Kingston Peace News - December 2010

The Three Trillion Dollar War

The economic cost of war is becoming more important. It is hard to find a reference to the cost of war in ancient times, perhaps because war was then thought to be a fact of life.

It is only today, when war has become so much more efficient, when cities no longer need to be besieged, but can be destroyed with a single bomb, that the cost of war has escalated to so high a level.

The war in Iraq can perhaps be said to be in its terminal phase, with the withdrawal of the invaders’ combat troops. It was a localised war, but its cost and consequences have been felt around the globe. The superpower that initiated the war was mighty both militarily and economically, yet the cost of this localised war has been felt. US citizens have paid an average $6,380 per household, according to Stiglitz and Bilmes in their book The Three Trillion Dollar War. Because this war was funded as much as possible by borrowing rather than by current taxes, future generations of Americans will also be paying for it with their taxes, in increased interest on the US national debt. From 2003 to 2007, the US national debt increased to $9 trillion with the additional war cost of $1 trillion.

But only a part of the cost has been deferred. Stiglitz and Bilmes have been meticulous in their costing of the 2003 Iraq war. They have taken the bare Pentagon estimate of around $800 billion, and added to it the cost of medical treatment of wounded veterans (there were 15 wounded for each soldier killed in this war – a much higher ratio than is usual in war owing to excellent medical onsite facilities and rapid transport to full hospital care in Germany by helicopter). Added to the $500,000 lump sum paid to the relatives of those killed, these costs amount to $388 billion. Then there are the pensions, payable for life.

There are more war-derived costs to add. The macroeconomy of the US has been affected. The oil price rose from $25 per barrel in 2003 to around $95 per barrel in 2007. Reckoning on the fraction of the increase due to the war as merely $5 per barrel, the cost to the US economy was a staggering $263 billion. There are other costs that are unquantifiable. By how much would the US have benefited, if the war had not happened, and those maimed and killed had remained vigorous, and added their labour for the overall benefit?

The true cost of the war is difficult to ascertain therefore, but the two authors have gathered their information, some of it forced out of the Pentagon by Freedom of Information access, and used standard economic techniques to come to general figures. Their conclusion is that the 2003 Iraq war has cost at least three trillion (three million million) dollars to the US alone, and at least a similar sum to other nations worldwide combined. Britain has paid a heavy price, which is understandable as the nation that backed the US so aggressively, and provided not only troops and materiel, but also the justification for the war. Stiglitz and Bilmes make the point that without Britain’s earnest standing-shoulder-to-shoulder justification, the war might not have happened. The nations of the world were against, and the United Nations had refused to sanction the war. Could Bush have pushed his war against such united opposition? The economists estimate that the cost of the Iraq war to Britain ‘will exceed £20 billion’.

There is another, possibly devastating, cost to do with a problem that the economists refer to only in a single sentence near the end of the book – the cost to the environment. This is too big a subject to be attempted in a sentence or so here, so we will leave this matter to another time.


In the Event of an Emergency . . .

Did you read the story about the safety exercise on 13th July at Barrow, where they make the nuclear submarines? Codenamed operation Indigo, the exercise was designed to test emergency procedures if a sudden major release of radioactivity occurred. A series of mistakes were made that caused the Health and Safety Executive to demand a re-run in December. One of the problems the emergency team ran into as they raced to the scene was an obligatory halt for 15 minutes while they filled in forms about radiation risks. True!

Lessons from the First World War (continued from November)

Last month the weakness of military alliances, which not merely failed to prevent the first world war, but were in fact responsible for it, was pointed out as one of the lessons to be learnt from that disastrous conflict. The lesson was not learnt. The initial enthusiasm for a cooperative method of security waned, and the powerful nations that could have made the League of Nations work, bypassed it instead and formed more military alliances, with the same result as before. Hitler needed a non-aggression pact with Britain, France and Italy before invading Czechoslovakia: in signing the Munich Pact instead of referring the matter to the League, Britain, France and Italy must share some of the blame for initiating the Second World War, which started only 20 years after the ‘war to end war’.

There was a second lesson to be learned from the mismanagement that had led to the first world war. The spark for that war had been a terrorist strike. The assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand was allowed to escalate into a general war in which more than twenty million died, and which impoverished all the nations involved. If the intention of the Serb assassin Gavielo Princip had been to hurt his enemies, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

Yet he was not to blame. The tiny spark he made fell amongst tinder. The fault for the conflagration was the tinder. Europe was in a condition similar to that of the Australian bush after several dry seasons, where the accumulation of combustible material makes a bushfire inevitable, sooner or later. European society had no mechanism in place to cope with tiny sparks.

On the eleventh of September 2001 a terrorist attack on New York resulted in destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The Pentagon was also targeted and damaged, and a fourth attack in a hijacked plane, which was possibly destined for an attack on the White House, was foiled by an uprising of the heroic passengers, who caused the plane to crash before it reached any target.

There followed a world-wide outpouring of sympathy for the deaths of U S citizens, and a revulsion for the terrorists who had committed the atrocity. It was thought that the terrorists had sought refuge in Afghanistan, and the ruling Taliban offered to seek them out, and bring them to the International Court of Justice for trial. This offer was rejected by the U S president George Bush, who in his capacity of ‘commander-in-chief’ declared war on the country of Afghanistan, ignoring the United Nations. Instead the NATO military alliance was invoked, and forces from Canada and Australia were also sent in support of the US troops.

Afghanistan had no military alliances to call upon. The government was quickly ousted from power, but there then followed a guerrilla war against the occupying forces that is still not resolved, nine years later. Most analysts today believe, belatedly, that no military solution is possible. Once again, terrorists had succeeded far beyond what must have been their expectations, because of a knee-jerk, military response.

H. D.


This article, which raises some of the issues of concern about drones, is largely based on Convenient Killing, an excellent Fellowship of Reconciliation publication. I have just tried to give a short summary. The information and chilling quotes are all from the Fellowship’s work but any mistakes are mine – Mary Holmes.

The Ministry of Defence wrote in response to a Freedom of Information request in April 2010 that: ‘armed Reaper capability was introduced to Afghanistan in May 2008, [and] weapons have been released on 84 occasions’ (my emphasis). But we are talking about weapons not some endangered species and ‘fired’ might be a better word than ‘released’. The UK government appears reluctant to see the issue of drones getting public attention though our forces are starting to use them in increasing numbers. Perhaps we should ask a few questions.

What are they and what do they do?

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are controlled by ‘pilots’ from the ground. The name comes from the constant buzzing sound some drones emit but new generation drones are silent, and fly so high that they can’t be seen by the people below. Drones fall into two main categories - those used for surveillance and those that are armed and can launch missiles and bombs. Afghanistan and Pakistan are two countries we tend to think of in connection with drones, but they have also been used in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Gaza. Armed Predator and Reaper drones deployed by the US and UK are launched from an Afghan airbase and controlled by operators in the Nevada desert some 7500 miles away, once they are airborne. At the touch of a joystick button the operator can fire missiles or drop bombs on targets shown on a computer screen.

Armed drones are used in three main ways. They may be called in to help ground troops when the troops launch an attack or come under fire themselves. Secondly, drones are constantly patrolling the skies of Afghanistan observing the ‘pattern of life’ on the ground 24 hours a day. When operators see something they think is suspicious they can engage with bombs and missiles. Thirdly, armed drones are used in pre-planned missions to conduct targeted killings of suspected militants.

Drones have been around since the latter part of the 20th century but were originally only used for surveillance. Armed drones first came on the scene following 9/11. Military strategists love them because of their relative cheapness compared to conventional aircraft and because they do not put expensively trained pilots’ lives at risk. One particularly sinister development will, quite soon, see drones that can fly autonomously following pre-programmed missions. An operator in the US will monitor a group of autonomous drones. Does this make us all feel more secure?

Does killing become too easy?

‘The further away you are, the easier it is to kill.’

Noel Sharkey, Professor of Artificial Intelligence & Robotics at Sheffield University

There is a danger that a ‘Playstation’ mentality will develop among those operating the controls back in Nevada. We were told at a recent study day that whereas, initially, trained pilots were employed, the focus in the US now is on recruiting people with ‘video games skills’. Operators, rather than seeing human beings, may perceive mere blips on a screen with the potential for this to lower the threshold of launching an attack.

‘You could see these little figures scurrying, and the explosion going off, and when the smoke cleared there was just rubble and charred stuff,’ anonymous former CIA officer. Military people do indeed appear to see successful drone strikes as a simple plus with no NATO soldiers killed. But of course other people are killed and many of those are civilians. A conservative estimate by a US think tank suggests a third of drone deaths in Pakistan may be civilians. Pakistan Body Count says the proportion is much higher with 50 civilian deaths for every militant killed. The lives of local people are blighted and a climate of fear hangs over communities when they know that at any instant death and destruction may rain down from the skies. We should remember too that Pakistan is not a country at war. Whatever our reservations about drones it’s understandable that the military argue for their use when British troops are fighting a war – but the US and UK are not at war with Pakistan. We are talking about targeted killings of individuals NATO wants removed. What happened to international law and the notion that people were innocent till proved guilty?

There is serious concern about the use of armed drones in connection with targeted killings. Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, has challenged the US and the UK to explain the legal basis of using drones to target and kill individuals. One of the countries furthest advanced in the development and manufacture of drones is Israel. Targeted assassinations by Israeli drones have taken place in Gaza.

Are drones an effective weapon?

‘If we want to strengthen our friends and weaken our enemies in Pakistan, bombing Pakistani villages with unmanned drones is totally counterproductive.’

Dr David Kilcullen, former special advisor to US State Department.

The use of drones with their capacity to be mistakenly targeted on wedding parties or harm innocent bystanders is unlikely to win hearts and minds. Quite apart from human error, technical problems can cause ‘rogue’ drones to go astray. Hacking into drone communication systems is another problem, and it’s likely to grow.

Drones are weapons which enable rich, technically advanced countries to wage what appears to be a relatively cost-free war against less technically advanced people. Whether or not drones are quite the super weapons some of their proponents insist, there are many reasons why we should think hard before their use proliferates any further. Should they - like landmines - be banned?

These were not issues that troubled the minds of some 150 academics, engineers and arms company executives attending a lecture on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles at the Institute of Engineering and Technology earlier this year. Lots of questions on size, speed, payload, capability, future developments etc. Not one person was concerned with the moral hazard of an operator waging war on folk on hillsides thousands of miles away, before going home for tea with the family. (Yes I had my hand up during the whole of the lengthy Q and A session but oddly the chair never noticed me though I was right in the front.)

And us?

I have talked about armed drones here but of course on and off the battlefield there are large numbers of aerial surveillance drones buzzing about. Drone production is becoming big business. Around 40 countries are now planning to produce unmanned aerial vehicles. Currently we buy ours from the US but we will soon have some made in Britain courtesy of BAE Systems. It’s not too unrealistic to imagine that before long they will also be used as part of Homeland Security. So somewhere high in the skies a monitor will be sending pictures of figures walking through the woods at Aldermaston while folk in front of a screen speculate on their ‘behaviour patterns’.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation has been working on the issue of drones for some time. One of the many areas of concern is the secrecy which appears to surround the use of drones. The Fellowship is calling on the UK government to make more information publicly available about the use of armed drone attacks and the casualties involved. More on this in their publication Convenient Killing and on The Fellowship also emphasises that: ‘The idea that slick new weapons will solve human conflict is an old and enduring myth’. I’m sure readers would agree.

Mary Holmes, November 2010

Running into trouble

The running cost of keeping Trident is one of the lesser evils of our possession of a weapon of mass destruction, but it is worth mentioning, as the money spent cannot also be spent on relieving poverty or education or improving squalid living conditions. Well then, CND has calculated that £5,700,000 of the money the government collects from us as taxes goes on the running costs of Trident every day. We are not talking here about the cost of renewing Trident, but simply the daily cost of the existing weapon.

It is surprising that the British people do not object more to Trident than they do, especially when this burden is not thought necessary by the great majority of governments worldwide. Its irrelevance to modern threats is quite clear.

A Referendum on Trident replacement?

Should the British public have an input on the question of whether to upgrade our nuclear weapon? The idea is worth considering. Hitherto decisions relating to our nuclear weapon have been made by leaders, sometimes alone or with selected advisors, as was the case when the original decision to create a British atom bomb was made by prime minister Attlee, and often, as was the case of upgrading Polaris, in secret, only admitted after the spiralling costs forced the matter out into the open. It should be added that leaders, who make the decisions, have a natural pro-nuclear bias, as possession makes them feel more powerful in the negotiating chambers of the world. Should not the public in a democracy have a say in their own security?

Several major questions are at once raised.

  1. Is a referendum on Trident replacement possible?
  2. What are the advantages of a referendum?
  3. What are the disadvantages?
  4. Is the issue big enough to justify a referendum?
  5. What is the precise question that should be asked?
  6. Would such a referendum be useful?

Is a referendum possible?

So far there have been no public-led referendums held for the entire UK. That of 1975 was held by government on whether Britain should join Europe (the ‘common market’), and that was so far the only referendum ever held of the entire UK, though a second is in prospect, as both parties of the present coalition government have formally committed to a referendum on changes to the voting system. However, according to Wikipedia, the 1972 Local Government Act ‘contains a little-used provision that allows non-binding local referendums on any issue to be called by small groups of voters’. If this is so, then the great city of London might hold a referendum on Trident replacement. Other cities all over the country might then follow London’s lead, as activists propose their local referendums, which the local authority is duty-bound to initiate. This is probably too simple a scenario, but the question is one that lawyers might look into. The work involved would be formidable, as great numbers of the local populations must be persuaded to cast their vote.

What are the advantages of a referendum on Trident replacement?

Such a referendum would give the people a voice in their own security for the first time.

A referendum is democracy in action, reminiscent of the original, pure Athenian democracy when voters all had a direct say in their own governance.

Some of those voting may be seriously considering this question for the first time.

A referendum would demonstrate pubic opinion clearly. In Britain, parliament is not constrained to accept the result of plebiscites, but the people’s expressed wishes remain a powerful indicator for those wanting to be re-elected. The example of the 1967 referendum in Australia designed to give indigenous people equal rights including the vote is particularly interesting. This referendum was initiated by campaigners, who obtained a million signatures, forcing government to hold the referendum. The result was an astonishing 91% Yes vote, and the constitution was suitably amended.

What are the disadvantages?

The issue of Trident replacement is undeniably complex.

The simplest reaction is that expressed by David Cameron during the pre-election TV debates: ‘the defence of this country’ was equated with upgrading our WMD. The idea of cooperative security favoured by thinkers such as Einstein and Russell is not easily reduced to a single soundbite.

It is sometimes argued that referendums are an expression of ‘the tyranny of the majority’, though this cannot be regarded as a true disadvantage, as it must be better than the tyranny of a tiny minority.

Is the issue big enough for a referendum?

Considering the sequellae that would follow a failure to contain nuclear weapons, the future of Britain’s nuclear weapons dwarfs all other possible referendum issues.

What is the precise question that should be asked?

Referendum questions should be simple and not tendentious, to avoid valid criticism.

If the question is: Should Britain spend £100 billion on Trident replacement, or should the money go to education and health?, then the answer is likely to please anti-nuclear campaigners, whereas if the question is framed as: Should Britain update its nuclear deterrent, so as to keep this country safe?, the question will probably induce an opposite response. The arguments should be put during the campaigning, and not included in the question.

Would the referendum be useful?

It is likely, in view of the current anti-nuclear climate, officially expressed by the U S president and reinforced by many new recruits to abolition, even including prominent former Cold War warriors, that the result of a plebiscite would please anti-nuclear campaigners and increase pressure for change. We would have Simon Jenkins to campaign for us. And heads of armed forces. And anyone else who thinks above a knee-jerk.

On the other hand, if a majority decided that Trident should be updated, campaigners could at least see the mountain they must climb.

May we have KPN readers’ views on this? Please send your view to chairperson Noel (address and email on back page).


Predisposed to War

Government funding of research and development indicates where priorities are considered to lie, and so becomes a reliable indicator of how militarised a society has become. In the absence of a cooperative system of security, governments feel obliged to spend a large proportion of the Research and Development budget to further improve military capacity, evidently on the assumption that there is no upper limit to military security, and that military security is the best kind of security. The threat to security posed by a deteriorating environment is officially acknowledged, but when it comes to paying for research, it is still military research that is prioritised.

Military research takes over half of all government R&D funding in the United States ( for details of 2007 budget). In the budget proposals for 2011, the Federal R&D budget is to be $148.1 billion, of which $82 billion will go to military research.

Graph showing U S research and development budget allocations from 1949 to 2007, taken from website above quoted, and modified to show the proportion of the R&D budget allocated to the military (the area in black) compared to the total. The increase you see on the graph is real, corrected for inflation.

In Britain, the R&D budget is £6 billion, of which the Ministry of Defence receives just over £2 billion. In the Guardian on 13th October 2010, a joint letter from 35 senior scientists including a Nobel laureate deplored the diversion of funds from health and the environment to military projects such as atomic weapon research.

As senior scientists and engineers, we are deeply concerned that while the government is threatening to cut public funding for research and development as a whole, it appears to be committed to maintaining high levels of military-related R&D. Of particular concern is the fact that world-class research into health and global environmental problems is under threat, while the government continues to fund the multibillion pound research programme at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston.

The letter went on further to criticize government dedication to researching development to a successor to the current nuclear warhead at this ‘will, we firmly believe, undermine progress towards multilateral nuclear disarmament . . . The overarching threats to international security arise from rising fuel and resource costs, the impacts of climate change and other environmental problems, and the widening gap between rich and poor. Nuclear weapons are of no help in dealing with these problems – indeed, they are likely to make matters far worse. On the other hand, a major shift of military R&D to civilian programmes of work will – if targeted carefully – help to tackle these international problems, improving the UK's security.’ The counterproductive nature of military spending, and its swallowing of funds needed to combat environmental problems, is clearly stated.

Military Academy Cancelled

The planned military academy at St Athan in Wales, a £14 billion project to be funded jointly by British and US arms companies and the British government, has been cancelled. The academy, which was to train military personnel from Britain and elsewhere in the art of killing, has fallen victim to the spending cuts.

St Athan’s raison d’etre seems similar to that of the infamous School of the Americas in Georgia, where militias from oppressive regimes have learned their trade, and which has been the subject of protests from US peace campaigners and human rights activists for many years.

No details have been given on what the proposed training of personnel would have consisted of, but it is safe to assume that the owners of the academy, the arms manufacturers, would not have emphasised the virtues of a non-violent approach. (In fact, it is extraordinary that such a military academy was ever contemplated – a reminder of the power and influence of the military-industrial complex on government.)

The recent wikileaks on how interrogations have been conducted by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, with torture and deaths in custody the rule, may have changed minds in government. Perhaps there was an unstated, more laudable reason for the government withdrawal from the proposed St Athan military academy than lack of funds.

Letter to the editor

Dear Harry,

I was searching through papers and came across a statement I made in 1984 at the annual conference of the Association of Cine and Television Technicians (ACTT), then the media union to which I used to belong. The motion was about nuclear disarmament.

…Although it was 26 years ago, appallingly, it still stands!

Incidentally, I think Jim McCluskey’s work is very good. One of the things on everybody’s lips, unquestioning, which I think needs challenging, is the very term ‘nuclear deterrent’, as if a single word. Its use undermines logical or realistic thinking.

Michael Southgate

[The motion calling for abolition of Britain’s nuclear weapon was passed with only one dissenting vote: Ed]

So They Say!

Bush Logic

Invading Iraq after 9/11 was about as logical as if we had invaded Thailand after Pearl Harbour. (Stiglitz, The Three Trillion Dollar war)

Inheritance Tax

A newborn baby in the United States owes its government $44,000. (The war-induced US national debt $13.617 trillion, population 309,308,350)

Hope for the Future?

I’m deeply saddened and bitterly disappointed. It is devastating for the military. There is no Plan B for the training requirements in the 21st century. (Retired MP for Glamorgan, John Smith, who led the effort to bring the military training college to St Athan, now cancelled.)

Nuclear Threats

There is, Mr President, a quality of irrationality about nuclear weapons which does not sit well with good intentions. A system of defence serves its purpose if it guarantees the security of those it protects. A system of nuclear defence guarantees only insecurity. (David Lange, ex-Prime Minister of New Zealand, in an Oxford Union debate 1985, on ‘nuclear weapons are morally indefensible’.)

Frustrating Doctor No

Why we need that aircraft carrier

After desperately trying to shift Trident on to the Downing Street budget (as ‘not defence’), the navy lobby has been deluging the press with hair-raising scenarios of Tesco shelves emptying of foodstuffs as North Sea convoys are torpedoed by some Doctor No – and all for the want of an aircraft carrier. Britain is being ‘left defenceless’.

Simon Jenkins, in a Guardian article (6th October 2010) explaining, with tongue in cheek, on why Britain needs Trident and that extra life-preserving aircraft carrier, loaded with Joint Strike Fighters at £80 million a time.

Newsletter Editor for this issue was Harry Davis.

Disclaimer: It is the nature of a newsletter like KPN that views cannot be sought on everything that appears herein, so views expressed are almost never the agreed opinion of the group.