Does America Want to Know the Real Cost of War?
And are we willing to pay for it?

September 29, 2010

Washington, D.C. - On Thursday, September 30, 2010, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Bob Filner (D-CA) conducted a hearing on the true cost of war.  Economists, veteran advocates, retired military leaders, and veterans and their families discussed the real life consequences of war, not just in financial terms but in the practical reality of day to day living.  The hearing specifically focused on the rising estimates of the cost of veterans’ care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), how veterans and their families have coped with post-combat life, and how the government could prepare to keep the promises made to America’s fighting troops and veterans. 

“Every vote that Congress has taken for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has failed to take into account the actual cost of these wars by ignoring what will be required to meet the needs of veterans,” said Chairman Filner.  “The Congress that sends them into harm’s way assumes no responsibility for the long-term consequences of their deployment.  Each war authorization and appropriation kicks the proverbial can down the road. Whether or not the needs of soldiers injured or wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan will be met is totally dependent on the budget politics of a future Congress which includes two sets of rules – one for going to war and one for providing for our veterans who fight in that war.”

Chairman Filner cited veterans of past wars that left their weapons on the battlefield only to return home and fight for care.  Many have died, but several million of these veterans are still with us, dying from their service-connected afflictions and uncompensated for their sacrifice.  Filner explained the current difficulty in doing the right thing and compensating these veterans: “The fight to meet the needs of soldiers suffering from the effects of Agent Orange, for example, requires that offsets for the necessary funding are found in other parts of the budget.  It is known around here as ‘pay-go.’  The Department of Defense has no such requirement.  In other words, our current system of appropriating funds in Congress is designed to make it much easier to vote to send our soldiers into harm’s way than it is to care for these soldiers when they come home.  This is morally wrong.” 

Economists and authors of the 2008 book, The Three Trillion Dollar War, Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz were initially believed to have overestimated the cost of operations in Iraq.  Two years later, however, nearly 25% more veterans are seeking VA health care services and applying for service-connected benefits than first estimated, putting a revised estimated cost of war between $4 and $6 trillion.  Bilmes and Stilitz assert that the consequences of “essentially ignoring the cost of caring for veterans is threefold.  First, it understates the true cost of going to war. We know that every war will have a long ‘tail’ of costs, including the significant cost of providing for those who fight in the war, and their families and survivors.  However, in the appropriations process, we do not make any provision for this inevitable cost. This disguises and hides the true costs.  Second, from an economic perspective, it is poor financial management.  We should not be financing a 40-year long pension and benefit obligation from annual budget revenues.  Third, it inevitably leads to the possibility that veterans’ needs will not be funded adequately.”

When a veteran seeks treatment and compensation for wounds, it can be a time-intensive and complicated process, often resulting in denial of care and benefits.  When a veteran is severely wounded, this burden typically falls on a family member.  One mother who has advocated for care for her injured son said, “Families should not have to sacrifice and bear the burden of advocacy, and compromise their own financial stability and wellness to ensure that their soldiers’ receive the appropriate and necessary services from the government.”  Although many veterans receive complete services from the VA, many families depend on community non-profit organizations to fund specialized surgeries not covered by VA, to provide therapy dogs, to adapt homes to accommodate wounded veterans, and to provide costly specialized equipment. 

Participants discussed a number of possible recommendations to better prepare the country to care for the long-term costs of war.  Colonel James D. McDonough, Jr., (Ret.) testified that from his perspective, “our citizenry is indeed supportive of sending young American’s into battle – we have their consent to do so, but little to nothing is understood about their actual needs upon returning from battle and reintegration back in the very community from which they departed…. To reach the 64 percent of returning veterans not using their services the VA must include community-based providers as part of a more coherent delivery network; private providers, supported by the VA and working alongside public providers, to deliver barrier-free and high quality veterans services, benefits and programs.”  Other ideas included a Veterans Trust Fund, setting aside a percentage of war spending bills for veterans’ health care, selling government war bonds, and setting a war surtax. 

Filner concluded: “Veterans committing suicide.  Homeless veterans on the streets.  Women veterans suffering from military sexual trauma.  Stressed marriages and increasing divorce rates.  National Guardsmen and women struggling to find work as a result of the threat of deployment.  Alarming rates of post-combat stress.  Parents quitting jobs and losing health care to care for their wounded children.  Children struggling in school during the deployments of their parents.  Lost productivity of fallen service members and the accompanying loss and grief.  These are all the costs of war.  It is past time for Congress to recognize that standing by our men and women in uniform and meeting their needs is a fundamental cost of war. Congress should, therefore, account for these needs and take responsibility for meeting them at the time that we send these young people into combat.  It is time to reflect on the need to reform a process that systematically denies the connection between fighting a war and meeting the needs of those we send into harm’s way.”


Panel 1

Linda J. Bilmes, MBA, Professor, John F. Kennedy School of Government Harvard University
Joseph E. Stiglitz, Ph.D., Nobel Laureate, Professor, Columbia University
Joseph A. Violante, National Legislative Director, Disabled American Veterans

Panel 2

Major General John Batiste, USA (Ret.)
Major General William L. Nash, USA (Ret.), Independent Consultant
Colonel James McDonough, USA (Ret.)

Panel 3
Paul Sullivan, Executive Director, Veterans for Common Sense
Lorrie Knight-Major, Mother of a Veteran, Silver Spring, Maryland
Corey Gibson, Veteran, Terre Haute, Indiana


Prepared testimony and a link to the webcast of the hearing are available on the internet at this link:

Bilmes and Stiglitz testimony:,_Ph.D.