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October 2, 2008

The Cost of Boots on the Ground in Iraq

by Jon Basil Utley

It takes half a million dollars per year to maintain each sergeant in combat in Iraq. Thanks to a Senate committee inquiry, an authoritative government study finally details the costs of keeping boots on the ground. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), in its report Contractors' Support of U.S. Operations in Iraq, compared the costs of maintaining a Blackwater professional armed guard versus the U.S. military providing such services itself. Both came in at about $500,000 per person per year.

News reports of the study have largely focused on the total cost of U.S. contractors. The 190,000 contractors in Iraq and neighboring countries, from cooks to truck drivers, have cost U.S. taxpayers $100 billion from the start of the war through the end of 2008. Overlooked in this media coverage has been the sheer cost per soldier of keeping the army in Iraq. This per-soldier cost is more comprehensible and alarming than the rather abstract aggregate figure.

Whether in maintaining U.S. soldiers or private-sector contractors, the costs of occupation are enormous. With no end in sight, unending foreign wars do have one clear consequence: the eventual bankruptcy of the United States.

Breaking Down the Costs

The cost of a sergeant is complicated to calculate. His or her actual cash pay is $51,000-$69,000 per year, which puts sergeant pay in the middle of the pay grade, according to another CBO report, Evaluating Military Compensation. Non-cash benefits – pensions, medical care, child care, housing, commissaries – likely double this amount, even during peacetime. Pensions are the biggest ticket item. The average retirement benefit for a soldier or sailor who stays in for 20 years equals $2.6 million, if he or she lives to the age of 77 (though most soldiers don't stay in the service long enough to get this benefit).

A major portion of the $500,000 figure comes from the "support staff" and rotation system that allows for recuperation, training, and accumulated vacations after each year in combat. It's allocated on the basis of one or two sergeants in the United States backing up each one overseas. The CBO report does not, however, factor in bonuses for re-enlistment, which offers tens of thousands of dollars for soldiers with special skills. Nor does the report calculate operating or equipment costs per soldier. The $500,000 figure applies to personnel costs alone.

"Support staff" refers to headquarters management and specialized skills supervising the enlisted men. To make the comparison the CBO identified a hypothetical Army unit that could deliver roughly the same caliber of men as the Blackwater guards. This "would require about one-third of an Army light infantry battalion – a rifle company plus one-third of the battalion's headquarters company." This support staff would "include not only command elements, but also medics, scouts, snipers, and others who functionally correspond to some of Blackwater's supervisory and specialized personnel."

Contractors, meanwhile, are increasingly filling the roles once played by U.S. Army personnel. In terms of total costs, the CBO points out that there are about an equal number of contractors as soldiers, the highest proportion for any war in American history. However, only 20% are U.S. citizens. And most contractors, for example kitchen personnel, are paid much less than the guards who earn $1,222 per day. The report also notes that their contracts allow for much more flexibility and shorter assignments than what regular Army soldiers cost the government.

Thousands, not Billions

The studies are only for personnel. They don't include the long-term costs of care for disabled and handicapped veterans. They don't include the costs of replacing or maintaining equipment. Nor do they factor in the costs for allies' supplies and training or the cost of interest on all the borrowed billions used to fight the war. That's how Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes reached the astronomical cost estimate approaching $3 trillion for Iraq and Afghanistan. That study estimated actual yearly cost per soldier in the field at $400,000, a number comparable to the CBO estimate for sergeants.

Perhaps the accountants who did the CBO study were themselves surprised at the costs of fielding an American army. Their objective was only to analyze the costs of hiring guards at $500,000 a year, compared to fielding soldiers. The study only incidentally shows the individual costs of American occupation forces facing resistance.

Given these costs, which are only part of a military budget and other defense expenditures that approach a trillion dollars, it's easy to see how the wars are bankrupting America. Washington has borrowed the money, and the impact can already be felt in the dollar's declining value and America's deteriorating infrastructure. The national debt, since the war started, has increased from six to nine trillion dollars. Ancient Rome simply taxed its citizens into ruin and clipped the coinage to pay for its armies. Higher taxes, a lower standard of living, and unending wars will drive us to the same end.

Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.

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  • Jon Basil Utley is associate publisher of The American Conservative and Robert A. Taft Fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. A former correspondent for Knight Ridder in South America, Utley has written for the Harvard Business Review on foreign nationalism and was for 17 years a commentator on the Voice of America. He is director of Americans Against World Empire.

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