Thursday, February 08, 2007

How to Make 28,500 American Troops Vanish 

Courtesy of our ferocious colleague Avedon Carol: Pentagon officials have been calling Harvard to complain about a new paper written by lecturer Linda Bilmes (in collaboration with Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz). The top brass are quite understandably upset, because Bilmes argues that the ultimate cost of the war in Iraq has been underestimated by at least one-third of a trillion dollars, and quotes the Pentagon's own figures to back up her claim:
The central argument of the new Bilmes paper is that so many soldiers are being injured that the costs of caring for them over their lifetimes is likely to be $350 billion, or up to twice that, depending on how long the war lasts. The high cost is the result of huge advances in military medicine that have greatly reduced the chances that a soldier injured in Iraq will die . . . .

What set off the Pentagon was Bilmes’ estimate for the current number of injured of 50,500. William Winkenwender Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, called the Los Angeles Times, Bilmes, and David T. Ellwood — dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government — to complain that the real figure is less than half that — just over 22,000. When Bilmes was asked where she got her data, she pointed out that it came from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which in turn gets its data from the Pentagon.

The Pentagon investigated further and found that the VA “misunderstood” the Pentagon’s reports, according to Cynthia Smith, a Department of Defense spokeswoman. She acknowledged that the VA had been using numbers consistent with what Bilmes reported, but said that once the Pentagon explained “the error,” the Veterans Affairs department changed its Web site so its injury numbers are consistent with those of the Pentagon.

Why the misunderstanding and the “error"? The original figures from Veterans Affairs were for “non-mortal” injuries. But that doesn’t include only those who are shot at in combat. That includes people who get sick, people who are in accidents and so forth — a group of people that is as large as those injured in combat. The Pentagon doesn’t want those people counted . . . .

Smith, the Pentagon spokeswoman, does not dispute Bilmes on the point that soldiers are entitled to health care regardless of how they are injured. “They are all cared for,” she said. So if Bilmes is correct that she’s counting injured veterans who are entitled to health care and the source for her data is the U.S. government (before the Pentagon had the public data changed), why is Smith issuing statements saying that Bilmes is engaging in “gross distortion,” as she said in an e-mail? And why is a top Pentagon official calling Harvard suggesting that numbers are erroneous when they are just not the numbers the Pentagon wants out?
In unrelated news:
The Inspector General for the Defense Dept. is concerned that the U.S. military has failed to adequately equip soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially for nontraditional duties such as training Iraqi security forces and handling detainees, according to a summary of a new audit obtained by BusinessWeek . . . .

The Inspector General found that the Pentagon hasn't been able to properly equip the soldiers it already has. Many have gone without enough guns, ammunition, and other necessary supplies to "effectively complete their missions" and have had to cancel or postpone some assignments while waiting for the proper gear, according to the report from auditors with the Defense Dept. Inspector General's office. Soldiers have also found themselves short on body armor, armored vehicles, and communications equipment, among other things, auditors found.

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