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Costs of War: The Global Impacts of Armed Conflict

By Tom Mullins and Jack Worthy, AWPR

A common argument voiced by opposition groups to military action is the overwhelming death toll inflicted on soldiers and civilians. This reality is often reduced to a body count during a nightly news report. While the focus on the human suffering of conflicts is justified, such a crude measure can sometimes ignore the comprehensive impact that war inflicts on both the planet’s inhabitants and environment. As the world continues to witness large-scale conflicts and grapple with generational challenges, it has never been more important to highlight the costs associated with armed conflict and the importance of transparent political debate prior to engaging in any armed conflict.

Impact on Human Rights

Infringing on an individual’s ability to live is of paramount concern for all communities. Investigation on the costs of war reveals widespread transgressions against the human rights of populations both in war zones and outside nations. The following reports detail the various instances of human rights breaches in war or as a direct result of conflict, ranging from potential crimes against humanity to domestic curtailment of individual liberties. 

  • An investigation led by Justice Paul Brereton uncovered allegations of war crimes against Australian defence personnel, including unlawful killings during the Afghanistan War and engaging in practices to manipulate victims as enemy combatants.  Source: Human Rights Watch
  • Healthcare and aid workers are often subject to violence in conflicts, as seen in the 2020 attack on a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan. The attack on the Doctors Without Borders aided maternity clinic resulted in 13 civilian deaths, highlighting an increase in “deliberate attacks on health care in Afghanistan”. Source: Human Rights Watch 
  • During U.S. offensives in Fallujah during the early stages of the Iraq invasion, widespread human rights abuses were reported including “include alleged war crimes, direct attacks against the civilian population, use of white phosphorous weapons on civilians, and a denial of citizen’s access to hospitals”. Source: Human Rights Now
  • Two decades into the Afghanistan War, civilian causalities continue to mount, with women and children totalling “43 per cent of all civilian casualties” and the deaths of “human rights defenders, journalists, and media worker” Source: UN News 
  • Yemen’s population faces a continued humanitarian crisis, partially exacerbated by blockades of essential goods such as food aid and power generators by both the Houthi and Saudi-led forces.
  • During the South Sudanese Civil War, the UN Commission on Human Rights concluded that involved parties engaged in “systematic attacks” against civilians, violating their human rights through deliberate killings, sexual violence and the use of child soldiers.
  • According to the OHCHR, Israeli Security Forces are responsible for the deaths of six Palestinian children in 2020, with over 1000 injured “between 1 November 2019 and 31 October 2020”. Since 2013, records indicate the number of child fatalities to be at 155 Palestinians.
  • In 2017, the United Nations recorded over 10,000 instances of children being “killed or maimed” in war zones, continuing an upward trend that is supported by the use and exploitation of child soldiers in conflicts.
  • At least a quarter of all civilian casualties from the war in Yemen in two years have been children, Save the Children warned in March 2021.
  • Civilians living through the conflict between Russia and Ukraine are facing difficulties accessing humanitarian assistance, as both sides have restricted the capacity of organisations to work and have interfered with the delivery of vital aid.
  • In the previous decade of fighting in Nigeria, reports suggest over 10,000 civilians imprisoned as part of a “widespread unlawful detention” have died due to inhumane conditions in military custody.
  • The ongoing War on Terror carried out by the United States and their Western allies, has resulted in severe human rights violations. These include the increased surveillance and detention powers of domestic agencies, the intentional killing of civilians in war zones, torture and discriminatory policies targeting ethnic minorities.
  • Punitive sanctions targeting Iran have had severe impacts on their civilian population, inflicting a “tremendous blow to Iranian women”. These economic restrictions from the U.S. have exacerbated economic suffering, increasing unemployment, inflation and the cost of living for Iranians.
  • Almost 50 years after the Vietnam War a battle is occurring in the French courts in which Vietnamese victims of the highly toxic Agent Orange are seeking damages from the manufacturers of chemicals used by the US military.

Impact on the Environment

The increasing demand on Earth’s natural resources coupled with failures in climate change governance places even greater significance on the impacts of war on the environment. Beyond the direct destruction of ecological systems from conflict, ongoing environmental fallout severely impacts the recovery of conflict-affected communities. Furthermore, the economic prioritisation of military spending over climate change related initiatives highlights the impacts of war on our shared ecologies.

  • Since 2001, the U.S. military is responsible for the creation of 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases. In America, this equates to more than double the current number of cars on the road”, with a third resulting from fuel used in US combat operations abroad.
  • Emissions attributed to the U.S. Department of Defence would place it as the 55th largest on the list of countries in 2017, ranking “larger than Portugal, Sweden or Denmark.”
  • The ongoing conflict in Yemen has worsened environmental problems in the country, caused by attacks to agricultural infrastructure indispensable to the survival of communities”.
  • In the aftermath of World War II, nuclear weapons development and proliferation has resulted in harmful testing. The failure to sufficiently restore environments and monitor damage is highlighted by the actions of the U.S. in the Marshall Islands, with the storage of nuclear waste resulting in the “leaking of radioactive material”.
  • Since the conflicts in Iraq, serious health conditions have increased, including cancer linked to the release of toxins and “war-related environmental damage”.             
  • Soil contamination in Iraq, polluted with depleted uranium and fragments of military hardware, has caused environmental degradation, a byproduct of military intervention by U.S. and coalition forces.  
  • Almost 50 years after the Vietnam War, the environment is still yet to recover. The use of Agent Orange poisoned the soil, river systems, lakes and rice paddies”, as heavily targeted areas continue to suffer and have exposed the environment to worsening impacts of natural disasters.
  • Refugees fleeing conflicts en masse  often “turn to the environment in order to fulfil their basic needs”. Due to the Rwandan Civil War, hundreds of thousands of refugees relied on the Virunga National Park’s resources, resulting in widespread damage and the park being reclassified by UNESCO to endangered.
  • In the U.S., The Green New Deal could be partially funded through reduced military spending. Research by the Sustainable Defense Task Force (SDTF) concluded the U.S. military budget could be reduced by $1.25 trillion over ten years and still allow the government to defend the United States and its strategic interests.”
  • A quarter of U.S. government expenditure in the ongoing war in Afghanistan could be redirected to fund “103,000 elementary school teachers, 112,000 clean energy jobs, 935,000 Head Start slots, and healthcare for 806,000 veterans and more than 2.3 million adults, and retrofit nearly 5.8m houses for solar electricity” annually for 10 consecutive years.

Impact on the Economy

The decision to resolve disputes through armed conflict not only increases operational costs, as illustrated with Australia’s example below courtesy of ASPI’s Cost of Defence database, and poses an opportunity cost that denies populations benefits to an economy that might have otherwise focused on their wellbeing. The ‘forever wars’ have led to perpetual costs and the current inclination for armament is as economically destabilising as it is destructive. The impact of war for those nations and communities directly and violently affected remains long after the invading forces have retreated, and  ‘reconstruction’ has claimed to have been a success. The scorched earth economic imperative that often precedes such military actions makes economic institutions harder to rebuild, finance more difficult to trace, and subjects development to the market impulses of the aid industry.

  • Access Economics  costed Australian involvement in Iraq in 2003 to be $700 million, $3 billion in 2013 and now estimated to exceed $5 billion.
  • In the two decades since the 9/11 attacks from 2001-02 to 2019-20, the Department of Defence budget has increased by 291%, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has grown by 528% and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service by 578%.
  • Fragile and Conflict-affected States (FCS) experience financial exclusion, locked out of markets and denied complete fiscal autonomy. This pariah status is perpetuating and acts to further destabilise domestically and regionally.
  • Economic redevelopment in Afghanistan has been slowed due to displacement and ongoing violence instigated by the war. The “IMF estimates that conflict-related violence reduced annual national revenues in Afghanistan in 2016 by around 50%. This is around Af $70 billion, or roughly US $1.0 billion, and relative to 2005 levels of violence.”
  • In Iraq, the average per capita income halved upon the onset of the 2003 invasion. Despite only now recovering to the pre-war average of around $30,000, ‘liberation’ has done nothing to curb inequality which has remained constant, with the top 1% possessing over 52% of the nation’s wealth.
  • GDP per capita has not recovered from a high of $10,326.00 US in 1990, before the first Gulf War. When records resumed in 2004 under the US provisional government, GDP was estimated to be $1391.
  • From 2004-2019, SIPRI estimate the share of military spending has ballooned from 1.8% of Iraqi government spending to around 8%. This does not include the hundreds of billions sequestered for paramilitary organisations and sub-governmental security portfolios.
  • “The United States plans to spend up to $1.5 trillion to overhaul its nuclear arsenal by rebuilding each leg of the nuclear triad and its accompanying infrastructure.”
  • Other nations including Russia and China are also modernising their weapons, with more nuclear powers (including the UK, US, and probably Israel)following suit or expanding their arsenals. The US imposes punitive sanctions on Iran, and Israel attacks Iran, which has no nuclear weapons, for increasing its nuclear fuel processing since the US unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA.

Impact on Mental Health

Undertaking and training for armed conflict operations can leave lasting mental health damage on its victims and participants, which endures long after the conflict has ended. These ongoing health issues have significant social and financial consequences for all parties involved in war, hindering the recovery or rebuilding process. 

  • The Australian parliament has passed a motion calling for a royal commission to investigate veteran suicides in the country. “From 2001 to 2017, there were 419 suicides in serving, reserve and ex-serving Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel who have served since 2001.”
  • Disproportionate levels of Australian veterans (5.3%) are homeless in a 12-month period compared to the rest of the population (1.9%), a number that could be higher due to shortcomings in data collection.
  • Research conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that at least one in five individuals from areas with conflict live with “some form of mental disorder”, a reality worse for women than men.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is far more prevalent in areas affected by war, with higher percentages recorded in veterans, victims in warzones and refugees fleeing conflict.
  • Studies have found that children caught up in conflicts also suffer from PTSD and other mental illnesses, with specific research on children in the civil war in Syria finding that 60.5% meet the criteria for at least one psychological disorder”.

The above highlights but a sample of the overall costs of war. Many other aspects of life are impacted such as social development, political stability, and the destruction of cultural traditions including languages and art. Nonetheless, these facts illustrate the far-reaching impacts of armed conflicts on the world. As we envision a post-COVID environment, the obligation for governments to avoid unnecessary wars should be of paramount concern. This aspiration certainly requires increased cooperation and diplomacy, a difficult aspiration given the return of great power politics, the modernisation of nuclear weapons and the growing effects of climate change. To increase democracy at home and abroad we need to ensure that any engagement in foreign wars is comprehensively scrutinised by parliament. By reflecting on the  generally peaceable interests of  fellow citizens, Australians who represent them in Parliament may mitigate the future disastrous and unaccountable decisions being made in Australia’s name.

Take action to support war powers reform. Sign our petition and email your MP  https://warpowersreform.org.au 

Tom Mullins and Jack Worthy are AWPR Interns and RMIT International Studies students. 

Image: CANVA Premium

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