Is it possible to account for what we've lost and learned over the last nine years in Iraq?
Personally, I sacrificed four years in support of the war effort -- one deployed as an army engineer diver.
As with so many of my peers, that's the easiest piece to quantify. There remain countless inner struggles that lurk in dark corners of my psyche. They are difficult to measure or even explain.
What does it mean to have been a part of this war?
To have been a part of: 4,500 American deaths; 33,000 Americans wounded; estimates as high as 600,000 Iraqi deaths; more than $1 trillion in taxpayer money spent; $9 billion lost or unaccounted for; huge corporate profiteering; a prisoner-abuse scandal; a torture record worthy of the Hague; a hand in the financial crisis, and runaway unemployment when we get home.
I've learned that we are easily duped and that we quickly forget. Saddam has WMDs. No, we are exporting democracy. No, we are protecting human rights, and by the way, their oil will pay for it all.
I've learned that 9/11 was used against us. We gladly handed over our civil liberties in the name of security. And recently our Congress quietly reapproved the unconstitutional Patriot Act.
Do you recall the deafening drumbeat of the war machine? Displaying a flag meant you were a good citizen, and any dissent about going to war meant you were unpatriotic.
I've learned that many communities are far too insulated from war's hardship, while others are consumed by it. Many of those I served with in the Army couldn't get another job.
A few were 9/11 patriots, and others were selfless warriors. But wouldn't a two-year mandatory service or a perpetual draft allocate our national sacrifice better? Maybe then coverage moves to the front page.
I've learned that war is big business. Some $206 billion was paid to government contractors during the two wars.
A new congressional study conservatively estimates that $31 billion to $60 billion of that can be attributed to waste. The ever-opportunistic KBR (Haliburton), Blackwater and Dyncorp were some of the biggest winners of this war, not to mention the manufacturers of traditional weapon systems.
A staggeringly high number of Pentagon war contracts are noncompete or sole-source. These no-bid contracts are doled out to whomever has the inside tract.
You can imagine the culture that such arrangements create. Not only are these transactions not market-driven, the contractors take zero risk with cost-plus contracts that don't incentivize quality deliverables.
KBR was sued by the mother of an Army Green Beret recently. Her son was one of 18 soldiers who died of electrocution due to shoddy wiring in Iraq. KBR lawyers are seeking protection under local law, because they say they did meet Iraqi standards.
Many people are calling these last 10 years "the Lost Decade." I agree, because we've lost a lot.
We lost the goodwill of the world. We lost so many young people. We are losing even more, with more than 30 percent of servicemen dealing with various psychological issues.
As President Dwight Eisenhower warned us, the military-industrial complex is real. After my experience in the military, I refuse to work for another large organization again, much less a corporation. Iraq was the last time.
There is no wonder why so many veterans like myself are supportive of the Occupy Wall Street movement. We understand the power structure of the status quo; we know whose best interest our foreign policy is designed to protect, and we know who benefits from our sacrifices.
I've learned that we can't account for all that we've lost and learned, because the numbers cannot tell us the whole story. So if 9 years, $1 trillion and 4,500 American lives seems expensive, now imagine what real problems we could have solved with that investment.
If our so-called leaders ever say that a certain initiative isn't economically or politically feasible, it's because big business doesn't benefit from it.
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Paul Riedner is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.