Require the US Government to look hard at the human costs of war—the impact on local populations

local-impacts-of-warDespite the horrific impact of war, the U.S. Government does not systematically look at how the use of U.S. military force affects local populations where it wages war. When analysts do calculate the financial costs, their work typically focuses on the price tag for America and rarely goes beyond to account for the effects on non-Americans in the faraway war zones.

That’s right: when the U.S. engages in war, our policymakers do not engage in the responsible full accounting of the scale of the damage—the resulting destruction, displacement of millions from their homes, and the injury and death toll for everyone, whether caused directly by violent force or indirectly through privation, disease, and other causes.

We should change that. As John Tirman, Executive Director of the MIT Center for International Studies, explains in this Foreign Affairs piece, if we can require environmental impact assessments for construction projects, then certainly we can require similar analysis for military conflicts. Specifically, the U.S. Government should conduct “conflict impact assessments” on the full human cost of armed conflict it engages in, particularly the impact on local populations.

Elected leaders should seek that information anyway in order to accurately inform their decisions. Moreover, accounting for the full costs of war could be a valuable tool in countering public and political indifference to the tragedies of war. As Tirman further explains:

But the broader problem—a lack of accounting for the costs of war—cannot be attributed entirely to the Pentagon alone. There has long been public and political indifference to the human tragedy in the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. And even when analysts sought to calculate the financial costs of war, these numbers were, more often than not, calculated according to the costs to the United States rather than to the locals living in the war zones.


The problem with this perspective, apart from a dangerous moral apathy, is that it leaves future decision-makers with little to no information about how large-scale military operations actually transpired on the ground and how the conduct of war might affect postwar politics and recovery. As the United States’ past few wars have shown, conflict can return more savagely than ever if the wounds of war aren’t addressed.


Although policymakers might shy away from an impact assessment because it could elicit blame and criticism, that is not its purpose. It is to stir the nation and lawmakers to look hard at the human costs of war. Already, it is all too easy for the United States to put aside the grisly outcomes of conflict and, instead, renew hopes for a quick victory. But with the right information, Washington may finally begin approaching war as the pernicious and momentous thing that it is—and remember that its consequences, at home and abroad, do not end simply with a cease-fire.

For the rest of the piece, see “The Human Cost of War,” Foreign Affairs (2015).