Two numbers leapt off the page of the New York Times: 170,000 and 2,000,000,000,000. The first is the number of lives lost in two decades of fighting in Afghanistan and the second is the dollars it cost(1) (or perhaps we should say it initially cost since it was funded on credit, the interest expected to add another $6.5 trillion; commitments to Afghanistan and Iraq veterans are estimated to add another $2 trillion, those costs to peak after 2048(2)).
As staggering as the numbers are, however, they cannot possibly capture the loss that can never be calculated, call it what might have been but now never can be.
All in all, though, I suppose Afghanistan (and Iraq) are like small skirmishes compared to the real firepower contained in the Nuclear Club. The foremost absurdity, if not the paramount obscenity, of the human predicament is the capacity of the nations holding nuclear weapons to destroy the planet many times over. Isaiah foretold of the day when the nations would beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks and give up learning the ways of war (Isa. 2.4, also found in Micah 4.1-4), but I guess most of us never got the memo.
(By current estimates, nine countries possess roughly 13,100 nuclear warheads, although 90% are controlled by Russia with 6,200 and the US with about 5,500.(3))
Numbers, again. How even to grasp what they mean?
I remember trying one time. The time was either near the end of the Cold War or perhaps just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A few of us (precious few) gathered in our church to talk about peace. The issue before us was the number of nuclear weapons deployed worldwide and to dramatize the point, steel ball bearings were poured from a cardboard container into a metal waste basket. I have long forgotten the ratio of ball bearings to nuclear missiles, but the exercise took what felt like an interminable time (probably no more than 90 seconds) and made a horrendous racket until it blessedly ended.
Of course, the point made, there arises the inevitable question, Now What? What to do? Feeling powerless, what can we do? As then, so now as we weigh in on our feelings about our so-called longest war and its collapse, the military-industrial complex was an early and inevitable target. (4) A formidable presence it is, too, with so much money and so many jobs at its command.
But along with the chaos of ball bearing pouring into a metal waste basket, there was something else in the air at the time. We called it the peace Dividend and the idea was that with the actual collapse of the Soviet Union, at least some of the national treasure now focused on military preparedness and warfare might instead be available for peace.
Well … so what happened? Well, as they say, it’s complicated. Adjustments in defense spending for civilian purposes always follow the end of wars both hot and cold, and such was the case in the 1990’s but the new century brought 9/11 and two decades measured in the tens of thousands of lives lost and billions and trillions of dollars spent for the things that do not make for peace.
Even today, when we might expect (naively, perhaps) something of a Peace Dividend, we learn to anticipate a price tag of $1,200,000,000,000 of inflation adjusted spending to modernize our nuclear arsenal over the next twenty years, a mere 6% of national defense spending in that period. (5)
Imagine .. what would you do with $1,200,000,000,000.
Maybe in 2046 …? Or maybe not enough of us have been paying enough attention at the ballot box.
(1) Source: New York Times, August 30, 2021.
(2) Source: AP News, Aug 16, 2021.
(3) Source: Federation of American Scientists, early-2021 estimate. Numbers represent Total Inventory, including Deployed, Reserve, and Military Stockpile.
(4) It has been observed that the first American was killed in Vietnam in 1955, making it a 20-year war as well. I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective.
(5) Source: Arms Control Association.