Bill Steigerwald

What's the true cost of the war in Iraq? The total, long-term cost of everything from tanks and jet fuel and the interest on the money Washington is borrowing to the cost of caring for a double amputee for 40 years? It's probably a lot higher than you think, but try about $3 trillion. That's the round, stunning figure economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard public finance professor Linda Bilmes came up with after several years of digging up and crunching the official government numbers, which were buried or scattered in the Pentagon's impossibly sloppy accounting books. The gruesome details can be found in their new book, "The Three Trillion Dollar War." I talked to Professor Bilmes on Wednesday by phone from Boston:

Q: What is your 60-second synopsis of your book and why did you write it?

A: We basically wrote the book for two reasons. First was to explain the full costs of the war, including the costs that are yet to come. Secondly, we wrote the book to show how the veterans have been shortchanged and to offer recommendations that would fix that. We really go through in the book the major cost categories and show how the war is affecting the economy. This is a book about the budgetary and economic costs of the war. But we also have three chapters about veterans’ issues, which I have been deeply involved in. We are donating 10 percent of the proceeds to veterans’ organizations. One of the purposes of the book was to really call attention to the veterans’ issues. The veterans’ issues in particular are fixable. When you think about the problems of Iraq, and some of them seem somewhat intractable and out of our control, that is a source of frustration for many Americans. But when you look at some of the situations of the returning veterans, that is something that is entirely within our ability to fix. So we were trying to call attention to those issues and how we could fix them.

Q: What does that $3 trillion price tag include?

A: It includes the cash costs of the war, which is the $600 billion that people are familiar with, which is basically the cost that we have spent to date of operations, as well as the long-term cost that we would have to spend even if we were to withdraw quickly; those include the cost of taking care of veterans, both the medical care and disability compensation over their lives; the cost of military reset, which includes both the cost of replacing all of the military and National Guard equipment and the cost of restoring the personnel forces to their prewar strength; and the cost of the interest on all of the money which we have borrowed, which is all the money paying interest on the debt.

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, born and raised in Pittsburgh, is a former L.A. Times copy editor and free-lancer who also worked as a docudrama researcher for CBS-TV in Hollywood before becoming a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a columnist Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Bill Steigerwald recently retired from daily newspaper journalism..