After 20 Years, Measuring the True Costs of America’s Post-9/11 Wars

This fall marks the 20th year of American military engagement abroad following the events of 9/11. This year Trending Globally is teaming up with scholars at the Costs of War project to explore the effects of two decades of war. The Costs of War project is an interdisciplinary group of scholars who have stepped in where the government has often failed, working to measure the true financial, human, political, and environmental costs of America’s post-9/11 wars. 

On this episode Sarah Baldwin ’87 talks with Stephanie Savell, one of the project’s directors, about how the organization started and why its work is more necessary than ever. Dan Richards talks with David Vine about one of the most heartbreaking costs of these wars: the more than 38 million people who have been displaced from their homes in countries including Afghanistan and Iraq.

Learn more about the Costs of War Project. 

Learn more about and purchase David Vine’s book ​​The United States of War

A Global History of America's Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State.

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s other podcasts.  


SARAH BALDWIN: In Twenty-Seventeen, Stephanie Savell decided to make a map.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: It was actually an idea that came up at one of our Costs of War strategy meetings. Someone was like, well, we really should have a map of what we're talking about here.

SARAH BALDWIN: Stephanie is one of the three directors of the Costs of War Project, which is housed at the Watson Institute. Its mission is to measure the true costs of America's post-9/11 wars, not just financial but also human, political, and environmental.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: It was founded by two professors-- Dr. Catherine Lutz and Dr. Neta Crawford. They were both based at the Watson Institute. And at the time it was-- the Twenty-Eleven was the 10-year of the post-9/11 wars.

SARAH BALDWIN: Its founders started the project because they noticed a gap in information and reporting that existed about America's wars post-9/11.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: There was very little questioning about the basic premise of, should we even be waging this war to begin with? What are our goals, and are we accomplishing them? And is there a better strategy for meeting our goals?

SARAH BALDWIN: The project started as an effort to gather data, often that's hidden from view, which could help Americans answer those questions. Stephanie joined the project in Twenty-Sixteen. And that brings us back to that map which she started the following year. The purpose of it was to identify all the countries where the US was engaged in counter-terrorism operations.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: And I thought, OK, well, maybe this map is going to be, maybe it's seven countries or something like that. And I just imagine something very simple. And I was, like, sure I can do that. Little did I know that I was embarking on a research Odyssey.

SARAH BALDWIN: How could this become such an Odyssey, you might ask. Well, first, they ran up against a surprisingly complicated question-- how do you define military presence in the first place? A military base? Troops actively fighting? Do you include countries where American drones flew overhead? Let's even take what might be considered the most straightforward definition. US soldiers physically fighting and dying in another country. Even that was surprisingly tough to count.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: It ended up being this incredibly tricky thing to figure out, because the US military is not advertising when that happens, certainly not in places like Niger. I don't know if you remember about Twenty-Seventeen was the year that four US soldiers died in Niger. And the public and Congress were, like, what are we doing in Niger?

I would just get bogged down in these long meetings where we were like, OK, well, there's this article that says there's troops on the ground in Cameroon, but there's no proof that they actually exchanged in gunfire. We were of having to make a distinction between, oh, there's some military exercises on the border with Russia. And we're not going to include those because we're focused on the counter-terrorism ones.

Another example was a case in Libya, where the US military was engaged in some kind of a firefight with militant groups. And the way that I found out about that incident was that there were some service medals that were awarded to some of the service members who were involved in that firefight that day. And that was how I found out it was just an obscure reference that I was able to trace.

SARAH BALDWIN: What Stephanie thought was going to be a quick project turned out to be almost as endless as the conflicts she was researching. And the total number of countries so far on the map, you ask.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: We're conducting terrorism operations in 85 countries now.

SARAH BALDWIN: That last example Stephanie mentioned about American deaths in Libya really sums up how we've understood these wars. Stephanie only learned about these deaths because of medals that were given to veterans. It's like we're supposed to celebrate our military without really asking them what they've been up to.

From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. This fall marks 20 years of American military engagement following the events of 9/11. This year, we're teaming up with the Costs of War Project for a series of episodes looking at some of the hidden costs these scholars have exposed.

On this episode, we'll be talking with two people. The first, whom you've already heard from here, is Stephanie Savell. I talked with her not just about her endless map project but also about the origins and motivations of the costs of war, and why, despite the US's recent withdrawal from Afghanistan, this project is far from over. Here's Stephanie again.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: Since I've been leading the project, I guess it's been five years now, I've really been trying to connect our research to the public and ramp up our ability to connect to journalists and editors to share our findings with civil society groups and with members of Congress. We really see ourselves as aligned with a broader peace movement, and we work with a lot of civil society groups who are doing a lot of advocacy work.

SARAH BALDWIN: Before we go any further, I wanted to ask you to clarify something. In your work, you do not use the phrase "war on terror." You say post-9/11 wars. Can you explain that?

STEPHANIE SAVELL: Using the term "the war on terror" is problematic for lots of different reasons. One reason is that terrorism is a political term. And so the people who are conducting a military operation have an incentive to name a certain group of people as terrorists because it justifies war and a military approach.

Those same people you could call them insurgents or you could call them political opposition members, or you could call them militants. That's often the term I use. So it's really a way of obscuring rather than clarifying what's going on. And it's used in service of the people in power to perpetrate violence.

SARAH BALDWIN: The military and the US federal government keeps loads of statistics about everything. So why do we need the Costs of War to do that as well?

STEPHANIE SAVELL: Yes the government keeps loads of statistics. But those statistics sometimes are obfuscating rather than clarifying. So the Pentagon puts out a number of this is how much the war has cost. And it discourages people from asking, well, what about the other ways that this is going to affect our federal budget and our society for generations.

What the Pentagon does is put out a number there are a number of $1 trillion is purely based on a certain category of budgetary spending. It's a technical term for Overseas Contingency Operations, OCO, funding. And that's what they say that the war has cost. And we say, well, wait a minute, there are not just what the military has spent but there's also-- veterans' care is a huge expense of these post-9/11 wars. So is interest on borrowing to pay for these wars.

There is the ways that the war has inflated the Pentagon's base budget. So all the equipment, the pay for troops to return to the war zones again and again, the ways that the Pentagon has beefed up its network of bases around the world, all of these things have been baked into the Pentagon's base budget, which is now at over $700 billion a year, which is this astronomical sum. And what you can see if you look historically is that after a conflict, that Pentagon's base budget is not going to go down. We have that under a category called increases to the Pentagon's base budget because of the post-9/11 wars. So all of those things go into our estimate that make it higher than what the Pentagon says.

SARAH BALDWIN: Your group doesn't just count costs in dollars and cents and military spending, including veterans care. I mean, as astronomical as those are, how else do you define and measure the costs of war?

STEPHANIE SAVELL: We talk about costs and think about costs in a really broad sense just as you're saying. So it's not just economic but also human, social, political, environmental. And I'll give you just a couple of examples. One of them is the ways that the post-9/11 wars have intensified police militarization in the United States. So the flow of equipment from the military to our police departments, the flow of veterans into police departments who are hired as police, that has been an explicit strategy.

Another example is the US military, if it were a country, it would be ranked somewhere around 40th in the amount of carbon emissions that it has. So it's the single highest institutional carbon emitter in the world. It's ironic because the US military often talks about the security threats of climate change-- rising sea levels, increasing conflict, and that kind of thing, but when you dig into what's been the actual military's carbon emissions, it's a huge contributor to climate change.

SARAH BALDWIN: How do service people and professionals in the military feel about your work? Are you like persona non grata?

STEPHANIE SAVELL: It's interesting. I'm always struck by, if I give a public talk like if I talk on the radio or something like that, I've often gotten emails afterwards from people in the military, even top leaders being, like, thank you so much for pushing the envelope. You guys need to keep getting this work out there. This information needs to get out to the public. We really share with a lot of service members desire to lessen the chances that service members will die in war. And so in a lot of ways, we're actually on the same page remarkably with a lot of individuals.

SARAH BALDWIN: Do you think anyone imagined when this project started that in Twenty-Twenty-One it would still be going on?

STEPHANIE SAVELL: Yeah, it's really discouraging to think about it this way. But there will always be a room for this project. And if it's not the post-9/11 wars, it's going to be the next form of US militarism. The US unfortunately has a militarized status quo, and it's very hard to think about how that will change and yet we must continue fighting for that change.

d back in the early days, the:

And sometimes I think about that because I think we're up against a similar kind of an enormous beast, the military industrial complex. All the lobbying that goes on, all the corporations that have a stake in this, the ways that there are weapons manufacturers in almost every state. They've spread out so that they would be strategically located in a lot of Congress people's districts. So there are so many ways that this way of being is entrenched and yet we can't not do anything. We have to work for a different way of life really in this country.

SARAH BALDWIN: Stephanie, thank you so much for talking with us today. It's been great to have you on the show.

STEPHANIE SAVELL: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.

SARAH BALDWIN: Dollars in loss of life, blood and treasure as it were, might be the first two costs you think of when it comes to war. But last year, a group with the Costs of War tallied another effect. And media outlets across the world took notice. It was a measure of human displacement, and the number was almost unfathomable-- 37 million people.

DAVID VINE: That's as many people as live in Canada.

SARAH BALDWIN: That's David Vine, one of the authors of the paper. He's a professor of anthropology at American University and the author of The United States of War-- A Global History of America's Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State. Our producer Dan Richards spoke with David about what this number means for America and the world, and what it still Mrs. when it comes to understanding the human costs of mass displacement.

DAN RICHARDS: David Vine, thank you so much for talking with us on Trending Globally.

DAVID VINE: Thank you. I'm really excited to talk to you.

DAN RICHARDS: I was wondering if you could just describe what are the different types of displacement, because it doesn't just mean one thing. And you have a few different definitions you use in these descriptions.

DAVID VINE: Yeah, when we talk about displacement, we're talking about first and foremost, people who have been forced to flee war. We're not just talking about any kind of displacement or migration, we're talking about people fleeing for their lives. And in that total that we've now actually updated, we've documented 38 million people at least who have been displaced, 38 million people who have been forced to flee their homes by the eight most violent wars the US military has been waging since Two Thousand and One.

And that includes both refugees, people who have been forced to flee outside their home countries, and internally displaced people. So in Afghanistan, for example, we have documented at least 5.9 million people who have fled their homes. And that includes 2.1 million refugees and 3.9 million internally displaced people. And surely the total exceeds 6 million now just in the past few weeks since we updated our figures.

DAN RICHARDS: And so in Afghanistan, for example, there are more people, as you say, internally displaced, meaning they're fleeing their homes but they're not leaving the country that they're in. But that in Afghanistan, that's a larger number than people who are leaving the country. I think that's something I hadn't really thought about. Did that surprise you at all, the level of internal displacement?

DAVID VINE: Internal displacement is always a major issue and has been worldwide. I think that the thing we can learn from the relative numbers of refugees and internally displaced people is that, of course, people don't want to flee their homes. And generally when they do, they're seeking safety as close as possible to home. But frequently they realize as many in Afghanistan now realize with the Taliban coming to power that they have to escape Afghanistan completely.

But frequently people travel shorter distances. And it's frequently the most privileged displaced people who are able to become refugees because they have the finances to cross a border or to make a longer distance migration that would require the funds to support yourself over long distances.

DAN RICHARDS: Another thing that really stood out to me in your research was the number of countries that have been affected in this way. And I think maybe to many Americans, it could be surprising that it's not just the one, two, or three countries. We often think of as having US military engagements with over the last 20 years.

DAVID VINE: Yeah, very, very few people in the United States know how broadly the US military has been fighting since Two Thousand and One. The global war on terror began in Afghanistan in October, Two Thousand and One, but quickly spread literally around the world so that US combat troops have been engaged in some form of war combat in at least 25 countries in the past 20 years.

So we focused on the eight most violent wars that the United States has been engaged in since Two Thousand and One. So that's Afghanistan and the overlapping war in Pakistan. That's also Iraq of course, the war that began in Two Thousand and Three and where US troops are still engaged in fighting. And it also includes Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, Syria, Libya.

But as you noted, US troops are engaged in many more countries where we were unable to document the full scale of displacement. So the 38 million figure is conservative in a couple respects. So in all our assumptions, in all our methodologies, we were as careful as possible in our documentation.

The actual total number of people displaced in these eight most violent wars may actually reach 49 to as much as 60 million, which would put it on par with the displacement seen during World War II, to give people some sense of perspective. 38 million people, that's as many people as live in Canada. That's as many people as live in California.

DAN RICHARDS: It is incomprehensible almost.

DAVID VINE: It is. And that's why our report and in our writing, we really encourage people to try to connect with the experience of just one displaced person. It does become impossible really to comprehend what it means to have 38 million people displaced. So instead, I think it's much easier and important for each of us to reflect on what it would feel like if we were forced to flee our homes tonight.

We should grapple with that experience of fear, of trauma. If I had to flee my home tonight, where the heck would I go? And those are the decisions that the displaced in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, and beyond, that's the kind of thinking they've been engaged in and they've been forced to grapple with and then forced to find some safety.

DAN RICHARDS: What got first interested in trying to tally these numbers?

DAVID VINE: I think first and foremost, it was because no one had done it. No one had bothered to document and calculate how many people have been displaced by the post-9/11 wars. The Costs of War Project has been amazing in documenting how many people have been killed by the post-9/11 wars as well as the financial costs and other dimensions of the human damage inflicted by these wars.

And when we think about the effects of war generally and the effects of the post-9/11 wars, we have to place displacement at the center of the analysis. But we together realized that no one had bothered to put together the numbers. And that is part of the impetus for the entire project, that the US government really has not informed the US people what these wars have meant, what these wars have meant for people in the United States and what they've meant for people in the war zones.

And I think we're seeing now-- with the attention to Afghans who've been trying to flee Afghanistan, we're seeing growing attention to the experience of Afghans and to the plight of refugees in particular, which is encouraging to me, because I think when the issue gets more attention, people care. People can relate to people who are fleeing for their lives and people want to support them. Of course, there is a tremendous amount of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee forms of racism and discrimination. But indeed, this is something that we can and have overcome in the past.

DAN RICHARDS: How many refugees from Afghanistan has the US committed to admitting into the United States thus far?

DAVID VINE: The Biden administration prior to August had announced that it was only going to resettle a maximum of 62,500 refugees total from around the world in Twenty-Twenty-One and 125,000 in Twenty-Twenty-Two, 125,000 in Twenty-Twenty-Two. Although it then admitted actually they wouldn't even reach those targets. So in the last weeks of August, the United States evacuated around 114,000 Afghans from the Kabul airport alone.

The US has admitted relatively small numbers of Afghans up to this point. In fact, I'm quite sure that the 114,000 evacuated in the last days of August probably at very least doubled and perhaps tripled the number of Afghan refugees that have been resettled in the United States since Two Thousand and One. So I've been calling on the Biden administration to announce a refugee cap of at least 300,000 a year for the next five years, if not 10 years.

We can get stuck in the numbers. The bottom line is the United States can and must resettle drastically larger numbers of Afghan refugees and refugees from all the wars the United States has been engaged in. Let me just say one more thing.

Some people may say that, oh, it is completely unrealistic to resettle a million Afghan refugees or a million Iraqi refugees. Again, I just would underline that the United States has done this before. United States resettled more than a million Vietnamese refugees and tens of thousands more Lao and Cambodian refugees after the end of the US war in Vietnam in Southeast Asia.

And other countries have been doing this. In little more than a year in Twenty-Fifteen and Twenty-Sixteen, Germany accepted more than a million refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, and beyond. Canada, on a per capita basis, has resettled far more refugees than the United States has.

DAN RICHARDS: Beyond admitting refugees into the United States, what are other ways to try and make up for these effects on people's lives?

DAVID VINE: I think war reparations have to be part of the answer. And war reparations, as they have in other wars, can take on many forms. What I've been calling for is not just for the United States to resettle more than a million Afghan refugees, and again, I think at least a million Iraqi refugees as well, but to also assist displaced Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Yemenis, and others where they are first and foremost.

Often they're displaced locally or regionally. And then to assist with the resettlement of refugees back in their home countries when conditions allow. Because again, generally people want to return home when it is safe enough to go home.

But again, I think we have to have a bigger conversation and go beyond conversation to take action. We have to, first and foremost, put the human effects of our foreign policy choices first. And I think they've been neglected for decades. And that's part of why I think the Costs of War Project is so important because it has put the human impacts of war first. And I think we need to grapple with the damage, the human damage, first and foremost, that the US government, the United States has inflicted as a result of our wars.

DAN RICHARDS: David Vine, thank you so much for talking with us on Trending Globally.

DAVID VINE: Thank you again for having me on.

SARAH BALDWIN: This episode was produced by Dan Richards. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. I'm Sarah Baldwin.

Thanks again to Stephanie Savell and David Vine for talking with us. We'll put links to all the research we discussed in the show notes. If you like the show, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps other people find us. And even better, tell a friend who you think might like the show to subscribe.

You can learn more about the Watson Institute's other podcasts on our website. We'll put a link to that in the show notes too. We'll be back in two weeks with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks for listening.

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