have a significant impact on them, their children and their nation far into the future. The old question “What if they held a war and no-one decided to come?” could take on a whole new meaning. (By Don Palmer) 

Stella Cornelius, visionary co-director of Conflict Resolution Network, 1986-2010 
Costing War and its alternatives 
(YouTube video produced by Annabel McGoldrick, recorded 2008, 1:30 minutes)