Paying for Our Wars

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Now that President Obama has decided to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan the question of how to pay for this increased level of operations has arisen. In fact the question of how to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should have been raised shortly after the attacks of 9-11 when the Bush administration decided to overthrow the regimes in both of those countries.

Throughout our history whenever this nation became involved in a significant conflict, its leaders conscripted men to ensure that its forces had enough people to wage the war successfully and raised taxes to insure that the cost of the wars would not be passed on to future generations and that the American people, as well as the men and women in uniform, would have to sacrifice to achieve the objectives of the war.

In fact at the height of the war in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson balanced the budget by raising taxes and cutting some government programs. Harry Truman did the same during the Korean War. And, in real dollars in both of those wars, defense spending was not as high as it is today.

But in conducting what the Bush administration labeled the war on terror, which has involved sending some two million men and women into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, this country has done neither. As a result the men and women in our armed services, especially the ground forces, have had to serve multiple tours in the war zones without sufficient time at home to recover from the strains of combat and some 200,000 volunteers have had their terms of enlistment extended involuntarily.

Moreover, while about 5,000 service personnel have been killed and another 50,000 have suffered physical wounds, another 400,000 have developed mental problems. Moreover, to get enough volunteers to fight these endless wars, the Army has had to lower its standards and increase its baseline pay and benefits substantially. Finally, suicide rates, divorce, and spousal abuse among the veterans returning from multiple combat tours have skyrocketed.

The direct costs of funding these conflicts now totals about $1 trillion while the indirect costs will probably amount to $5 trillion when one adds in veterans benefits, long-term care of the physically and mentally wounded, and interest on the national debt. President Bush, who inherited a budget surplus from President Clinton, not only did not raise taxes, he cut them, and squandered the surplus while accumulating more debt that all of his 42 predecessors combined, almost all of which was borrowed from countries like China.

Not drafting people or raising taxes to pay for these conflicts is both a moral and a security failure. Not only is the current policy of not activating the selective service system unfair to today's volunteers, but running the wars on a credit card saddles future generations with the cost of paying for wars they had no part in deciding. Moreover, by borrowing money from a rising power like China, we have undermined our ability to balance its influence in the Middle East, Africa and East Asia.

Finally, because most Americans did not have to make any sacrifices to undertake these conflicts, they failed to ask the right questions or hold their leaders fully accountable for waging these wars. If, for example, before invading Iraq, President Bush had reinstituted conscription and levied a 10 percent income surtax, would 60 percent of Americans have supported the conflict without UN authorization and would only a handful of senators have read the whole National Intelligence Estimate, which showed that the case for invading Iraq was dubious at best?

When America goes to war it should not just be the military but the American people. Never again should we go to Wal-Mart while the soldiers go to battle. Paying for the increased force level in Afghanistan will be a step in the right direction.

Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.