In his speech to the nation last Tuesday evening, President Obama noted that the costs associated to date with the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has now reached nearly a trillion dollars. He also predicted that the costs associated with sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan will run 30 billion dollars in the first year alone. He acknowledged that these costs, coming as they do in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, are a difficult burden, a burden that we "simply cannot afford to ignore." The President also wisely said it was time for America "to address these costs openly and honestly," but other than committing himself to working with Congress on this question he said very little about how the country would actually pay for this substantial increase in our military commitment to the Afghan war.
How to pay for the war also brings up another issue -- the issue of sacrifice. The President rightly acknowledged the tremendous costs the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have already exacted on the men and women serving in America's armed forces. But what about the rest of us? Have we done enough as a people to share the burden of these conflicts, especially the "war of necessity" in Afghanistan? Or have we simply gone on with our lives, content to let the men and women in uniform carry the fight to those who ruthlessly attacked us on 9/11?
When FDR faced a similar, much larger dilemma at the onset of the Second World War, he and his advisors were keenly aware of the link between the issues of costs and sacrifice. Simply put, the President understood that effort required to prosecute the greatest war in America history could not fall on those in uniform alone; the entire country would have to share the burden. He also understood that the war effort would cost a great deal of money (an estimated $288 billion dollars in direct expenditures, a huge figure in the early 1940s). To pay for the war the Roosevelt Administration not only raised taxes (a move which nearly all economists would agree was a necessity, given the enormous expenditures required), but also issued war bonds, which by the end of the conflict had generated $100 billion in revenue for the government.
The war bonds in fact became very popular, as they were widely viewed by the public as one way the average American could support the war effort. They were promoted by celebrities, the famous wartime posters, and by the President himself, who frequently reminded the public of the sacrifice all Americans must make to carry the war forward to ultimate victory. As he said in his message to Congress on January 6, 1942
War costs money...This means taxes and bond and bonds and taxes. It means cutting luxuries and other non-essentials. In a word, it means an "all-out" war by individual effort and family effort in a united country.
Given the inability of the American people and our representatives in Congress to hold a rational discussion on taxation and the responsibility each of us has to support the many public expenditures required to live in a civilized society, it seems unlikely that the President or Congress will instigate any new taxes to cover the costs of these new expenditures. But the sale of war bonds might go a long way towards helping to offset the expense of the surge. It would also serve to remind the American people that the burdens of war should not be carried by soldiers alone; that we are, as President Obama reminded us, "one people" who understand that our security "does not come solely from the strength of our arms" but from our shared values and common belief in freedom, justice and the rule of law. In short, it is time that we recognize that we all need to play our part in securing a safer world. We owe ourselves and the brave men and women in uniform no less.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.