Commentary: War costs last forever

The Miami HeraldMarch 29, 2013 


Glenn Garvin, of The Miami Herald, writes op-ed GARVIN:COLUMN. (C.W. Griffin/Miami Herald/MCT)


The past is never dead, as William Faulkner might have written if he were analyzing the federal budget, it’s not even paid for. Did you realize that World War II still costs U.S. taxpayers $5 billion a year? Or that we haven’t closed the financial books on the Civil War yet?

Those amazing facts were part of an Associated Press dispatch on military pensions distributed last week. A lot of newspapers edited the story down to a nugget focused on the believe-it-or-not fact that the Pentagon is still paying pensions to two disabled children of Civil War veterans, 148 years after the South surrendered at Appomattox.

Aside from its curiosity value, the tale of the Civil War kids suggests an easy way to trim the federal deficit — not by cutting the pensions, which cost the government a grand total of $1,752 a year, but by eliminating subsidized Viagra from Obamacare. Those children were fathered well into the 20th century, when their fathers were close to 80 years old.

The Civil War isn’t the only war of the 19th century we’re still paying pensions for. Ten people are still getting pensions from the Spanish-American War, which ended in 1898. Total cost: $50,000 a year.

That’s a bargain compared to World War I, which ended 20 years later. Though the last American veteran of that war died in 2011, thousands of surviving family members continue to collect pensions of about $20 million a year.

The real money, not surprisingly, starts with World War II, in which nearly a million U.S. soldiers were killed or wounded. The $5 billion annual cost of pensions (which hasn’t declined much from its 1991 peak, even though the veterans are dying at the rate of more than 1,000 a day) is almost as much as FEMA pays out each year in disaster aid. The much smaller Korean War, which ended in 1953, still costs about $2.8 billion a year.

In the 1960s, it often seemed that the Vietnam war would never end — and for government accountants, it hasn’t. They issue checks for $22 billion each year (nearly triple the annual cost of the Transportation Safety Administration) and have already paid $270 billion to vets and their families. And the Middle Eastern wars of the past two decades may prove to be the most costly of all.

Compensation to those veterans and their family members already costs $12 billion a year. Not only are they filing disability claims at what the AP calls “historic rates” — nearly half of the soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are asking for compensation — but the Veterans Administration has steadily expanded its definition of war-related ailments. Vietnam vets with diabetes and heart disease, for instance, can collect extra payments.

Altogether, these post-war benefits cost us more each year than the entire budget of the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control combined. There is, undoubtedly, some cheating involved — where there’s government money, there’s fraud. But tightening up around the edges to save some nickels and dimes is beside the point, which is that war is a frightfully expensive proposition.

The Vietnam war drove the United States into a spiral of budget deficits and inflation from which it has never really recovered. But it’s entirely possible that the war — which cost about $738 billion in 2011 dollars — will actually be less costly than its aftermath.

And, of course, the real bottom line is the dollars are only a marker for the incalculable physical and emotional costs of war: The boys (and, these days, girls) who don’t come home. The kids who grow up missing a parent, the parents who outlive their children. The scarred limbs and broken hearts. How do you write a check for those? Both our major parties seemed increasingly inclined to play cop in the endless, byzantine Mideast power struggles. They ought to take a look at the books first.

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