There is some mood for change, largely led by Australians for War Powers Reform. Picture Gary Ramage
There is some mood for change, largely led by Australians for War Powers Reform. Picture Gary Ramage

What is war good for? Trillions of dollars of debt

When people talk about Ivy League they could well be talking about Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, founded in 1764 and the seventh oldest college in the United States.

It doesn't exactly say radical, lefty, hippy, revolutionary or even particularly exciting to me. Berkley, it ain't.

So it seems an unlikely but solid source for a Cost of War report headlined by the finding that the bill for the Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria wars adds up to an eye-watering $A8.1 trillion. And because this War on Terror and associated calamities are funded out of domestic and foreign borrowings, interest charges will add an estimated $A11 trillion over the next 40 years.

This means that an American kid leaving school right about now will be carrying some portion of the war burden when he or she is pushing 60 in 2058.

That's just the monetary cost. Add to that the 6950 American soldiers and up to 7800 civilian contactors killed in these wars.

And, says the report, more than 480,000 people (including 244,000 civilians) died due to direct war violence and more than 21 million are living as refugees or displaced people.

Let's not run away with the idea that we're talking ancient history here because the US Government is now conducting counter-terror activities in 76 countries.

The cost of Australia's involvement in these wars has been comparatively small in world terms but massive in relative terms.

The human cost for us has been "only" about 50 soldiers, although every one has meant devastation for families. Add to that the hundreds left wounded, maimed, broken or traumatised and the butchers' bill is painful.

The human cost for us has been “only” about 50 soldiers, although every one has meant devastation for families. Picture: supplied
The human cost for us has been “only” about 50 soldiers, although every one has meant devastation for families. Picture: supplied

The monetary cost is more difficult to calculate, although attempts to do so have come up with some frightening sums.

Back in 2011, 10 years after the terrorists attack on New York, experts reckoned that we had already spent about $A30 billion on the wars and associated police, intelligence and security programs.

Today we might add a few billion to cover our various border security measures and a few billion more to take our defence expenditure up to the 2 per cent of GDP mark.

It's not hard to imagine that four decades on a middle-aged Australian will still be paying his or her mite towards settling our war debt.

Could we ever reach the point where we can't afford to go to war?

It was accepted wisdom in 1914 that no war could last more than a few months before the combatants were financially exhausted.

But, demonstrating a tenacity and ingenuity that seemed to elude them in peacetime, the warring nations managed to bankroll four years of slaughter.

However, there are limitations.

Only this week former US deputy assistant Secretary of Defence David Ochanek warned that his country would struggle to stay ahead of China's military if it stuck with a budgetary strategy of tax cuts and massive deficits.

Presumably the $A8.1 trillion borrowing plus $A11 trillion in interest payments is factored into those depressing deficit calculations.

The weird thing is that such profligacy remains in practical terms the political prerogative of politicians in many of the countries involved.

Such prolificacy remains in practical terms the political prerogative of politicians in many of the countries involved. Picture: supplied
Such prolificacy remains in practical terms the political prerogative of politicians in many of the countries involved. Picture: supplied

After 9/11 the US Congress authorised the president "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organisations, or persons he determines planned, authorised, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks," as well as against those who "harboured such organisations or persons".

All these years later and on seemingly endless battlefronts, that remains the hook on which the US hangs its steel helmet.

In Australia there is no requirement for any such authorisation before the Government (effectively the prime minister and cabinet) deploys the armed forces or declares war.

Unlike, the US and Britain, there is not even much appetite for examining the exercise of these powers after the event.

Initiatives such as the Chilcot Inquiry into Britain's involvement in the Iraq War might be mildly satisfying but they are a little like arguing with the kids over the ignition keys long after they have pranged the family car.

There is no doubt that our government must have the power to respond to events quickly, decisively and even violently but we should have the machinery whereby the parliament must give its approval within a certain time.

It seems odd that our parliament can spend weeks considering comparative trifles but it has no say in sending young men and women to fight and die and condemning unborn generations to pay down the debt.

There is some mood for change, largely led by Australians for War Powers Reform.

Some might find it a bit left, a touch green, slightly naive, pointlessly retributive or even pacifist, but it's difficult to deny the basic premise that our parliament should have more oversight over our military adventures.

Terry Sweetman is a columnist for The Courier-Mail.



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