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Tomahawks and Teachers

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In his address to the nation on Monday, March 28, President Obama justified the bombing of Libya as a defense of vital national interests in the region and as part of the traditional role of the United States as the world's primary defender of global security and advocate for human freedom. He also assured the American people that the military actions would be temporary and that the U.S. would turn over military operations to its allies in NATO.

Opinions on the bombing of Libya and of Obama's promise that the U.S. actions are temporary will vary, but what was undeniably missing from the speech was any discussion of the cost of the new war. Given the rising costs of prolonged military ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, which were also supposed to be temporary but have turned out to be a decade long, the American people have a right to be suspicious. This is especially the case given the slumping national economy, persistent unemployment, and threatened new rounds of teacher lay-offs across the nation.

On March 15, more than 30,000 pink slips were mailed to teachers in California, including 2,800 in the Bay Area, according to the California Teachers Association. Detroit, Michigan will have to close 70 of its 142 schools. In Providence, Rhode Island layoff notices were sent to every single teacher. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg projects over 4,500 teacher layoffs at the end of the school year.

Between March 19 and March 28 alone the United States spent approximately $550 million on military operations in Libya, mostly on Tomahawk missiles. "Future costs are highly uncertain," said Commander Kathleen Kesler, a Pentagon spokeswoman. However, she confirmed the U.S. would likely spend another $40 million over the next several weeks. As of Monday, March 28, U.S. warships had fired nearly 200 Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles, which cost almost $1.5 million each. In addition, U.S. aircraft had dropped 455 precision-guided bombs. Those weapons vary in price, but according to an Air Force fact sheet, cost roughly $22,000 each. The government's assessment does not include the $30 million cost of a F-15E Strike Eagle fighter that crashed in Libya.

In New York State, the average starting salary for a new teacher is $37,321 a year and the overall average salary for teachers is $57,354. That means that each Tomahawk missile dropped on Libya costs the equivalent of the annual salary of forty new New York State teachers or twenty-six experienced teachers. The 200 Tomahawk missiles were worth 8,000 new teachers or 5,200 experienced teachers. In states like North Dakota, where teacher salaries are much lower, those Tomahawks would have bought at least a third more teachers.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have lasted much longer and are much more expensive. In March 2003 Vice President Dick Cheney estimated U.S. involvement in Iraq would last two years and cost approximately $100 billion (or 27,000 new New York State teachers). As of February 2010, the official estimate is that the war in Iraq has cost a $700 billion (190,000 new New York State teachers), however Nobel Prize wining economist Joseph Stiglitz puts the real total cost of the war in Iraq alone at $3 trillion or the equivalent of 810,000 new New York State teachers. Using Stiglitz's estimates, the combined cost of Iraq and Afghanistan approaches $5 trillion or well over a million new New York State teachers.

Before Presidents try to sell us a new war, they should at least tell us the cost, especially when firing one lowly Tomahawk missile means laying-off forty teachers.