Five major achievements and six major wars
Over the past 150 years our country has been engaged in five major non-military endeavors and six major conflicts. It is interesting to compare their costs and what each accomplished.Let’s look at the non-military endeavors first. Three of the five were transportation projects: the transcontinental railroad, 1777 miles of track across the Great Plains and Great Basin, and through the Sierra Nevada, constructed between 1863 and 1869; the Panama Canal, constructed in 1904-1914; and the Interstate Highway System (over 47,000 miles of 4-lane divided super-highway), started in 1956 and finished in 1983. All of these enormously ambitious projects were on an unprecedented scale. Amazingly, construction of the transcontinental railroad was started while the nation was in the middle of the Civil War. The construction of the Panama Canal followed on the heals of the catastrophic failure of a French attempt, and many doubted that it could be done.The other two efforts were the Marshall Plan (1947-1951) for rebuilding the European economy after World War II, and the attempt to put a man on the Moon, started by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and successfully completed with six lunar landings between July, 1969 and December, 1972.None of these undertakings were really necessary, but the benefits of the transportation projects were enormous. The Marshal plan put Europe back on its feet after World War II, and saved it from turning to communism: and the spin-off of technology developed for the moon project has proven to be enormously valuable.What about the six major wars (declared and undeclared) during the same 150 years? The most horrible was the Civil War (1861-1865), fought on our own soil, with terrible destruction and loss of life. Next was World War I (1917-1918), “the war to end all wars” and “make the world safe for democracy”. In just 21 years, World War II, in which the U.S. was involved from 1941 to 1945, broke out. This was followed by the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Vietnam War (1964-1972), each to thwart a purported communist menace. Afghanistan (started in 2001 and still unfinished) and Iraq (started in 2003 and declared finished in 2010) are our most recent conflicts.The Civil War seems to have been inevitable, and our involvement in World War II was unavoidable because of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the need to rid the world of the threat of German Nazism. Our attack against al Qaeda in Afghanistan was a necessary response to its attack on the World Trade Center. The necessity of our getting into World War I, and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq are open to question.Now let’s compare the costs of our major non-military projects with the costs of our wars. Costs are in billions of 2011 dollars, and are also shown as a percentage of our Gross Domestic Product at the time, which is probably a better basis for comparison.Non-military % of projects2011 $GDP Transcontinental R.R.1.1B 0.2 Panama Canal8.5B 0.3Marshall Plan136B 1.2Interstate Hwy. System1,000B3Man on the Moon165B0.5Wars2011 $% of GDPCivil War (U.S.)60B11.3 World War I334B13.6World War II4,000B35.8Korean War341B4.2 Vietnam War738B2.3Afghan & Iraq1,005B1.7A quick summation shows that we have spent a total of 1.31 trillion in 2011 dollars on major non-military projects, and 6.48 trillion in 2011 dollars (nearly five times as much) on wars. Not included in the cost of wars is the lives lost or severely altered. In percentage of GDP we have spent an average of 1.04 percent on non-military projects, and an average of 11.48 percent (eleven times as much) on wars. The unavoidable conclusion is that in most cases our country has derived a great deal more benefit from the money we have invested in non-military projects than from what we have spent on wars, particularly those we have gotten into since 1950. That should lead us to ask if this isn’t better to divert a significant percentage of our military budget to a “Marshal Plan” to build the economies of the Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa, thereby creating an opportunity for fulfilling the aspirations of the young people in those countries, who are clamoring for freedom and opportunity. This effort would show that the U.S. is a friend of the people of these countries and put them on our side in the battle against Islamist terrorism. – “As I See It” appears on the first and third Thursdays of the month. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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