Crises and controversies involving Iran and North Korea have dominated the foreign affairs news recently, so it is all too easy to forget that the United States remains involved in the two longest — and costliest — wars of its history: Afghanistan and Iraq.
The war in Afghanistan started in 2001 and continues to this day. The Iraq War, begun in 2003, still involves between 5,000 and 9,000 American troops. Those conflicts have cost a combined $2 trillion, or by some estimates more than $5 trillion, which would make them the most expensive wars in American history, except for possibly World War II.
What explains the American tolerance for such open-ended, seemingly never-ending wars?
One view is that the light footprint of modern warfare — drones, small numbers of special forces, and cyber, as opposed to large deployments of troops — is a chief culprit. This approach to conflict removes a barrier to war because it does not inflict casualties on American troops that would draw attention to and drain support for the enterprise.
This is surely a contributing factor. But I argue that the most crucial difference between these wars and those of the past is how they have been financed. Contemporary wars are all put on the nation’s credit card, and that eliminates a critical accountability link between the populace and the conduct of war. [Continue reading…]