The cost of war is always more than anticipated. If all the costs were known prior
to the beginning of a war, fewer wars would be fought. At the beginning, optimism
prevails. Denial and deception override the concern for the pain and penalties
yet to come. Jingoistic patriotism and misplaced militarism too easily silence
those who are cautious about the unforeseen expenses and hardships brought on
by war. Conveniently forgotten are the goals never achieved by armed conflict,
and the negative consequences that linger for years. Even some who recognize that
the coming war will be costly easily rationalize that the cost will be worth it.
Others claim it's unmanly or weak to pursue a negotiated settlement of a political
dispute, which helps drive the march toward armed conflict.
It has been argued by proponents of modern technological warfare in recent
decades that sophisticated weapons greatly reduce the human costs by using a
smaller number of troops equipped with smart weapons that minimize battle deaths
and collateral damage. This belief has led some to be more willing to enter
an armed conflict. The challenge will be deciding whether or not modern weapons
actually make war more acceptable and less costly. So far, the use of sanctions,
misjudgments of resistance to occupation, and unintended consequences reveal
that fancy weapons do not guarantee fancy and painless outcomes. Some old-fashioned
rules relating to armed conflicts cannot be easily repealed despite the optimism
of the "shock and awe" crowd. It seems that primitive explosive weapons
can compete quite effectively with modern technology when the determination
exists and guerrilla tactics are used. The promised efficiency and the reduced
casualties cannot yet be estimated.
Costs are measured differently depending on whether or not a war is defensive
or offensive in nature. Costs in each situation may be similar but are tolerated
quite differently. The determination of those defending their homeland frequently
is underestimated, making it difficult to calculate costs. Consider how long
the Vietnamese fought and suffered before routing all foreign armies. For 85
years, the Iraqis steadfastly have resisted all foreign occupation, and even
their previous history indicates that meddling by Western and Christian outsiders
in their country would not be tolerated. Those who fight a defensive war see
the cost of the conflict differently. Defenders have the goal of surviving and
preserving their homeland, religious culture, and their way of life –
despite the shortcomings of their prior leaders. Foreigners are seen as a threat.
This willingness to defend to the last is especially strong if the society they
fight for affords more stability than a war-torn country.
Hardships can be justified in defensive wars, and use of resources is more
easily justified than in an unpopular faraway conflict. Motivations are stronger,
especially when the cause seems to be truly just and the people are willing
to sacrifice for the common goal of survival. Defensive war provides a higher
moral goal, and this idealism exceeds material concerns. In all wars, however,
there are profiteers and special interests looking after their own selfish interests.
Truly defensive wars never need a draft to recruit troops to fight. Large numbers
voluntarily join to face the foreign threat.
In a truly defensive war, huge costs in terms of money, lives, and property
are endured because so much is at stake. Total loss of one's country is the
The freer a country is, where the love of liberty is alive and well, the greater
the resistance. A free society provides greater economic means to fight than
a tyrannical society. For this reason, truly free societies are less likely
to be attacked by tyrants.
But societies that do not enjoy maximum freedom and economic prosperity still
pull together to resist invaders. A spirit of nationalism brings people together
when attacked, as do extreme religious beliefs. The cause of liberty or a "divine"
emperor or radical Islam can inspire those willing to fight to the death to
stop a foreign occupation. These motivations make the costs and risks necessary
and justifiable, where a less popular offensive war will not be tolerated as
long. Idealism inspires a strong defense; cynicism eventually curtails offensive
The cost of offensive war over time is viewed quite differently by the people
who must pay. Offensive wars include those that are initiated by one country
to seek some advantage over another without provocation. This includes needless
intervention in the internal affairs of others and efforts at nation-building,
even when well intentioned. Offensive war never achieves the moral high ground,
in spite of proclamations made by the initiators of the hostilities. Offensive
wars eventually fail, but tragically, only after much pain and suffering. The
cost is great, and not well accepted by the people who suffer and have nothing
to gain. The early calls for patriotism and the false claims generate initial
support, but the people eventually tire.
At the beginning of an offensive war, the people are supportive because of
the justifications given by government authorities, who want the war for ulterior
reasons. But the demands to sacrifice liberty at home to promote freedom and
democracy abroad ring hollow after the cost and policy shortcomings become evident.
Initially, the positive propaganda easily overshadows the pain of the small
number who must fight and suffer injury.
Offensive wars are fought without as much determination as defensive wars.
They tend to be less efficient and more political, causing them to linger and
drift into stalemate or worse.
In almost all wars, governments use deception about the enemy that needs to
be vanquished to gain the support of the people. In our recent history, just
since 1941, our government has entirely ignored the requirement that war be
fought only after a formal congressional declaration – further setting
the stage for disenchantment once the war progresses poorly. Respect for the
truth is easily sacrificed in order to rally the people for the war effort.
Professional propagandists, by a coalition of the media and government officials,
beat the war drums. The people follow out of fear of being labeled unpatriotic
and weak in the defense of our nation – even when there is no national
security threat at all.
Joining in support for the war are the special interest groups that have other
agendas to pursue: profits, religious beliefs, and partisan political obligations.
Ideologues use war to pursue personal ambitions unrelated to national defense,
and they convert the hesitant with promises of spreading democracy, freedom,
and prosperity. The tools they use are unrestrained state power to force their
ideals on others, no matter how unjust it seems to the unfortunate recipients
of the preemptive war. For some, the more chaos, the greater the opportunity
to jump in and remake a country or an entire region. At times in history, the
opening salvo has been deliberately carried out by the ones anxious to get the
war underway while blaming the opposition for the incident. The deceptions must
stir passion for the war through an appeal to patriotism, nationalism, machismo,
and the jingoistic manliness of proving oneself in great feats of battle.
This early support, before the first costs are felt, is easily achieved. Since
total victory may not come quickly, however, the support of the people is gradually
lost. When the war is questioned, the ill-conceived justifications for getting
involved are reexamined and found to have been distorted. Frequently, the people
discover they were lied to so that politicians could gain support for a war
that had nothing to do with national security.
These discoveries and disenchantments come first to those directly exposed
to danger in the front lines, where soldiers die or lose their limbs. Military
families and friends bear the burden of grief, while the majority of citizens
still hope the war will end or never affect them directly in any way. But as
the casualties grow, the message of suffering spreads, and questions remain
unanswered concerning the real reason an offensive war was necessary in the
Just when the human tragedy becomes evident to a majority of the citizens,
other costs become noticeable. Taxes are raised, deficits explode, inflation
raises its ugly head, and the standard of living for the average citizen is
threatened. Funds for the war, even if immediate direct taxes are not levied,
must come from the domestic economy, and everyone suffers. The economic consequences
of the Vietnam War were felt throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s.
As the problems mount, the falsehoods and distortions on which the war was
based become less believable and collectively resented. The government and the
politicians who pursued the policy lose credibility. The tragedy, however, is
that once even the majority discovers the truth, much more time is needed to
change the course of events. This is the sad part.
Political leaders who needlessly dragged us into the war cannot and will not
admit an error in judgment. In fact, they do the opposite to prove they were
right all along. Instead of winding down, the war gets a boost to prove the
policy was correct and to bring the war to a victorious conclusion. This only
motivates the resistance of those fighting the defensive side of the war. More
money and more troops must be sacrificed before the policy changes. Using surrogate
foreign troops may seem to cut domestic troop losses in the country starting
the war, but will only prolong the agony, suffering, and costs and increase
the need for even more troops.
Withdrawing financial support for the effort is seen as being even more unpatriotic
than not having supported the war in the first place. Support for the troops
becomes equivalent to supporting the flawed policy that led to the mess.
No matter how unwise the policy and how inevitable the results, changing course
becomes almost impossible for those individuals who promoted the war. This fear
of being labeled unpatriotic and not supportive of the troops on the battlefield
ironically drives a policy that is more harmful to the troops and costly to
the folks at home. Sometimes it requires a new group of politicians, removed
from the original decision makers who initiated the war, to bring about a shift
in policy. Johnson couldn't do it in Vietnam, and Nixon did it slowly, awkwardly,
and not without first expanding the war before agreeing enough was enough.
With the seemingly inevitable delays in altering policy, the results are quite
predictable. Costs escalate and the division between supporters and non-supporters
widens. This adds to economic problems while further eroding domestic freedoms,
as with all wars. On occasion, as we've seen in our own country, dissent invites
harsh social and legal repercussions. Those who speak out in opposition will
not only be ostracized but may feel the full force of the law coming down on
them. Errors in foreign affairs leading to war are hard to reverse. But even
if deliberate action doesn't change the course of events, flawed policies eventually
will fail as economic laws will assert themselves.
The more people have faith in and depend upon the state, the more difficult
it is to keep the state from initiating wars. If the state is seen as primarily
responsible for providing personal and economic security, obedience and dependency
becomes a pervasive problem. If the state is limited to protecting liberty,
and encourages self-reliance and personal responsibility, there's a much better
chance for limiting pro-war attitudes. The great danger of war, especially unnecessary
war, is that it breeds more dependency while threatening liberty – always
allowing the state to grow regardless of existing attitudes before the war.
War unfortunately allows the enemies of liberty to justify the sacrifice of
personal freedoms, and the people all too often carelessly sacrifice precisely
what they are supposed to be fighting for: freedom. Our revolution was a rare
exception. It was one war where the people ended up with more freedom, not less.
Economics and War
Almost every war has an economic component, some more obvious than others.
Our own civil war dealt with slavery, but tariffs and economic oppression by
the North were also major factors. Remember, only a small number of Southern
soldiers personally owned slaves, yet they were enthusiastic in their opposition
to the Northern invasion. The battles fought in the Middle East since WWI have
had a lot to do with securing Arab oil fields for the benefit of Western nations.
Not only are wars fought for economic reasons, wars have profound economic consequences
for the countries involved, even if one side is spared massive property damage.
The economic consequences of war play a major role in bringing hostilities to
an end. The consequences are less tolerated by the citizens of countries whose
leaders drag them into offensive and unnecessary wars. The determination to
fight on can't compete with those who see their homeland threatened by foreign
There's essentially no one, not even among the neocon crowd, claiming that
the Iraq war is defensive in nature for America. Early on there was an attempt
to do so, and it was successful to a large degree in convincing the American
people that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was connected
to al-Qaeda. Now the justification for the war is completely different and far
less impressive. If the current justification had been used to rally the American
people and Congress from the beginning, the war would have been rejected. The
fact that we are bogged down in an offensive war makes it quite difficult to
extricate ourselves from the mess. Without the enthusiasm that a defensive war
generates, prolonging the Iraq war will play havoc with our economy. The insult
of paying for the war in addition to the fact that the war was not truly necessary
makes the hardship less tolerable. This leads to domestic turmoil, as proponents
become more vocal in demanding patriotic support and opponents become angrier
for the burden they must bear.
So far, the American people have not yet felt the true burden of the costs
of this war. Even with 1,700 deaths and 13,000 wounded, only a small percentage
of Americans have suffered directly – but their pain and suffering is
growing and more noticeable every day. Taxes have not been raised to pay the
bills for the current war, so annual deficits and national debt continue to
grow. This helps delay the pain of paying the bills, but the consequences of
this process are starting to be felt. Direct tax increases, a more honest way
to finance foreign interventionism, would serve to restrain those who so cavalierly
take us to war. The borrowing authority of governments permits wars to be started
and prolonged that otherwise would be resisted if the true costs were known
to the people from the beginning.
Americans have an especially unique ability to finance our war efforts while
minimizing the immediate effect. As the issuer of the world's reserve currency,
we are able to finance our extravagance through inflating our dollars. We have
the special privilege of printing that which the world accepts as money in lieu
of gold. This is an invitation to economic disaster, permitting an ill-founded
foreign policy that sets the stage for problems for years to come. A system
of money that politicians and central bankers could not manipulate would restrain
those with grandiose ideas of empire.
The Federal Reserve was created in 1913, and shortly thereafter the Fed accommodated
the Wilsonians bent on entering WWI by inflating and deficit-financing that
ill-begotten involvement. Though it produced the 1921 depression and many other
problems since, the process subsequently has become institutionalized in financing
our militarism in the 20th century and already in the 21st. Without the Fed's
ability to create money out of thin air, our government would be severely handicapped
in waging wars that do not serve our interests. The money issue and the ability
of our government to wage war are intricately related. Anyone interested in
curtailing wartime spending and our militarism abroad is obligated to study
the monetary system, through which our government seductively and surreptitiously
finances foreign adventurism without the responsibility of informing the public
of its cost or collecting the revenues required to finance the effort.
Being the issuer of the world's premier currency allows for a lot more abuse
than a country would have otherwise. World businesses, governments, and central
banks accept our dollars as if they are as good as gold. This is a remnant of
a time when the dollar was as good as gold. That is no longer the case. The
trust is still there, but it's a misplaced trust. Since the dollar is simply
a paper currency without real value, someday confidence will be lost and our
goose will no longer be able to lay the golden egg. That's when reality will
set in and the real cost of our extravagance, both domestic and foreign, will
be felt by all Americans. We will no longer be able to finance our war machine
through willing foreigners, who now gladly take our newly printed dollars for
their newly produced goods and then loan them back to us at below-market interest
rates to support our standard of living and our war effort.
The payment by American citizens will come as the dollar loses value, interest
rates rise, and prices increase. The higher prices become the tax that a more
honest government would have levied directly to pay for the war effort. An unpopular
war especially needs this deception as a method of payment, hiding the true
costs that are dispersed and delayed through this neat little monetary trick.
The real tragedy is that this "inflation tax" is not evenly distributed
among all the people, and more often than not is borne disproportionately by
the poor and the middle class as a truly regressive tax in the worst sense.
Politicians in Washington do not see inflation as an unfair seductive tax. Our
monetary policy unfortunately is never challenged even by the proponents of
low taxes who care so little about deficits, but eventually it all comes to
an end because economic law overrides the politicians' deceit.
Already we are seeing signs on the horizon that this free ride for us is coming
to an end. Price inflation is alive and well and much worse than government
statistics show. The sluggish economy suggests that the super stimulation of
easy credit over the last decades is no longer sufficient to keep the economy
strong. Our personal consumption and government spending are dependent on borrowing
from foreign lenders. Artificially high standards of living can mask the debt
accumulation that it requires while needed savings remain essentially nil.
This ability to print the reserve currency of the world, and the willingness
of foreigners to take it, causes gross distortions in our current account deficits
and total foreign indebtedness. It plays a major role in the erosion of our
manufacturing base, and causes the exporting of our jobs along with our dollars.
Bashing foreigners, particularly the Chinese and the Japanese, as the cause
of our dwindling manufacturing and job base is misplaced. It prevents the evaluation
of our own policies – policies that undermine and increase the price of
our own manufacturing goods while distorting the trade balance. Though we continue
to benefit from the current circumstances, through cheap imports on borrowed
money, the shaky fundamentals make our economy and financial system vulnerable
to sudden and severe adjustments. Foreigners will not finance our excessive
standard of living and our expensive wars overseas indefinitely. It will end!
What we do in the meantime to prepare for that day will make all the difference
in the world for the future of freedom in this country. It's the future of freedom
in this country that is truly the legitimate responsibility of us as members
Centuries ago, the notion of money introduced the world to trade and the principle
of division of labor, ushering in for the first time a level of economic existence
above mere subsistence. Modern fiat money with electronic transactions has given
an additional boost to that prosperity. But unlike sound commodity money, fiat
money, with easy credit and artificially low interest rates, causes distortions
and malinvestments that require corrections. The modernization of electronic
global transfers, which with sound money would be beneficial, has allowed for
greater distortion and debt to be accumulated – setting the stage for
a much more serious period of adjustment requiring an economic downturn, liquidation
of debt, and reallocation of resources that must come from savings rather than
a central bank printing press.
These economic laws will limit our ability to pursue our foreign interventions
no matter how well intentioned and "successful" they may seem. The
Soviet system collapsed of its own weakness. I fear an economic collapse here
at home much more than an attack by a foreign country. Above all, the greatest
concern should be for the systematic undermining of our personal liberties since
9/11, which will worsen with an ongoing foreign war and the severe economic
problems that are coming.
Since we are not fighting the war to defend our homeland and we abuse so many
of our professed principles, we face great difficulties in resolving the growing
predicament in which we find ourselves. Our options are few, and admitting errors
in judgment is not likely to occur. Moral forces are against us as we find ourselves
imposing our will on a people 6,000 miles from our shores. How would the American
people respond if a foreign country, with people of a different color, religion,
and language imposed itself on us to make us conform to their notions of justice
and goodness? None of us would sit idly by. This is why those who see themselves
as defenders of their homeland and their way of life have the upper hand regardless
of the shock-and-awe military power available to us. At this point, our power
works perversely. The stronger and more violent we are, the greater the resistance
The neoconservatives who took us to war under false pretenses either didn't
know or didn't care about the history and traditions of the Iraqi people. Surely
they must have heard of an Islamic defensive jihad that is easy to promote when
one's country is being attacked by foreign forces. Family members have religious
obligations to avenge all killings by foreign forces, which explains why killing
insurgents only causes their numbers to multiply. This family obligation to
seek revenge is closely tied to achieving instant eternal martyrdom through
vengeful suicide attacks. Parents of martyrs do not weep as the parents of our
soldiers do; they believe the suicide bombers and their families are glorified.
These religious beliefs cannot simply be changed during the war. The only thing
we can do is remove the incentives we give to the religious leaders of the jihad
by leaving them alone. Without our presence in the Middle East, whether on the
Arabian Peninsula or in Iraq, the rallying cry for suicidal jihadists would
ring hollow. Was there any fear for our national security from a domestic terrorist
attack by Islamists before we put a base in Saudi Arabia?
Our freedoms here at home have served the interests of those who are hell-bent
on pursuing an American empire, though this too will be limited by economic
costs and the undermining of our personal liberties.
A free society produces more wealth for more people than any other. That wealth
for many years can be confiscated to pay for the militarism advocated by those
who promote preemptive war. But militarism and its costs undermine the very
market system that provided the necessary resources to begin with. As this happens,
productivity and wealth is diminished, putting pressure on authorities to ruthlessly
extract even more funds from the people. For what they cannot collect through
taxes they take through currency inflation – eventually leading to an
inability to finance unnecessary and questionable warfare and bringing the process
to an end. It happened to the Soviets, and their military machine collapsed.
Hitler destroyed Germany's economy, but he financed his aggression for several
years by immediately stealing the gold reserves of every country he occupied.
That, too, was self-limited, and he met his military defeat. For us, it's less
difficult since we can confiscate the wealth of American citizens and the savers
of the world merely by printing more dollars to support our militarism. Though
different in detail, we too must face the prospect that this system of financing
is seriously flawed, and our expensive policy of worldwide interventionism will
collapse. Only a profound change in attitudes regarding our foreign policy,
our fiscal policy, and our monetary policy will save us from ourselves.
If we did make these changes, we would not need to become isolationists, despite
what many claim. Isolationism is not the only alternative to intervention in
other nations' affairs. Freedom works! Free markets supported by sound money,
private property, and respect for all voluntary contracts can set an example
for the world – since the resulting prosperity would be significant and
distributed more widely than any socialist system. Instead of using force to
make others do it our way, our influence could be through the example we set
that would motivate others to emulate us. Trade, travel, exchange of ideas,
and friendly relationships with all those who seek friendship are a far cry
from a protectionist, closed-border nation that would serve no one's interests.
This type of society would be greatly enhanced with a worldwide commodity standard
of money. This would prevent the imbalances that are a great burden to today's
economy. Our current account deficits and total foreign indebtedness would not
occur under an honest, nonpolitical commodity money. Competitive devaluations
and abnormally fixed exchanged rates would not be possible as tools of protectionism.
We can be certain that the distortions in trade balance and the WTO trade wars
that are multiplying will eventually lead to a serious challenge to worldwide
trade. The tragedy of trade wars is that they frequently lead to military wars
between nations, and until the wealth is consumed and young men are no longer
available to fight and die, the process will cost plenty.
We must not forget that real peace and prosperity are available to us. America
has a grand tradition in this regard, despite her shortcomings. It's just that
in recent decades, the excessive unearned wealth available to us to run our
welfare/warfare state has distracted us from our important traditions –
honoring liberty and emphasizing self-reliance and responsibility. Up until
the 20th century, we were much less eager to go around the world searching for
dragons to slay. That tradition is a good one, and one that we must soon reconsider
before the ideal of personal liberty is completely destroyed.
1. The costs of war are always much more than anticipated, while the benefits
are much less.
2. The cost of war is more than just the dollars spent; it includes deaths,
injuries, and destruction, along with unintended consequences that go on for
3. Support for offensive wars wears thin, especially when they are not ended
4. The Iraq war now has been going on for 15 years with no end in sight.
5. Ulterior motives too often preempt national security in offensive wars.
6. Powerful nations too often forget humility in their relationships to other
7. World history and religious dogmatism are too often ignored and misunderstood.
8. World government is no panacea for limiting war.
9. Most wars could be avoided with better diplomacy, a mutual understanding
of minding one's own business, and respect for the right of self-determination.
Ron Paul is a Republican Congressman from Texas. He was the 1988 Libertarian Party candidate for President.