the costs of war

William R. Polk writing at Informed Comment:
March 1, 2008

As you will know from the press, the US has suffered nearly 4,000 casualties— as of last week, to be exact, 3,958 in addition to another 482 in Afghanistan. Our wounded cannot be so precisely counted as they fall into various categories. One hears or reads the figure 30,000-- that was the figure given by Senator Obama last night, but he was wrong about it. It is only a small fraction of the total.

One of the most striking wounds is a direct result of the nature of guerrilla warfare— concussions. Concussions were not even noted until after 2003. Now it is believed that about 1 in 10 US soldiers and Marines— that is roughly 50,000 men and women— has been affected.Treating these wounded is a long-time task. Most will never fully recover. Meanwhile, they will be unable to function normally. So side effects will ripple through their communities— loss of jobs, inability to function as parents, divorces, anger, despair. And the cost of treatment will range from $600,000 to $5 million dollars a person.

The loss of limbs should be easier to count, but the figures are in dispute. A minimum is about 8,000. Most of these people will recover, but many of them will spend their lives in wheel chairs.

As far as I have been able to find, no statistics have been broken out for those paralyzed.

But 1 in 4 of the soldiers and Marines (the US Surgeon General put the figure at 1 in 3— that is between 125 and nearly 200 thousand) has an illness we did not even know existed until 1980. It is PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder.

And the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that 1 in 3 of the men and women who served in Iraq— perhaps 200 thousand needs mental health treatment. Some of these need help because they are either suicidal or could endanger others.

The most complicated and frightening “wound,” however, is result of the use of depleted uranium bombs and artillery shells. We used them because uranium is a very heavy metal and is better at penetrating armor. In itself, depleted uranium is not much more dangerous than steel. But upon impact, a shell generates intense heat which causes the depleted uranium to mutate into an aerosol of uranium oxide, U3 08. As Dr. Hans Noll American Cancer Society Professor of Biology has written to me, “It settles as a fine dust, which enters the body in a variety of ways. Uranium oxide is an extremely potent neurotoxin with a high affinity for DNA. This DNA fragmentation results in genetic defects like cancer and malformation in developing fetuses. Inhaled as dust, uranium oxide accumulates in the lungs, liver and kidneys and affects the nervous system.” It is inevitable that we face thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of cases of cancer as a result of the use of this weapon. As General Brent Scowcroft laconically put it, “Depleted uranium is more of a problem than we thought when it was developed.” It certainly is.

These "wounds" add up to very large numbers. We should not be surprised since 169,000 of the 580,400 men and women who fought in the first Gulf War are on permanent medical disability at a cost of $2 billion a year. For this, the second Gulf War, the estimated medical costs equal the combat costs or roughly half a trillion dollars.

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More than one million Iraqis have died as a result of the conflict in their country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

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