Wars end, but the bills last forever

The past is never dead, as William Faulkner might have written if he were analyzing the federal budget, it’s not even paid for. Did you realize that World War II still costs U.S. taxpayers $5 billion a year? Or that we haven’t closed the financial books on the Civil War yet?

Those amazing facts were part of an Associated Press dispatch on military pensions distributed last week. A lot of newspapers edited the story down to a nugget focused on the believe-it-or-not fact that the Pentagon is still paying pensions to two disabled children of Civil War veterans, 148 years after the South surrendered at Appomattox.

Aside from its curiosity value, the tale of the Civil War kids suggests an easy way to trim the federal deficit — not by cutting the pensions, which cost the government a grand total of $1,752 a year, but by eliminating subsidized Viagra from Obamacare. Those children were fathered well into the 20th century, when their fathers were close to 80 years old.

The Civil War isn’t the only war of the 19th century we’re still paying pensions for. Ten people are still getting pensions from the Spanish-American War, which ended in 1898. Total cost: $50,000 a year.

That’s a bargain compared to World War I, which ended 20 years later. Though the last American veteran of that war died in 2011, thousands of surviving family members continue to collect pensions of about $20 million a year.

The real money, not surprisingly, starts with World War II, in which nearly a million U.S. soldiers were killed or wounded. The $5 billion annual cost of pensions (which hasn’t declined much from its 1991 peak, even though the veterans are dying at the rate of more than 1,000 a day) is almost as much as FEMA pays out each year in disaster aid. The much smaller Korean War, which ended in 1953, still costs about $2.8 billion a year.

In the 1960s, it often seemed that the Vietnam war would never end — and for government accountants, it hasn’t. They issue checks for $22 billion each year (nearly triple the annual cost of the Transportation Safety Administration) and have already paid $270 billion to vets and their families. And the Middle Eastern wars of the past two decades may prove to be the most costly of all.

Compensation to those veterans and their family members already costs $12 billion a year. Not only are they filing disability claims at what the AP calls “historic rates” — nearly half of the soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are asking for compensation — but the Veterans Administration has steadily expanded its definition of war-related ailments. Vietnam vets with diabetes and heart disease, for instance, can collect extra payments.

Altogether, these post-war benefits cost us more each year than the entire budget of the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control combined. There is, undoubtedly, some cheating involved — where there’s government money, there’s fraud. But tightening up around the edges to save some nickels and dimes is beside the point, which is that war is a frightfully expensive proposition.

The Vietnam war drove the United States into a spiral of budget deficits and inflation from which it has never really recovered. But it’s entirely possible that the war — which cost about $738 billion in 2011 dollars — will actually be less costly than its aftermath.

And, of course, the real bottom line is the dollars are only a marker for the incalculable physical and emotional costs of war: The boys (and, these days, girls) who don’t come home. The kids who grow up missing a parent, the parents who outlive their children. The scarred limbs and broken hearts. How do you write a check for those? Both our major parties seemed increasingly inclined to play cop in the endless, byzantine Mideast power struggles. They ought to take a look at the books first.

Read more Other Views stories from the Miami Herald


    The imperative is to educate our children

    When the two of us were graduated from high school, nobody seemed to be worrying about China or Brazil or India competing with us as an economy or in education. We took for granted that we were the best in the world in education and the economy and had no reason to believe that would ever change. Everyone seemed to be able to get a job — and to do so with not much more than the bare basics of education.


    Learning alongside my daughter, Bela

    My daughter, Bela, who has autism, doesn’t go anywhere without a pair of socks, which is odd because she never wears socks. Rather she carries them around as if they were dolls.


    His words dazzled the world

    Gabriel García Márquez has left us. His was also a death foretold, but no less shocking, because we resist saying farewell to our heroes. And García Márquez, the immense writer, was a superhero of literature.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category