This is the final episode of a three-part podcast series of History As It Happens examining the post-9/11 world for the 20th anniversary of the al Qaeda terrorist attacks.
Part one covered the absence of the peace movement during a time of “forever war.” Part two explained how U.S. policies beginning under the Carter administration helped turn Afghanistan into a “cradle of international jihadism.”
The numbers are staggering. These statistics, nameless and faceless, attempt to quantify the costs of two decades of wars and interventions initiated by the United States after al Qaeda’s stunning act of mass murder on Sept. 11, 2001.
At least 335,000 civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere “died violent deaths as a direct result of the war on terror,” according to Brown University researchers’ Costs of War project.
The total number of people killed — civilians plus U.S. and allied troops, enemy fighters, contractors, journalists, and aid workers — approaches one million. Close to 40 million humans have been displaced by the ravages of war, and the cost from the destruction of buildings and infrastructure is incalculable.
Post-9/11 war spending, including the anticipated cost of veterans’ care over the next 30 years, totals more than $8 trillion. That is not a typo: $8 trillion.
This episode of History As It Happens examines the results of the “Global War on Terror” launched in late 2001 by the George W. Bush administration with the assent of much of Congress, the U.S. military and intelligence community, foreign policy think tanks, and mass media.
Ruinous wars, the stain of torture (euphemistically referred to as enhanced interrogation), strategic drift, the erosion of national prestige, and — in the case of Afghanistan — humiliating withdrawal: these are the legacies of the war on terror that few Americans may have considered possible in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
“There is such a desire, maybe an understandable desire, on the part of the American people to believe their government only does good things in the world,” said Catherine Lutz, the “Costs of War” co-director at Brown University.
“The way it is often justified is ‘it kept us safe,’” Ms. Lutz said. “That claim is the one that we need to be very, very skeptical of, because we know the grievances behind the terrorist attacks of 9/11 have not gone away. They’ve only accelerated.”
Historian Jeffrey Engel, the founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, said the notion, advanced by the Bush administration, that the U.S. had an obligation to use military force against any country or group that appeared to threaten our safety, proved disastrously wrong-headed.
“The truth of the matter was we weren’t thinking. We were acting on instinct and reflex. The devastating psychological effect of 9/11 and the genuine terror the American people felt prompted a military response because the military response was the easiest one,” said Mr. Engel, referring to the military dominance of the United States over any potential adversary.
But military hegemony failed to stabilize the Greater Middle East after the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were toppled in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively. The Obama administration failed to weigh the consequences of intervening in Libya.
Rather than produce stable democracies and happy populations, the past two decades of U.S. interventionism caused a string of intractable calamities.
For more of Catherine Lutz’s and Jeffrey Engel’s reflections on U.S. foreign policy after 9/11, and whether it is possible to reverse course from permanent war, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.