What a Biden Administration Means for America’s ‘Forever Wars’

The Biden Administration has rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement, paused deportation of immigrants, and mandated the wearing of masks on Federal property. But there’s one arena that the administration has avoided putting in the spotlight: the future of US military intervention.

On this episode Sarah talks with anthropologist and Watson Professor Cathy Lutz about ‘The Costs of War,’ an interdisciplinary project she co-founded 10 years ago that aims to uncover the economic, political, and human costs of America’s foreign interventions since 9/11.

As we enter into a new presidency and approach a full two decades since the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, Sarah asks Cathy: what are the true costs of these military interventions, and is there hope that maybe they'll be addressed in a more permanent way?

You can learn more about Costs of War here.

You can join the Costs of War email list here.

And you can donate to Costs of War through Brown University here.

You can learn more about Watson’s other podcasts here.

Photo Courtesy AP Images/Rahmatullah Nikzad


SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. In the short time that Joe Biden's been president, his administration has rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement, paused deportation of immigrants, and mandated the wearing of masks on federal property.

And the flurry of executive orders and mandates doesn't seem to be slowing down. But one arena where the executive branch might have the most pull has been largely absent from the spotlight-- US foreign policy, in particular, US military intervention and the endless wars that have dragged on in one form or another since 9/11. But thanks to the work of people like Catherine Lutz, who's on the show with us today, these conflicts may finally get the attention they deserve.

Cathy is an anthropologist and professor of International Studies at Watson. In Twenty-Ten, she and some colleagues started a project called the Costs of War, which aimed to quantify the economic, cultural, political, and human costs of America's foreign intervention since the attacks of 9/11. These many years later, the project has only grown and so have the Costs of War.

On this episode, I'm talking with Cathy about the effects of 20 years of US military intervention. You can see these effects around the world, including in January's assault on the US Capitol. As we enter into a new presidency and approach two decades since the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, we wonder, might there be hope that these conflicts will be addressed in a more meaningful, permanent way? Cathy, thanks for being on Trending Globally to talk about possible changes to US foreign policy in this new administration.

CATHERINE LUTZ: Thanks so much for having me, Sarah.

SARAH BALDWIN: What's the origin story of the Costs of War project.

CATHERINE LUTZ: Well, Neta Crawford and I both teach at Brown or teaching at Brown at the time. We're seeing the 10th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, and we knew that the American media and the world media was going to be paying a lot of attention to what had happened in that 10 years. And as we looked around, we had seen that the media were not really covering the story very well. They were giving us what we considered little info quibbles about the wars and that nobody had taken a big overview of what the wars had caused in terms of the human impact.

SARAH BALDWIN: Back in Twenty-Ten, when you were looking at this 10th anniversary and forming this project and this group, did you have any idea that in Twenty-Twenty-One, you'd still be doing this work?

CATHERINE LUTZ: Absolutely, not. We had no idea it would be going on this long. We did know that American militarism was a perennial problem that for over a century. America's main investments have been in arms and in war. So we knew that was a problem, but we didn't think that we'd still have US troops around the world in this way.

SARAH BALDWIN: So Cathy, Costs of War did the math and found that the US, to date, has spent more than 6.4 trillion on post-9/11 wars and the defense budget for Twenty-Twenty-One was just passed at 740 million. Can you give us a sense of how this kind of spending has, in your view, at least made the American public less safe?

CATHERINE LUTZ: Well, there are a variety of ways in which the wars have made us less safe. There is that spending question, and there's also the question of what we've done out in the world with our wars that have made us less safe by creating more resentment of the United States in the countries where we've been waging it. But to start with, the domestic front that you mentioned, this vast amount of money, this amount of spending, the 6.4 trillion makes us less safe, not more safe because we are purchasing weapons that are not going to be used like nuclear weapons like the 11th and 12th aircraft carrier. The United States has more weapons and more powerful military than any country on Earth so each of these additional power is money poorly spent.

In addition, this is often deficit spending. The last 20 years of war were paid with a credit card. And so we're paying interest far into the future on those war dollars.

We are also having to take care of our veterans. It's another trillion dollars approximately that's estimated to be needed to care for the people that have been harmed in fighting our wars. So I think there's really been a question of what are we purchasing directly and then what are our opportunity costs, what didn't we spend that money on. And what we didn't spend that money on were things like pandemic preparedness like education, health. So we really are harming ourselves in a sense through failing to spend on the things that really keep us safe from things like disease, poverty, and the real threats to human well-being.

SARAH BALDWIN: Can you just elucidate for us what proportion of all federal dollars actually goes to the Pentagon?

CATHERINE LUTZ: OK, well, if you look at the discretionary budget, and that's all the money that Congress decides to spend each year, the discretionary spending is approximately 2/3 of the whole federal budget. So that includes the Defense Department. That's what we have to call military spending, which is the part of the budget that go in the Department of Energy to nuclear weapons so that basically 2/3 leaves 1/3 for everything else, everything else. Transportation, health--

SARAH BALDWIN: Environmental protections?

CATHERINE LUTZ: Environmental protections, the Food and Drug Administration, the CDC-- all of these things that we're looking to right now to save us from these deaths, which, at this point, have exceeded the number of US service members who died in World War II. This is just an indication as if we needed one of those misplaced priorities have done, which has not really protected us from the real threats.

SARAH BALDWIN: So military supremacy does not equal national security necessarily?

CATHERINE LUTZ: No. It doesn't equal national security. And it doesn't equal what we might better call human security because most of us around the world, not just in the United States, consider ourselves to be safer when our water is clean, when we don't have to worry what we eat whether we're going to eat, when we know that if we get sick, we can get medical care.

Those are the things that really scare people day-to-day, but the military threats, the idea that we need to protect ourselves, militarily as well, it's not unfounded, but it's certainly hyperinflated in the United States and has been for years. The idea that any one of us is going to die as a result of a military attack from outside. So I think we really have to think about how does that happen that we have come to see human security as based in an aircraft carrier not in pandemic preparedness or a really robust food inspection system.

SARAH BALDWIN: Joe Biden, I can't believe this. He's the fourth president to oversee America's post-9/11 military campaigns. He has said that he wants to end the forever wars and quote "make America again the leading force for good in the world." Given his record, do you think he will?

CATHERINE LUTZ: Well, I don't want to be a downer here, but I do think he's going to continue these, what I consider, quite failed policies of the past, which is to say, keeping the defense budget where it is, keeping American troops posted at hundreds and hundreds of bases around the world, keeping forward deployed forces encircling China and Russia. Those positionings are quite provocative and often counterproductive. But really, what I'm trying to point to is that Joe Biden's policies will probably look very much like Obama's policies.

And again, often people will say we're not at war when in fact we are at war. People assume that we're no longer at war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan is winding down, but in fact, our research shows that more civilians died in Afghanistan in Twenty-Nineteen than died in any other previous year of the war. So that is not a war that's winding down.

SARAH BALDWIN: And I think last year alone, in Somalia, the US carried out more air strikes than during the Bush and Obama years combined. Right?

CATHERINE LUTZ: Exactly. Yeah, it's interesting. I was just talking to somebody the other day, and they said, oh, well, at least Trump didn't get us into a new war. And I had to draw on our research to say, well, he didn't visibly get us into a new war, but he expanded the deadliness of airstrikes in places like Somalia and Afghanistan or assistance to local militaries who engaged in more bombing that killed civilians or destroyed hospitals even. So there's been pretty massive human rights abuses.

And as most people know in Yemen and other places where the United States has had kind of proxy wars ongoing. And Donald Trump certainly did not decrease the American carnage of war overseas, has been accelerated in some ways under his watch. We have troops engaged in either training or combat operations in over 80 countries around the world.

Most people don't know where those can be found on a map, but again, that's an example of the kinds of things that I'm afraid. President Biden will have to get the advice from the people who elected him that they don't want perpetual war anywhere, not just Iraq and Afghanistan.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, and also, there's war and then there are acts of violence outside of war. And didn't Trump lower the bar for being allowed quote unquote "to carry out" those acts of violence, like targeting terrorists outside of an act of war zone? And maybe Biden could at least reinstate some limitations or some requirements for vetting and oversight.

CATHERINE LUTZ: Yes, and a lot of people would like to see that happen, would love to see more control not only over what our military does, but who we support around the world. And I think, the idea that America has to shore up its alliances with lots of military arms sales and arms assistances that have resulted in a tremendous amount of violence around the world that this new administration should radically rethink.

SARAH BALDWIN: Staying with the Trump administration and maybe how things might change, I was thinking about the requirement to count civilian casualties you mentioned earlier. Trump did away with that requirement. Right?

CATHERINE LUTZ: Yes. He basically loosened all of the laws and regulations that have been developed over many decades by the concerted efforts of civil society organizations and some politicians to get the United States to conform to some minimum at least restraints on what kinds of violence they can engage in. And even domestically, there have been people who for years have been working to get the authorization for the use of military force rescinded so that future presidents, including President Biden, don't continue to have permission from Congress, to do whatever they want really with the US military around the world.

I mean, that's where we have gotten to. There have not been declarations of war, which, again, officially belong to Congress, but basically a blank check after 9/11 allowed presidents from Bush through Trump to say, I have permission from Congress to do all of these massive bombing campaigns in Somalia. We don't consider ourselves as a nation to be at war with Somalia, but this authorization for the use of military force gives cover to any president for anything.

SARAH BALDWIN: It's also incredible to think about what it means to not require counting civilian casualties. It just means they don't matter, we're not to be concerned with them, which is an incredible concept that's hard to hold in the brain. And casualties are not just death. The Costs of War has estimated that there are 37 million people, mostly civilians, who have been displaced because of the America's wars since 9/11, but at the same time, the US is admitting fewer refugees than ever before.

But why does that matter. Why does a huge population of displaced persons across the globe matter or should it? Why should it matter to so-called more stable countries?

CATHERINE LUTZ: Well, I think that's a perfect example of at least two of the things that are wrong with permanent war. The first is just that vast human impact, the uprooting and destruction of 37 million people's lives. So these are people who they didn't just get up and call the moving van and move to a new city.

They were forced out of their homes by violence or the economic dislocation that war creates that led them to lose their jobs. And so looking to feed their families, looking to be safe, they packed up their possessions under their arms, practically in many cases, and left for another country. So that human toll is just incalculable, 37 million individual stories like that.

The other part of that is the massive social problems that's created around the world where those refugees have flowed. These countries to which they've moved have had to accommodate them, make sure they've got some housing, again, with the help of the UN often-- housing, food, and so on and integrate them into their own societies in some cases. It's created a backlash and some of those places, particularly in Europe, where there is rising right wing nativism partly as a direct result of that massive influx of refugees from elsewhere.

SARAH BALDWIN: And in a lot of cases, there's no home to go back to.

CATHERINE LUTZ: Right. Sometimes their home is destroyed. It's hard enough to move, and it's also often even harder to move back.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, in addition to all those other things, in public life they get neglected. You also published a paper last year on the climate impact of all this militarism and all these wars, which I don't think people really connect. But what is the US military's contribution to climate change?

CATHERINE LUTZ: Well, it's massive. The Pentagon is the single largest consumer of oil in the world as an entity. So it contributes a huge amount of greenhouse gas.

It's a massive organization that is highly fossil fuel dependent. And that's just a tremendous opportunity to rethink, again, where the real threats to human security lie. They lie in addressing climate change, not in contributing to it.

SARAH BALDWIN: I also think that so much of this destruction feels distant because it is distant. And so I want to come back to the-- I mentioned the insurrection on January 6 in my introduction. And I wonder, do you see a connection between the past 20 years of this kind of warfare and the attack on the capital?

CATHERINE LUTZ: Absolutely, absolutely. There are many ways in which war has led to that day or contributed to the day being as horrific as it was. People have been warning since the founding of the nation that war is not the friend of liberty. George Washington in his farewell address warned of that James Madison wrote about that the idea that war is the largest threat to liberty of anything that a nation engages in.

So what does war do to a society that might lead to the erosion of democracy? And that's what we saw on January 6th. We saw the erosion of democracy. These are people who did not believe that the democratic process should be trusted.

What happens in war is that people get convinced that the law doesn't apply anymore, that there's an existential threat to the nation. People are trying to kill us, therefore we have to drop the niceties of law. So at the beginning of the wars of post-9/11, we worried about that quite a bit as a society whether civil liberties were going to be eroded. And after 20 years, we've sort of stopped really having that discussion, but they have been eroded.

A lot of things have been eroded by the idea that law doesn't apply anymore. Fear justifies it. And the ways in which excessive executive power intersect with growing inequality have also led to January 6th.

Inequality is accelerated by war spending. We know that the Pentagon spending doesn't flow even though people often point to the fact that military contracts go into every congressional district in America. It doesn't go into the pockets of everybody equally. And again, creating the kind of populist backlash and resentment that is, at least part of, that Trump phenomenon that led to the invasion of the Congress.

That's not the only thing. There's also racism, which has been accelerated by wars, which have often been presented as America as a whiter nation fighting the people of color around the world, whether it's in Japan in World War II, whether it's in Vietnam, whether it's in the Middle East or South Asia. So that the racism that gets accelerated by war, and we see that and things like the Muslim ban and the tremendous rise of right wing racial hatred. That's all accelerated by war. So you put that all together, and you get January 6.

SARAH BALDWIN: What can we do to say, I don't want to be sold this bill of goods anymore? How can we, individual citizens, lobby to not to destroy the Pentagon, not to take away the livelihood of people who have given their lives to this country as servicemen and women, but just to say, there's enough there to actually make us safer by reallocating some of those dollars? What can we do?

CATHERINE LUTZ: What can people do? I think they can pay more attention to the kinds of facts about their own safety that are available. And what we do on the Costs of War website is to talk about how unsafe the world has become for Iraqis and Afghans and Americans as a result of these 20 years of war. So that kind of fact-based, information-based approach to policymaking is really important.

So when we talk about whether to fight the next war in the next four years, if we go to the facts, which are that 800,000 people died in the last 20 years directly as a result of the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. And do we want to have that on the scorecard of nations that we led those kinds of efforts yet again? Or do we want to find another way to deal with our place in the world?

And then we have those opportunities for us, understanding that when people say, oh, yeah, we'll we have a large Pentagon budget, but everybody benefits. Those dollars flow to every community in America. It creates jobs.

Our economist Heidi Peltier, who has done several studies on the job creation effect of military spending, has shown that far more jobs would be created by health care spending and education spending because they're more labor intensive. So we have a tremendous amount of information that's available for us to make smarter decisions about how to keep ourselves safe and well. And I think what citizens can do is to vote.

We've seen how incredibly powerful that is what a difference that makes when democracy works well, when people help make foreign policy by paying attention, and being able to vote, not having their vote suppressed. So I think, building democracy back is going to be really crucial. And then that will allow us to begin to say, human security is a better concept than national security. So if we redefine what the goal of government is to provide for human security. We will shrink the military budget, just by definition, because that's money that's been taken from these other ways that we can protect our food supply, protect our health, and so on.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, Cathy, thank you so much for shining a light on all these really important facts.

CATHERINE LUTZ: Well, thanks so much for having me, Sarah.


SARAH BALDWIN: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Alina Coleman. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. I'm Sarah Baldwin.

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