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 Today's Take:  NCR's daily Web column
Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

July 15, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 69




global perspective Taking our measure

By Tom Roberts, NCR editor

By any standard, at any point in history, the United States is a very rich country. For many of us, the pursuit of wealth is the pursuit of happiness. Though we might not admit it in polite company, we too often do measure people by what they do and what they have -- by how they fare in the pursuit of wealth.

So it stands to reason that one of the measures of ourselves as a people -- a people so wonderfully adept at amassing fortune -- is what we collectively decide to do with that fortune.

In a recent piece about the growing disgruntlement among some over the cost of waging war and its aftermath in Iraq, The New York Times included a table that compared some annual federal budget figures with the cost so far of the war in Iraq. Federal budget experts estimate that the cost of the Iraq campaign will average $3.9 billion a month, or about $35 billion total for just the first nine months of this year.

In contrast, the estimated annual cost in the federal budget for, say, elementary and high school education is $34 billion.

The federal budget figure for highways this year is $30 billion; for health research and training, $28 billion; for food stamps, $25 billion; for financial aid to college students, $20 billion; for veterans' benefits, $58 billion; foreign aid, $9 billion; pollution control, $8 billion, and on down the line.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that by the end of a full year the cost to keep troops in Iraq will amount to far more than all but such big-ticket items as Social Security benefits, $480 billion, or Medicare, $245 billion. Or the Defense Department, which will receive just shy of $400 billion, not counting extra appropriations for the operation in Iraq.

The federal budget is a nightmarishly complex undertaking, the details of which I don't pretend to understand. I've become numb to the numbers. What is a billion dollars, let alone 400 billion of them? When I can hear that it costs $3.9 billion to run the Iraq military operation each month, and I find myself shrugging with indifference. Everything the government does costs billions, right?

Yet I don't think it is too simplistic to draw some conclusions from the numbers, seen side by side in rather clear fashion. What becomes unmistakable is that the richest country in history is also the most militaristic country in history.

We spend more than almost the rest of the world combined on the military. We spend more than any other country in the history of the world on making war, manufacturing weapons of war, and maintaining the machinery of war.

We are willing to ante up $400 billion to the defense department, but we quibble over teacher raises and we pass out, in comparison, a pittance to educate our children.

We speak of peace, but we are a warrior people. That's the measure of us.

War is where we spend our fortune. It's what we do best.

Tom Roberts e-mail address is

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