The Cost of War

by Steve McGrath

The first thing we think of in the west when evaluating war is how many people died. We scan the numbers on the television and put the size of the conflict in perspective in terms of loss of life. Inevitably a foreign correspondent somewhere uses the term economic cost. What the heck does that mean? I hate to even put the phrase down here as I fear people will groan and flip to another website. I want you to empathize with me for a moment what options people have. We in the North America haven’t had a modern war on our continent we have very little idea.

Dream house next to river and ocean
Dream house next to river and ocean

I hope you feel something of how I felt recently. Almost all of these revelations occurred to me over a couple weeks driving around Abadan Iran, an area that was the center of the Iran Iraq war 18 years ago. Over a million people died in that war.

The thing that really impacted me was driving by an apartment with a huge hole in the wall. Looking in through the hole I could see a kitchen and some kitchen furniture scattered around the room the table still standing. Cracked tiles and a couple of pictures hanging crookedly on the wall, a clock hanging by its wires stuck at a numberless 5:27.

Tank barrel looking at Iraq (green bushes are Iraq
Tank barrel looking at Iraq (green bushes are Iraq)

No one lived there. But someone still owned it. Their table waited for dinner. Where did the people go? What happened here?

If a bomb comes through your roof and blows a hole in it, or soldiers fight from your kitchen window or roof top. Fragments, rockets, bullets and other munitions of war find their intended purpose in your walls. What would you do? My house the battle ground?

wall of martyrs (no love for US bombs)
Wall of martyrs (no love for US bombs)

You, like me and most others would leave. Try and find somewhere safe. Perhaps a new area or town where the fighting is not so fierce. Try to resume some sort of life.

In comparison in the west we invest in our childrens future by having them involved in a variety of activities. Sports, music, education and interaction with other kids. What would happen if children in North America couldn’t do these things? What would the impact be? Would they be able to contribute? Could they get a job? If you took away their education what would you have? If there was no socialization with other kids would they be able to communicate with one another as adults?

destroyed date farm
Destroyed Date farm

Now add a war. Children would learn different skills, learn different values. Children are sponges and absorb everything around them. Do you think they will have fond memories of childhood? Will they think highly of their former enemies? Will they be capable of rebuilding the world that is left to them?

There is no “normal” in war. Can you prepare children for their future or are you just surviving? If you are just surviving yourself are you preparing for your own future, your later years where you may not be able to look out for yourself. Are there hospitals if you get sick? Not just wounded. We have hospitals in the west that are full of sick people without any wounded.

salt crystals in dried out puddle
Salt Crystals in dried out puddle

If I leave the war now I am a refugee. The word refugee in the west is synonymous with uneducated and impoverished people. No one wants a refugee. Teachers, doctors, nurses, accountants, computer programmers, professors, tradesman, everyone educated or non educated it does not matter everyone becomes a refugee, except the soldiers. There is no wealth. There is only survival.

People who leave due to war are extremely unlikely to leave a situation where their family or loved ones are left unscathed. What wounds will memories reopen?

Once the war eventually ends will I return? Perhaps I will go see what is left of my former home. Even if there is something left, is it worth it to fix it? Can I find a job in the local economy to finance repairs. If I start a business will anyone have any money to buy things from me. Can I buy the materials to do repairs. Can I call up the municipal government to hook up water and electricity. When I flush the toilet is the pipe still connected? Where will it flow out?

more rubble on the Iraq border
More rubble on the Iraq border

Perhaps I should just stay where I am. Where I moved to to avoid the fighting in the first place.

How long does it take to build a town. Likely the town you live in took many years to reach its size. If it boomed quickly, it was likely due to some great source of income that people came to take advantage of. After a war these don’t exist.

What of my neighbors? Will anyone return? What if they are dead. Maybe they their property to someone who will never move there. What if I fix my place up and the view out the front window is rubble. Could I ever resell that? How much would it be worth?

What about a community full of homes half destroyed. The buildings that survived or that are repaired are surrounded by the remnants of war. How is that supposed to inspire people to return? It takes a long time. It takes a healthy economy. Where does the money come from?

abadan streets
Abadan streets

This is real. This is happening today. Right now as you read this, likely somewhere that is not in the news. This is a situation every war zone in the world has to deal with. Rebuilding. When the death toll stops so do the cameras. The destruction remains.

One of the most underestimated factors is the environmental impact of a war? Sure there are some craters out there. Maybe some unexploded bombs. Land mines are usually hidden under the ground put there as a desperate measure of defense. How many decades will they stay hidden before they end a life?

The less obvious leave the largest impact. During the Iran Iraq war a makeshift bridge was made over the Baramasheer river in order to get tanks across. The river was filled up with dirt. Not only did it stop the river, it prevented the ocean tide from rising up the river. This caused a salt water flood. Salted farmland. Rich soil that once been able grow things on was no longer able to sustain life. The oldest gardens in human history dead. Still 18 years later the soil is contaminated with salt. Some tall grass grows wild. 30 ft date tree stumps stand in the middle of a desert of sand. No leaves, just dead black stalks. Yet when you take a handful of soil it is dark and rich. Until someone removes the salt from the soil it will this way.

Reconstruction abadan
Reconstruction of Abadan

Of course I asked “How do you remove salt from the soil?”. It takes many generations. You have to flood the area with fresh water. Then let it evaporate so the salt forms on the top. You then need to physically scrape the salt away. Then flood it again and repeat the process. It could take generations before anything grows again.

I drove by a home and could envision how beautiful it once must have been. Next to a river a few miles from the sea. Cool breeze on a hot day, it once had a large garden and date grove. Would have been something special. The house is now pock marked with the signs of war. Now abandoned. The signs of bad memories remain.

War does not stop when the fighting ends.

  • The Cost of War
  • by Steve McGrath
  • Published on May 1st, 2005
Steve McGrath

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