Date February 1, 2019
Media Contact

The Real Costs of War

A project established at Brown has become a key source about the post-9/11 War on Terror.

Catherine Lutz, a professor of international studies and anthropology at Brown, was talking in 2010 to Boston University colleague Neta Crawford about the mass of news articles they knew would accompany the upcoming anniversary of 9/11. Despite nearly a decade of fighting the post-9/11 wars, much information on the consequences of these conflicts was still missing.

“People feel they’re in the dark about these wars, and why they’ve been going on so long, and what has happened as a result,” Lutz said. “There wasn’t a lot of information outside of the official sources of the Pentagon and the White House.”

The pair decided to do something to reveal the hidden human, economic, and political costs of U.S. wars since 9/11, so that they could be publicly seen and to inspire a public discussion.

The Costs of War Project was born as Lutz and Crawford gathered a group of scholars at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. Representing many different parts of the United States, as well as other countries, researchers brought with them a wide range of ideas for the project. “Everybody had something really important to say that we had not realized,” Lutz said. “No one person has the whole story.”

After these conversations, Lutz and Crawford coordinated with scholars to release an initial set of papers in 2011, focused on topics such as health care costs for veterans, the effects of war on Afghan women, and the overcrowding of Iraqi refugees in Arab states. Through a partnership with Reuters, a series of news stories focusing on their research insights was released simultaneously.

While it also assists many other kinds of researchers, enriching the information available to journalists is a central focus of the Costs of War Project, which provides broader perspectives through the dozens of reports it has published in its seven years of operation. The Costs of War Project’s research has been referenced by media outlets ranging from the Wall Street Journal and the Times of India to The Economist and TIME magazine. The New York Times has cited estimates from the project multiple times, including in a 2017 piece from its editorial board pushing for greater government accountability, saying: “The Costs of War project at Brown University estimates over 200,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan since 2001.”

Though Crawford teaches political science at Boston University, she finished her undergraduate studies at Brown in 1985 and later became a faculty member at the Watson Institute—her long history at the University facilitated smooth coordination with the project being based at Brown. As codirectors, she and Lutz write reports themselves and edit many others before they are published.

“It’s not dollars and cents alone, nor is it only blood,” Crawford said. “It’s also the ripple effects in the economy. We also want to help people understand that the effects of war don’t end when the war terminates or when troops are withdrawn.”

Stephanie Savell, a research associate at the Watson Institute and the project’s third codirector, also focuses on outreach efforts. The Costs of War Project doesn’t just generate research; it also strives to connect journalists, advocacy groups, and government officials with their researchers and reports. More than 40 scholars from a range of academic institutions have been involved, with the project centered at Brown where its administrative and editorial processes take place.

The project gained a large amount of attention after publishing Crawford’s 2017 report showing that the post-9/11 wars have cost the United States $4.3 trillion and will cost a total of $5.6 trillion once future spending on veterans is factored in, as compared to the Pentagon’s $1.5 trillion estimate. Project leaders reached out to U.S. Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking Democrat on the senate’s Committee on Armed Services, and Reed hosted a briefing in the Senate Office Building for journalists and staff representatives from congressional offices.

Costs of War research has been used in Congress numerous times, Savell said, by Republicans and Democrats, including a map the project created showing 76 countries where the United States has taken military action to fight terrorism.

By offering information to policymakers, reporters, and citizens alike, the Costs of War Projects aims to inform assessments of these wars.

More information for the public is always better, said Sebastian Junger, a journalist who has focused on the war in Afghanistan, producing projects like the book War and the film Restrepo. Few people know that civilian deaths have risen since the United States withdrew troops from Afghanistan, he noted, and added, “It’s the kind of information that is crucial if the public is going to make humane and wise decisions about war.”

Edward Steinfeld, director of the Watson Institute, said, “It’s fundamentally about accountability. It’s the accountability of policymakers, the accountability of societies. You need to have data and evidence for real accountability.”

“In my view, providing information for general public discussion is what democracy is all about,” Steinfeld said.