How we externalize the costs of war, and hence its opposition
Oct 6, 2010

How we externalize the costs of war, and hence its opposition

The unfortunate part about democracy - for someone who wishes for a particular political action - is that the government is accountable to a people who may not agree. The fighting of wars is one such political action and for political hawks who support it in various cases, garnering the requisite support of the people, perhaps merely passively, is essential. The problem is that the administration has managed to find a series of ways to externalize the immediate costs of war such that the people feel the consequences less and therefore will be more supportive of war. Debt based vs tax based financing, eliminating the draft, airpower over ground power and the use of proxies, local forces, allied forces and private forces are all examples of removing immediate costs and hence opposition for civilians.

Perhaps the most compelling tactic of the last decade in externalizing the immediate cost of war is through debt based financing. In many previous US wars, they were rather naturally coupled with tax increases to finance the war. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars are enormously expensive yet taxes were actually decreased during this period while deficits shot up to record levels. Of course, the American tax payer will ultimately bear these costs of war, but it will be through the long term nature of future austerity to reduce debt, paying interest and through inflation. What has been removed is both the immediacy and also the obviousness of the connection between the cost of war and the cost to the average American in the form of taxes. It is easy to feel now as if the costs of war are indeed some externalized, nefarious concept that doesn't directly affect any individual. Now to be fair, the costs may well in some cases be too high to realistically expect to be paid for in the time period of the war and additionally damaging the economy by too quick and large a tax increase is bad in and of itself. That said, I believe that we should require, and if not then at least we should encourage, a political culture where a proportion of the war costs are taxed immediately on the citizens. This will have the dual purposes of actually financing the war opposed to punting it off down the road via deficits as well as tying the connection for voters between war and its costs.

While not relevant in our most recent wars, the elimination of the draft is an important aspect in this theme. What it did was remove the complicity by which average Americans were tied to the wars the administration fought. By disengaging the role of the citizenry in fighting wars, it externalizes this cost away from average citizens and eliminates one more reason for civilian opposition to war.

A key focus of externalizing costs is to take actions that limit as much as possible the deaths of exclusively American soldiers in the short term. I should be explicit that of course reducing American deaths is an excellent goal, just as eliminating the draft is morally praiseworthy; however, the consequences in human lives and of many other costs of war may also he very high. Indeed, by reducing American deaths, citizens feel the costs to them are less and thus are more supportive even if the net cost in human lives is orders of magnitudes higher. Furthermore, we have seen in Many cases where attempts to eliminate American deaths actually result in an increase in deaths later on. For example, the hands off and city focused approach in the early years in Afghanistan was not very costly in terms of lives but with the Taliban resurgence in recent years as a result of these poor policies, many more our dying today. This tactic of temporal externalization whereby costs (in this case human) are intentionally or unintentionally delayed for a later time is quite prevalent.

Perhaps the most striking way the human costs of war are avoided is through the use of air power. Because of American total air dominance, the use of bombing campaigns is a near zero American casualty endeavor. In Afghanistan the use of bombing campaigns has been very large and not just in the initial rush, it has persisted into today. It may be surprising, but monetary costs are actually fairly low (relative to extensive high troop volume  ground wars) and the cost of early years of Afghanistan with its arial dependence was dwarfed by the expenditures in Iraq. However the costs still exist. Loss to human life on the ground is of course enormous and extends to innumerable civilians. Infrastructure, buildings, families and indeed the very way of life can be destroyed by such bombing campaigns. Moreover, their is an indirect and explicitly temporally removed backlash cost for such bombing campaigns. Namely, it generates anti-western sentiment, motivates a call to arms against western hegemony and results in prolonged war against a strengthened opposition that results in the normal costs.

The use of drone attacks in Pakistan is an extreme case of this. Their use externalizes the cost of war to the point that war isn't even declared and at best a nebulous increase in long term financial costs is experienced. Even the moral revulsion to war has left because official war hasn't been declared. On the ground of course the suffering continues, anti-western sentiment grows and the idea that we are being made more secure becomes less clear. Not only does this limit how apparent the costs are to us back home, they also do it for the actual troops involved. When a robot drops a bomb on a village, does it make a sound? Because there is no immediacy whereby US troops are actively involved in the wake of a bombing, seeing the damage, hearing the stories, and directly fighting those emboldened by it in subsequent days it is easy I imagine for them to minimize what the real costs are and limits the formation of a general opposition within the military.

The use of non-American troops is an important way to externalize many costs and it happens in roughly four ways: proxies, local troops, international allies and private forces. Take the Ugandan or Kenyan troops in Somalia. They are both heavily supported by the US in aiding a US backed regime in a country the US fought and lost a war in. Such proxies allow effectively a war to occur in a county without it being even well presented in the media that there is a conflict going on there. Much of this support does have financial costs but there is a good deal of diplomatic clout and influence and currying of US favour that comes with little direct costs to the taxpayer.  During the actual invasion of Afghanistan, it was northern alliance troops that did most of the fighting backed by US air support. These local troops experienced most of the human costs of fighting the war and without which I doubt the US would have had the resolve to invade. Likewise in Afghanistan, the use of many many allies spreads the costs, both human and monetary, around the various countries such that the losses of any given country seem perhaps moderate and acceptable.

Finally, the use of privatized security is a particularly scary recent eventuality. With companies like Blackwater (renamed Xe services) getting monstrous contracts to provide security and training in Iraq and many other places this culture of privatizing war externalizes costs away from the military itself   The level of privatizing of war is staggering and presents a distinct moral hazard. For a time private influence was largely in weapons contracting, R&D and the like with companies like Lockheed Martin synonymous with the military-industrial complex. Nowadays we see the rise in an extensive level of privatizing intelligence gathering (as expressed in Top Secret America). However it is the the use of private military forces for security and training purposes (usually invoking local or at least non American populations) that is most scary and represents and externalization of direct costs.

Ultimately, a democracy rest on the opinions of its peoples and when the people experience a system bias of presentation of the costs of a political action it changes the aggregate political opinion. There are many ways I have not touched on here, such as a fear based public rhetoric, by which people are convinced to go to war, but this method of externalizing the direct and timely costs of war is among the most powerful way to distort national opinion. As we have seen, the methods to this are many and disparate. The result is a woefully complicit public, and an ineffective democracy.


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