9/11 anniversary: The costs of endless war
Merchants of death: Since 9/11, weapons contractors like Raytheon have made billions in profits. With the war in Ukraine, they continue to rake in the cash. Here, an employee of Raytheon showcases the company's latest innovations to Taiwanese government employees at an arms trade show in Taipei. | Jerome Favre / AP

How do we measure the time that has passed since Al Qaeda terrorists flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon and crashed another in a field in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001? How should we count the impact of the U.S.’ seemingly endless “War on Terror” that the 9/11 attacks were used to justify?

How about in lives lost?

On that day, 2,977 people were killed, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of grieving family members, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. In the wars that followed, some 7,052 U.S. military personnel have died, along with 8,189 U.S. contractors. Other countries’ military and combat losses add another 500,000 deaths to the count. The toll on civilians is estimated, at minimum, to be in the range of 380,000 or more.

All told, the Costs of War project at Brown University pegs the human cost of the post-9/11 wars at up to 929,900 people. Even this harrowing figure is surely an undercount; the true civilian impact is impossible to tally and likely runs into the millions.

People in lower Manhattan watch smoke billow from New York’s World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. | Amy Sancetta / AP

Can we count by the number of countries invaded, bombed, or attacked by the U.S. since then?

There are the major target nations which have dominated news coverage for the past two decades—names like Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and Libya. But in just the last three years alone, the United States military has conducted what it terms “counter-terrorism” operations in no fewer than 85 countries. Mapping out U.S. military activity requires putting pins in essentially the whole of the Middle East, most of Central and South Asia, huge chunks of Southeast Asia, and almost the entire continent of Africa.

Or shall we measure by the number of people forced from their homes and countries?

The most realistic estimate is that between 48 and 59 million people have been displaced by the U.S. post-9/11 wars. That figure exceeds the displacement totals of every single 20th century war except World War II. The years since September 11th have been defined by an unceasing global refugee crisis.

Should we count by the number of major Islamist terrorist attacks since then?

The U.K.-based educational charity Since 9/11 sums up over 60 significant attacks—including the public transit bombings in Madrid, London, and Mumbai; one-off “Lone Wolf” attacks where vans driven on sidewalks become weapons; and all sorts of violent acts around the world since September 2001. When she was the lone vote against authorizing the war in Afghanistan immediately after 9/11, Rep. Barbara Lee warned that “military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism.” She’s been proven right.

What if we measure the passage of time in terms of money spent?

Economists at the Watson Institute crunched the numbers. They added up the entirety of the United States’ war spending from 2001 all the way through to the allocations made for 2022. Put together the amounts budgeted for direct overseas operations by the Department of Defense, the interest on the borrowing to cover those operations, State Department war-related costs, the medical care for soldiers injured, DOD base budget increases due to post-9/11 wars, Homeland Security counter-terrorism expenses, and the 30 years’ worth of additional veteran disability and health costs that are expected, and the total is a staggering $8 trillion.

If we add in the amount spent on weapons and war in 2023 and the amounts already allocated for 2024, we approach $10,000,000,000,000 – ten trillion dollars.

For comparison, that amount of money could eliminate all student debt in the country and still have about $8 trillion left over to go toward things like Medicare for All, rebuilding infrastructure, fighting climate change, and more.

U.S. Marines try to take shelter from a sandstorm in Afghanistan on May 7, 2008. | David Guttenfelder / AP

What if we asked weapons manufacturers and defense contractors how they counted the years?

For them, the War on Terror was an extremely profitable affair. Researcher Jon Schwarz did the math for the stock market share price gains of just the top five U.S. defense contractors (keep in mind there are hundreds of them).

Since George W. Bush launched the war in Afghanistan, drone and missile maker Raytheon’s share price grew by 331%. Tank, submarine, and all-purpose weapon company General Dynamics enjoyed a gain of 625%. For warplane manufacturer Boeing, the number was 975%. Northrup Grumman, most famous for developing the stealth bomber, saw 1,196% price growth. But the biggest winner of all has been Lockheed Martin—the world’s largest weapons company—which accumulated an unbelievable 1,235% gain in share price.

And those numbers don’t even take into account the gains these corporations have made since the Ukraine war started last year.

The boards of directors of all these companies are filled with former generals, defense policymakers, and military staffers. Those who make war also make the profits of war.

There are so many ways we could count the last two-plus-decades of war and the failure to seek out peace, justice, economic development, and equality in the face of terror. Some are easier to quantify, as the numbers above show.

Other developments, like the explosion of right-wing racism and ultra-nationalism that was sparked by the reactionary policies of governments in the post-9/11 period, are harder to calculate. Extremist leaders around the world leveraged it for their own political gain, with Donald J. Trump standing as the most globally powerful case. Future elections in the U.S. and around the world will see these groupings challenge for greater power.

Whether we count the past two decades in terms of lives lost, attacks perpetrated, or dollars spent, the period since September 11th stands out for its excessiveness and waste in both human and financial terms. But the whole era is, unfortunately, just another phase in a long stretch of the endless war carried out by U.S. imperialism since 1945.

Following the worldwide effort to defeat fascism, the United States launched the Cold War, which featured many deadly and profitable “hot” wars along the way in places like Korea, Vietnam, and others. Amidst the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc passing into non-existence, the first Gulf War was launched, then the permanent war on Iraq that it initiated, the dismemberment of Yugoslavia, and interventions in Africa and elsewhere. Afghanistan and the second Gulf War—episodes in the War on Terror—followed.

The withdrawal of the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan these past few weeks has commentators asking whether the era of the “forever war” is finally over.

Even before the pullout from Afghanistan, though, U.S. imperialism was already looking around for its next target. The war machine operated by the likes of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and the rest must be fed, and their political representatives in Washington can surely be counted on to gin up the conflicts needed to keep taxpayer money flowing in their direction.

The seemingly endless allocations of weaponry for the war in Ukraine is the latest moneymaker, but in the long term, the threat of a new Cold War with China is the biggest marketing opportunity. Preparedness will be the watchword of the weapons dealers—stock up on military hardware in case it is needed, they will argue.

But there will still be the smaller chances for cash grabs as the drone wars undoubtedly carry on, likely in Afghanistan and Pakistan and across the Middle East. Iran and North Korea—the other members of Bush’s original “Axis of Evil” along with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—can also still be used to generate fear when needed.

Meanwhile, the true security threats facing the people of the United States today—the still-smoldering COVID-19 pandemic, the undeniable impacts of the climate emergency, and the expanding danger of right-wing domestic terrorism—cry out for a solution.

Fleeing Iraqi civilians walk past the heavily damaged al-Nuri mosque in Mosul on July 4, 2017. | Felipe Dana / AP

Coronavirus killed more than 220 times the number of Americans than did the terrorist attacks of 9/11, yet as we approach the fall season, the right wing is once again hard at work subverting public health measures and politicizing the pandemic. The wildfires and record-busting heat waves of the past few months powerfully demonstrate that global warming can’t be ignored any longer, yet Republicans in Congress stall the funding needed to fight it. And in the election year 2020 alone, white supremacists carried out over two-thirds of terrorist attacks in the U.S.—and that doesn’t even account for those who participated in the attempted overthrow of the government as part of the Trump coup in January 2021 or the plots they’ve carried out since.

Rep. Barbara Lee warned us in September 2001—three days after 9/11—about the consequences of embarking on an open-ended war. “Let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today so that this does not spiral out of control.”

A few profited immensely from the conflicts of the past two decades years, but what do the rest of us have to show for it? We should be asking: How will we count the years ahead?

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.

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C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.