Three thousand, six hundred and fifty-two days. 6051 dead uniformed US soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. 2300 dead US contract workers. 19 870 dead non-US allied soldiers and contract workers. 150 096 wounded US soldiers and contractors. 68 366 wounded allied uniformed personnel. 1 033 000 Iraqi casualties. $872 billion in military, local security, and State Department expenditure in Iraq. $468 billion in Afghanistan. $26 billion in disability pensions and Medicare payments for US veterans. $360 billion in home land security expenditure. $110 billion in national intelligence expenditure. An estimated $3.3 trillion in fighting the “War on Terror”. All in the name of “freedom” (whatever that means). The question is, was all of this worth it?

There are two elements involved in justifying a war.

Firstly, a war will be justifiable (but not necessarily justified) if it was entered into on morally defensible grounds. Secondly, and more significantly in the case of a war which has spanned a decade, a war will be justifiable if the character and consequences of the war was warranted by the objectives it sought to achieve.

With regard to the former, the general consensus is that the response of the US in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks was entirely appropriate. Employing military forces in Afghanistan in order to remove the Taliban regime who had sheltered and abetted al Qaeda plotters was morally defensible: it was a proportionate response to the events which precipitated the war.

However, things get much messier when considering the latter. The integrity of the character of the war on terrorism suffered a severe blow when the US invaded and occupied Iraq in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that conveniently never turned up. The human rights abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay further undermined the integrity of the mission, invoking accusations of complicity in the very conduct the war claimed to oppose.

Not only does a questionable shadow loom over the character of the war, but it is very difficult to make a plausible case for a justified war on the basis of its consequences. In part, this is due to the poorly-defined scope of the war; what constitutes the war on terrorism is practically impossible to determine when the frontier of the war is everywhere where the values of ‘the Free World’ are threatened. This unlimited commitment to the abstract values of freedom, tolerance, and the rule of law creates an obligation to defend them in an ever-expanding series of arenas. Furthermore, because the premise of war is steeped in heavily ideological terms, it makes success very difficult to verify in any quantifiable way.

It is disconcerting, to say the least, when most of the successes of a very costly war exist in the unverifiable realm of the ideological.

Measuring the morality of war

The colossal costs of the war on terrorism would be worthwhile if they were necessary for securing successes of equal or greater weight. Now, some successes are quantifiable; for example, achieving the objective of killing bin Laden. The issue is that this decade-long war has had very few quantifiable successes.

The purported successes appear to lie mostly in the realm of unrealised possibilities; namely, what would have happened if ‘we’ did not leverage our resources to fight terrorism in the way we did. Think of all the civilian lives which have been saved because of thwarted attacks, or undermined capabilities thanks to Allied military presence in Afghanistan.

Don’t mistake me: I think there is certainly some validity in this argument. The problem is that such hypotheticals have little or no quantifiable weight with which to measure against the very real, hard costs. It takes a lot to displace the cost of $3.3 trillion and 28,221 dead servicemen and women. And, when the trajectory of the war does not appear to be on any discernible path to victory, I am not sure that the unverifiable hypothetical and ideological successes are sufficient to do so.

Measuring the costs

The other problem with such hypotheticals (“what would have happened”) is that they also work the other way.

Let me explain.

The New York Times’ latest survey puts the bill for the US in waging this asymmetrical war against terrorism at $3.3 trillion. (As an aside, for every dollar spent by al Qaeda on the 9/11 attacks, the US spent $6.6 million. Bin Laden’s declared intention to “[bleed] America to the point of bankruptcy” no longer seems as farfetched as it once did.)

Now, I am not an advocate of unconditional non-violence as an approach to world affairs (not yet; the likes of Simon Moyle and Jarrod McKenna have seriously shaken my thinking, though!). I am not a pacifist. I think that the direct costs of responding to the 9/11 attacks were probably unavoidable. But those direct costs only make up a fraction of the total bill.

I want to suggest that the way in which the US went about the war against terrorism was not proportionate to the attacks that precipitated it.

You see, the $3.3 trillion dollar figure is comprised not only of direct costs (fighting the Taliban). It includes expenditures of choice (Iraq), and ‘opportunity costs’. These ‘opportunity costs’ are the inverse of the ‘what would have happened’ measurement of success. Namely, they are the cost of lost opportunities. They are the unquantifiable unrealised possibilities of where the world could have been if the remaining $2 trillion had been spent on other endeavours. They are the wistful list of ‘what ifs?’:

What if it had been spent on longer-range threats to American security? Or delivering on promises for ‘Marshall plans’ to rebuild societies that are at risk of letting the next al Qaeda flourish? $1 trillion, by some measures , would be sufficient to build 120 000 schools, feed and immunise every African child for 60 years. What if it had been spent on rebuilding a broken American education system? Reducing national debt? Investing in technological innovation to facilitate better competition with China?

The war on terrorism not only cost excessive amounts of money, and excessive amounts of human life. It cost the US the invaluable opportunities that it can never recover.

Historical assessment

Now, history isn’t science, and it certainly isn’t maths. You can’t test a hypothesis because events are unrepeatable, and you can’t calculate the impact of these unrepeatable events because they are mostly unquantifiable and hard to detach from other variables. It involves a ‘comparison between the actual consequences of some actual event and a consequence which might have followed if that event had not occurred’ (CS Lewis).

However, you can estimate.

In my mind, it is painfully clear that the vague successes achieved over ten years of warfare do very little to temper the terrible spectre that is the costs of this seemingly intractable war.

NB: This was an op-ed I wrote for a uni assessment.