The Domestic Costs of America’s Post-9/11 Wars

This past year, Trending Globally has been teaming up with the Costs of War Project to explore the effects of 20 years of America’s post-9/11 wars. Past episodes have explored America’s growing military presence around the world, the refugee crisis these wars have created, and the effects they’ve had on our planet and environment. 

This episode takes a closer look at how these wars have changed life in the United States – in cities, towns, and communities across the country. The first part of the episode focuses on a transformation that’s become all too visible in the past few years: the militarization of America’s police. The second part of the episode focuses on a less-visible phenomenon, but one that’s killed more servicepeople and veterans than all 20 years of combat combined

Guests on this episode:

Dr. Jessica Katzenstein 

Dr. Ben Suitt 

Learn more about the Costs of War Project

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s other podcasts


DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. This past year, we've been teaming up with the Costs of War Project at the Watson Institute to explore the effects of the last 20 years of America's post 9/11 wars. Past episodes have explored America's growing military presence around the world, the refugee crisis these wars have created, and the effects these wars have had on our planet and environment.

On this episode, we're turning our attention to how these wars have changed life at home in the United States. In our cities, towns, and communities. Later on in the episode, you'll hear from a scholar about a crisis in the United States that's killed more service people and veterans than all 20 years of combat combined. But to start, I spoke with Jessica Katzenstein, an anthropologist and contributor to the Costs of War Project about an institution that's been profoundly transformed by the last 20 years of war. America's police.

The militarization of America's police was made vividly clear in Twenty-Fourteen in Ferguson, Missouri, amidst the police response to protests over the death of Michael Brown. Viewers around the world were shocked to see on TV the war-like tactics and arms American police were using against their own citizens. But as Jessica's work shows, police and war have always been intertwined. And the intensification of their relationship after 9/11 started just barely after the attacks themselves.

We started by discussing the little-known program that's allowed America's police to so easily and cheaply arm themselves more like a branch of the military than guardians of public safety. Here's Jessica.

JESSICA KATZENSTEIN: The 10.33 program has been around since Nineteen-Ninety, but as the Costs of War report showed, it exploded after 9/11.

DAN RICHARDS: And what is the 10.33 program?

JESSICA KATZENSTEIN: So the 10.33 program is run out of the Department of Defense, and it functionally transfers surplus military equipment to local and state law enforcement. It transfers equipment for free minus the cost of shipping and maintenance. And there's a distinction on the program between equipment that's considered controlled and equipment considered non controlled. Non-controlled includes things like office supplies, workout equipment. And controlled is what usually makes the news. That's the armored personnel carrier, semi-automatic rifles.

DAN RICHARDS: So some things are off limits. But there're definitely also types of equipment that police stations hadn't previously had, right? It's not just like they're getting more of their usual police gear?

JESSICA KATZENSTEIN: Yeah. So there's equipment like mine resistant vehicles, for instance, which we only see being transferred to police departments midway through the Iraq war. As there's this drawdown and as more and more equipment that the military uses has become surplus, or considered excess by the military, so we see equipment that has been designed by US military contractors for the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan, that is now being transferred to domestic law enforcement.

DAN RICHARDS: So this program got discussed a lot in the news after the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in response to the police shooting of Michael Brown in Twenty-Fourteen. What did people see on the streets of Ferguson that got them to start looking into this program?

JESSICA KATZENSTEIN: What's interesting is that a lot of the equipment that folks saw on the streets of Ferguson, as far as I've seen from reporting, isn't necessarily traceable to the 10.33 program. 10.33 has gotten a lot of attention, but there are many other federal equipment acquisition programs that make it possible for police to buy equipment. And what people saw was armored personnel carriers and, in at least one case, a sniper on top of the APC. And, of course, heavy riot gear and flash bang grenades. And all kinds of equipment that didn't get as much attention and was certainly not as visible until Ferguson. So, yeah. Ferguson, I think, is really what brought police militarization to broader national attention.

DAN RICHARDS: And police militarization though also, it's not just the equipment and the material transformations. You also write about how it's transformation in just sort of how police work is done, and what's defined as police work. So how did 9/11 and these wars just change the scope of policing?

JESSICA KATZENSTEIN: So one huge shift post 9/11 was the fact that counter-terrorism moved to the top of police priorities. And police departments became seen as, and came to see themselves, as sort of the front line of Homeland defense. And federal agencies were being pressured to better share intelligence, and be better integrated. And police were really key part of that.

And so that manifested in different kinds of trainings and institutional collaborations with federal agencies. And it also manifested in the idea that local police were the ones who are best equipped to spot threats on the ground. Which, of course, is inextricable from Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism, which was animating a lot of global counterterror operations.

DAN RICHARDS: One stark example of that was a program run by the NYPD, that people called the, quote, Muslim surveillance program. I don't think that was the official title, but could you describe that program a little bit?

JESSICA KATZENSTEIN: It was basically a set of programs that was run out of the NYPD's intelligence division. And then it was this huge, broad-based, suspicionless surveillance program on American citizens that operated for 10 years in secrecy until the AP exposed it. It targeted Muslims and anyone from what the NYPD considered suspicious, or potentially suspicious lineages. So people who had origins in, I think, 28 different countries.

And it targeted Muslims by sending informants into mosques, mapping neighborhoods, infiltrating student organizing. And this intelligence gathering wasn't tied to any active investigations. It was shown to not have directly stopped any plots or produced any actionable leads. And it made being Muslim automatically suspicious. It shields speech, it shield organizing, disrupted people's abilities to be in community with each other, and eroded the protected right to religious practice among American Muslims.

I think it's important to note that the fact of surveillance, especially against racialized groups, is itself not new. But the access to resources and the level of integration between all these different levels was absolutely intensified in the wake of 9/11. And this integration was really seen and, I think, in many ways, continues to be seen as a good thing. That information sharing makes law enforcement more effective.

And, of course, there arguments to be made in that direction. But, certainly, the consequences include programs like the NYPD's Muslim surveillance program, which has disrupted countless people's lives.

DAN RICHARDS: You also write how Homeland Security was very involved in this kind of training of police officers. And you write how the Homeland Security grant program had no system to assess funding effectiveness. Did not know the amount of funding required to, quote, achieve preparedness and response capabilities. And did not require states to report their progress. It was just like, we're taking over some things now.

JESSICA KATZENSTEIN: Yeah, I think that speaks to how the American counterterror infrastructure has operated since 9/11. It also speaks to how we tend to think about the military. And how we tend to think about policing. And the mandates of those institutions is always expanding, I think, is something that should concern all of us.

DAN RICHARDS: And one thing you've touched on in this conversation, but I wanted to get into a little more is that it's also an error to think that police militarization means that there is a time when America's police was not militarized. Something that I thought was really fascinating was this idea of sort of the boomerang effect of colonialism, and the roles foreign violence plays in our sort of domestic law enforcement. And I wonder if you could just talk about that history a little bit?

JESSICA KATZENSTEIN: So the phrase the boomerang effect of colonialism comes from Aimé Césaire, his essay discourse on colonialism. So it speaks to how the violence of empire boomerangs back to the citizens of empire, and especially, of course, its most vulnerable. So one thing that historians of US policing have traced is how the colonies, American colonies and the targets of American military intervention, were testing grounds for what we would now call US police militarization.

So one example is August Vollmer, who is a very noted US police reformer. He served in the Philippine-America war and developed there what we would now call hotspot policing against Filipino fighters. Another example that I think is also not particularly well known. Sir Robert Peel is often considered the forefather of modern American policing. He developed these principles of policing which are still widely cited by US police. But what's less well-known about Peel is that he developed those principles while overseeing the British occupation of Ireland.

DAN RICHARDS: One other thing I just wanted to touch on before we get into the costs of these on Americans, although I think some of the costs are probably clear to most people listening now. But there's another source informing our policing, which is a history of how slavery was managed in the United States. And I wonder if you could just maybe describe a little bit of how those two things are related?

JESSICA KATZENSTEIN: Yeah. So back before the US had formal institutionalized police departments, in the South, in particular, as, I think, people are increasingly learning, what became US police institutions grew out of slave patrols and grew out of militias. And overlapped with and shared roles and functions with the federal military. They grew up together basically. They're rooted in the same soil of anti-blackness and control of Black folks bodies and labor.

DAN RICHARDS: So in so many ways as you describe, the police have always been connected to our nation's military and militias. But that said, this connection has deepened since 9/11. How do you view the costs of this connection to Americans over the last 20 years? Maybe let's start with the financial costs, if there are any. Or is this all just hand-me-down equipment and free training that police are getting?

JESSICA KATZENSTEIN: Right. Right. Billions and uncountable billions since 9/11 have flowed to private companies that produce equipment that's used by the military and by police. And one thing that we found is that an absolute minimum of $1.6 billion worth of equipment has been transferred from the military to local law enforcement since 9/11. We have also seen billions of dollars going to other equipment granting programs, trainings, these fusion centers, counterterror infrastructure, immigration enforcement.

DAN RICHARDS: Beyond the financial costs you describe, how there are profound costs that individuals and communities are experiencing. And so what are those costs?

JESSICA KATZENSTEIN: So one that I think is really important to think about, that gets less airtime, is the opportunity cost. Money that flows to surveillance and drones and so forth is an opportunity cost in the world's richest country, where we have students, especially poor students of color, who are going to schools that are unheated and don't have AC. Other costs include, one very well-known one is that militarization is broadly unpopular, especially among the people targeted by it. It breeds fear and mistrust, and undermines police legitimacy.

That is something that is a problem for anyone who supports police legitimacy, including officers themselves. Another cost I talk about is that it intensifies and strengthens the police capacity for violence, especially against Black people and other people of color. What we call police militarization is often justified as counterterror, but then is used in the drug war and against protests.

DAN RICHARDS: How do you kind of hold the two ideas of, this new era of militarization is profound, yet at the same time, we shouldn't be acting like it's something unprecedented? Where do you see the balance in kind of communicating that to the public?

JESSICA KATZENSTEIN: Yeah. No, that's a great question, and something I struggle with too. Because I do think it's important to recognize that this isn't new, but it is an intensification. And I will say, I think holding those two ideas alongside each other is really important, because if we think of police militarization, we think of it as a novelty. Then we miss how deeply it's rooted in anti-blackness and colonial dispossession.

And there are certainly arguments to be made that even symbolic forms of demilitarization can matter to the people who are targeted by it, right? And at the same time, it's absolutely important, I think, to look at those efforts critically. To take one example, the Obama administration placed restrictions on tracked, armored personnel carriers but not wheeled, armored personnel carriers. Now, what's the difference between those two? It's a matter of what they look like, right?

One looks more like a tank but the function is the same. So, at the very least, it's important to look critically at those kinds of efforts. And to ask ourselves whether demilitarization reforms are actually removing some power from police and minimizing the capacity for violence, especially against Black communities and communities of color, rather than just seeing every minimal restriction as inherently a victory.

DAN RICHARDS: Jessica Katzenstein, thank you so much for coming on the Trending Globally.

JESSICA KATZENSTEIN: Thank you so much for having me.


DAN RICHARDS: The militarization of America's police is something that anyone watching the news in the last decade could see happening. But these wars have also had effects in our communities that are much harder to see. Dr. Ben Suitt is a scholar and contributor to the Costs of War Project, and he studied one of these more invisible phenomenon. The alarmingly high rates of suicide among military veterans and service people.

As you'll hear, it's a crisis of truly catastrophic proportions. And it highlights just how deep the scars of war can be. Take, for example, the story of the veteran Ben refers to, using the pseudonym Army Sergeant Dominic McDaniels. Here's Ben.

BEN SUITT: He was a joint fire support specialist or a forward observer.

DAN RICHARDS: This is a dangerous role in the military.

BEN SUITT: Like Behind Enemy Lines, trying to forward, observe for the benefit of light infantry.

DAN RICHARDS: Sergeant McDaniels was eventually promoted to squad leader, where he oversaw 10 other infantry people. The physical and mental toll on McDaniel's peaked during his second tour in Sadr City, Iraq.

BEN SUITT: He called it or described it as an extremely bloody time between IEDs and EFPs. Which, those are explosively formed penetrators, just as-- it's similar to an IED. Guys were getting hurt and, tragically, sort of one person that he felt very much in charge of, the youngest in his unit, died. And in that same year, his Bradley vehicle was struck with an IED, and then he developed a traumatic brain injury from that incident. And so he was forced out of the military, I mean, for his benefit. For his health benefit. But he was sort of forced back into the civilian world, and he described it as being absolutely terrible.

He developed complications from the TBI. He got the full diagnosis for PTSD. And he also had this guilt that he was sitting on the sidelines when his men were still in the combat zone. And he became more isolated. He drank a lot, he got divorced.

DAN RICHARDS: His squad mates started to return home, but it became clear they were not out of danger.

BEN SUITT: He realizes that as they're coming back, they're committing suicide.

DAN RICHARDS: And this wasn't just one or two isolated tragedies.

BEN SUITT: He had one of the most dangerous combat positions that you can have, and yet, he lost nine people total in Iraq. And at the time of speaking with me, he had lost 15 to suicide.

DAN RICHARDS: And as your research and this report makes clear, his experience is, sadly, not incredibly rare. How many active service members and veterans of post 9/11 wars have died by suicide so far? And how does that compare to the amount of deaths in combat?

BEN SUITT: My conservative estimate for those that died by suicide, including both active duty personnel and veterans, would be somewhere around 31,609. And the number of service members who have died in the war on terror since it began in Two Thousand and One, that number, that's at 7,075.

DAN RICHARDS: Wow. So that's over 4 times as many people have died from suicide?

BEN SUITT: Yes, easily.

DAN RICHARDS: How does this compare to the rates of veterans of previous wars?

BEN SUITT: So this is actually a complicated question, more than we would like it to be. Because VA data doesn't differentiate by era. They categorize it by age. And so looking at current rates. If we look at the 18 to 34 demographic, and these would be people that exclusively fought in the war on terror. Their rate is significantly higher per 100,000 than those of the Vietnam era, those that we would categorize in the 55 to 74 age range. And so looking at crude rates, even for Twenty-Nineteen, that's the most current data we have for veterans. You have a rate of 44.4 for that 18 to 34 demographic, compared to still high, but lower rate of 28.8 for the 55 to 74.

DAN RICHARDS: What is it about the last 20 years of war that has led to this? Or is there a bigger cultural change to that? Maybe there's just higher rates of suicide across the board?

BEN SUITT: So that's a really important question to ask. Because if this was just given up to sort of societal changes, then we could lay it on that. But, historically, the rates of military suicides were below that of the civilian population. And in wartime, in fact, it tended to go down, except for Vietnam and except for the war on terror. And so during the Vietnam War, the rate of suicide in the military had an upward trend, but was still roughly that with the civilian population.

What we see, that's unique during the war on terror, is that it goes, not just where it was previously below that of the civilian population, it rose to meet it and now exceeds it. So it is a higher suicide rate than that of the civilian population. So something is unique about the war on terror than previous wars.

DAN RICHARDS: And so what are those factors that are explaining this?

BEN SUITT: I do think it is interesting to talk about maybe the physical first. So when we look at the war on terror, when it comes to physical things going on. We have the development of incredible medical procedures, equipment, life saving opportunities that keep soldiers literally alive longer than they would have been in a previous war. And, in fact, in addition to that, it's not just that they're surviving, it's that we're redeploying them after trauma happens.

And so you have what's called polytrauma. It's a compounding medical condition that includes traumatic brain injury, usually some sort of other physical injury, and then the development of post-traumatic stress. And so this polytrauma affects a lot of the returning service members or veterans who survived things that maybe they wouldn't have previously survived. And so we do know with increases in traumatic brain injury, and increases in chronic pain, and all of these things that are compounding together, that that leads to an increase in suicidal ideation.

DAN RICHARDS: Something else you describe is the types of exposure in combat. New types of weapons and violence.

BEN SUITT: Yes. So certainly at the height of the war on terror, there was just the incredible ramping up of the use of improvised explosive devices that they would use to try to hurt tanks. But also to hurt infantry or anyone at all. And the IEDs are unique in that and certainly in their widespread use, that they obviously have the potential to kill. But they led to just a tremendous increase in the number of traumatic brain injuries. That's been called the signature injury of the war on terror, as traumatic brain injuries.

And so you get a service member who has one, two, three-- we start getting up to the average rates being five traumatic brain injuries. And anecdotally speaking with veterans, they said, oh, I know a guy who had over 20, and he was still being redeployed. And the highest that we have in a recording of a number of traumatic brain injuries is 15, and that person was still redeployed. So you're having a persistent injury that we know increases your chances of suicidal ideation, but because you're otherwise physically fine, they're being redeployed.

DAN RICHARDS: And this relates to something else that is unique about the post 9/11 wars. The length of these conflicts, the duration of them.

BEN SUITT: That's absolutely right. So this is our longest war. It's incredibly protracted. It is to the point that veterans I interviewed said, hey, would you like to talk to my son, because they're in the same war together.

DAN RICHARDS: What role does the military's culture play in exacerbating this issue? Have there been changes in the culture of the military over the last 20 years that have contributed to this rise in suicide rates?

BEN SUITT: The military is very good at creating what sociologists would call the Warrior identity. They sort of say, you're leaving that civilian identity behind or any of your other identities that you carry, and you are becoming a soldier, or Marine, airman in the military. And so that's your new identity. With wars like World War Two, even in Vietnam, where there's conscription, there's going to be a sense that you're holding onto other civilian identities more than in a post conscription world, where when you joined the military you've chosen to join it.

But this is a career for these service members. They want to stay in the military. They had every reason to want to lie to someone who's interviewing them and trying to ask if they're OK. They're going to say, yes, of course I'm OK, because they want to stay in the fight. For many reasons, but not the least of which is that, it is their career. That's their plan, to just stay in the military. And so the risk of saying, I think like I need longer dwell time or something like that, means well maybe your career is at risk.

DAN RICHARDS: Another issue that has caused huge mental health challenges for many veterans and active service people that you discuss, is issues having to deal with sexual trauma and abuse.

BEN SUITT: Yes. So military sexual trauma is sort set aside as its own category, distinct from sexual trauma.

DAN RICHARDS: Sorry, what's set aside? Military sexual trauma is--

BEN SUITT: As opposed to-- so military sexual trauma is set aside from sexual trauma. So broadly-- so it is unique to the military. And it is unique to the increase in women joining the military. And so while that's not exclusive to the war on terror, it's certainly a newer feature. And it's worth discussing.

So military sexual trauma, the reason that it's a separate category is because the military is unique in that after a person experiences sexual trauma in the military, they can't just leave the military. Nor will their aggressor just be fired. They still have to continue, oftentimes, to work with their aggressor. And so they're in a situation where they cannot escape what caused their trauma in the first place.

And although we know that these are chronically under reported, we know that approximately 55% of women in the military experience some form of sexual harassment. And that number is 38% in men as well. So it affects women and men, disproportionately women. But it's important to realize that this happens across the board.

Looking at this, we do know that this is linked to the development of post-traumatic stress. And we can see a trend with military sexual trauma and suicidal ideation. And so if we want to take reducing suicide rates seriously, we have to look at it from multiple angles. And among those angles has to be addressing the military sexual trauma rates.

DAN RICHARDS: And so what's the US military and government doing then, to address suicide among service people and veterans, and to address all the things that are potentially contributing to this rise?

BEN SUITT: It's not like the DOD is unaware of rising suicide rates. They're very aware of it. And they've since the beginning of the war on terror, implemented presentations that talk about suicide risk and things like that. But in a relatively recent York Times story, they posted about an investigation into a Marine unit where they talked about that the presentation on suicide, was about 45 minutes.

It was treated as just compulsory. And then people that seem to have an actual issue were treated as pariahs if they try to actually get the help that they needed. And so this avoidance of help seeking attitudes, and an avoidance of getting the help you need when you need it, just leads to increased problems down the road.

DAN RICHARDS: Is the government doing anything aside from these trainings? Like you said, I have to imagine they're paying attention to this issue. What else is the government trying to do to address this?

BEN SUITT: One of the things that they do is they funnel tremendous amounts of money into the VA. But the VA can only be reactionary, so the VA is just reacting to what they're receiving. But unless we started thinking about preventative measures, none of that really matters. And so the Department of Defense would need to start taking that more seriously. But what we're asking is really a cultural shift. That they need to promote help seeking attitudes, and for it not to be at the risk of the careers of the people that speak out.

DAN RICHARDS: What else could be done, in your mind, that would be preventative?

BEN SUITT: The hard truth of it is that if a service member has-- I don't know what the limit would be, but a number of traumatic brain injuries that should prevent them from going into another combat situation. Even if they are saying that they are fine, there should be a hard and fast line on that. Prevents them from continuing to be in combat.

And just know that, because we don't have conscription, we tend to sort of keep dwell time short because we only have so many military personnel. But there should be longer dwell time periods, no matter what. Because the shortened dwell time is an issue.

And then, perhaps relying less on things that cause a person to get in situations that cause post-traumatic stress or moral injury. Like maybe reducing reflexes fire shooting, or trying to increase the amount with which people can reflect. People raise the question of wouldn't that make people not want to be in the military? Maybe that's not the worst thing in the world. But it is what it is.

DAN RICHARDS: I wanted to end on something that is a unique challenge in discussing these issues too, which is that there's also among, at least, significant portions of American society, there can be a stigma against veterans. That they are wounded, mentally, emotionally. That could prevent them from being hired for jobs or being welcomed back into a community. How do you view that tension between making clear that this is a real, pressing and growing issue, but at the same time, this is not a reason to fear veterans or treat them as somehow fundamentally different than us?

BEN SUITT: The majority of veterans aren't committing suicide, yet we treat them as though they're fundamentally broken and are on the verge of committing suicide at any moment. At the same time, we treat them as set apart and heroic, and thank you for your service mentality. And we hold those two at the same time. But what this leads to is incredible isolation of the veteran population from the civilian population.

And what we don't realize we're doing is that we're increasing isolation and we're increasing a feeling of burdensome to society. Both of those things increase suicidal ideation. And so the ways, really, to combat that are a, to realize that there is not a single story for veterans. That the vast majority of veterans were in service roles, and not like the forward observer I opened the interview with.

And even those that were in combat situations, they didn't necessarily experience serious trauma. Or they may have been able to get help for what they needed. So looking at all of that, putting any sort of stigma against a veteran is not worthwhile because it's probably not true to their experience. If it is true to their experience, treating them differently isn't helpful either.

DAN RICHARDS: There is something that's been proven to be helpful for veterans, regardless of their individual experiences. And it's something that maybe we can all help out with.

BEN SUITT: One of the issues we have the most data on, in terms of combating suicidal ideation among the veteran population, is the development of community. And whether that's a religious community or a secular community, whether it's building hot rods in Colorado in a small veteran group. It's outreach and community that makes a difference. And so relieving yourself of the idea that they have sort of this one, single identity, and then also taking steps to reach out to a veteran and include them in your community. That's what actually helps.

DAN RICHARDS: Ben Suitt, thank you so much for coming on to Trending Globally and talking with us about this incredibly important topic.

BEN SUITT: Thank you so much for having me.


DAN RICHARDS: This episode of Trending Globally was produced by me, Dan Richards, and Kate Dario. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. We'll put links to Ben and Jessica's work in our show notes, as well as links to the Cost of War projects website.

Thanks again to the Cost of War Project for working with us on this series, and providing such essential research on these conflicts. If you like the show, leave us a rating and review on whatever podcast app you listen on. It really helps others find us. And if you haven't already, make sure you're subscribed. We'll be taking a brief summer break, but we'll be back soon with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks for listening.


About the Podcast

Show artwork for Trending Globally: Politics and Policy
Trending Globally: Politics and Policy
The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

About your host

Profile picture for Dan Richards

Dan Richards

Host and Senior Producer, Trending Globally