For those who believe that the paltry billions submissively appropriated by Congress come close to covering the costs of the Iraq war, this tract offers powerful revelations. Although The Three Trillion Dollar War was written by two sophisticated economists—Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Columbia professor and Nobel Prize winner, and Linda J. Bilmes, a professor of public finance at Harvard—its conclusions are simple enough. According to the authors, the war in Iraq (with Afghanistan thrown in) will ultimately cost the United States, in government expenditures alone, between $2.3 trillion (“best case”) and $3.5 trillion (“moderate realistic”), even in the event of a reasonably prompt withdrawal. Deferred costs, such as interest payments on the accumulated war debt and the looming expense of caring for discharged veterans, who may eventually number a million, are just starting to weigh in. Conceding that these amounts will not bankrupt the U.S. (the country spends three trillion in the annual budget without undue strain), the authors insist that the expenditures will be a dead weight on whatever the nation seeks to accomplish going forward. Indeed, Stiglitz and Bilmes predict that our Iraq and Afghanistan wars will end up being more expensive than any previous American conflict except World War II. Primarily, they argue for the realism that has been avoided by the present administration, and for an understanding that “there is no free lunch, and there are no free wars.” 

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.