The Hidden Costs of War: Vet Crimes - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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Violent crimes by vets have an economic cost too.

By Nick Fouriezos

  • Violent crimes committed by veterans of post-9/11 wars have cost America more than five times the budget of its best-funded police force.
  • At a time that calls to defund the police are growing, new research shows the need for greater investment in the mental health of veterans.

What is the true cost of war? It’s easy enough to quantify, in terms of military budgets and deployment costs. Much harder? To look past the line-item spending and into the core concern — the economic price tag thrust onto society and its ripple effects. Take, for instance, the financial hit that the United States carries each time one of its former soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan commits violent crimes back on the home front.

Such violent crimes have cost America $26.4 billion since 9/11 — or five times the NYPD’s annual policing budget.

That’s according to a working paper, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in May, that looks at how violent crimes by veterans increased after overseas deployment began in the wake of the attacks on the Twin Towers. Using data from two national surveys, the researchers were able to establish a link to veterans who faced combat in West Asia to increased likelihood of committing property and violent crime, being arrested, joining gangs and having trouble with the police.

It was a crucial discovery, because some experts previously wondered whether military veterans were more likely to commit violent crimes because of their service — or, rather, because the military attracted recruits who were naturally more prone to violence. “We think that we solved the chicken and egg problem,” says Resul Cesur, a lead author of the working paper and associate professor of health care outcomes at the University of Connecticut.

Taking into account that spike in crime, researchers were then able to estimate that billions more were being spent on crimes committed by veterans struggling with the severe physical and mental fallout of war. Being able to put a number to those issues is especially important because it helps inform policymakers as they weigh whether it’s cost effective to spend more on veteran care. “Now the question is: Should we use our taxpayer money to reduce some of these outcomes, these harms to society?” Cesur says.

There are some caveats: The working paper was not peer reviewed, the authors note in their introduction, and is meant to be circulated “for discussion and comment purposes.” Cesur adds that, with a larger sample size, the study could have explored how varying demographics within veterans groups — say, differing ethnicities, ages or genders — are distinctly affected. “To do that type of analysis, we need much bigger data and also more detailed information,” he says.

Prison Reforms Prepare Military Veterans For Reintegration After Incarceration

Incarcerated military veterans enter the dining hall for lunch at the Cybulski Rehabilitation Center in Enfield, Connecticut.

Source John Moore/Getty

That being said, the findings largely track with the research conducted by other experts, says Boston University political science chair Neta Crawford, co-director of the Eisenhower Study Group “Costs of War” project. “I’m glad they’ve done this work, and I’m sorry we didn’t think of it first,” she says.

She cautions against assuming that all, or even many, veterans are committing violent crimes — the data shows that most are high-functioning members of society (in fact, the incarceration rate for veterans is nearly 10 percent lower than that of civilians, although veterans are more likely to have been jailed for violent offenses). Crawford also points out that while the cost of veteran crimes is significant, it’s negligible compared to the overall expenses of war, which is estimated at $6.4 trillion (and counting). “It’s a drop in this larger bucket of the consequences of the post-9/11 wars.”

A drop it might be, but its ripple effects are felt across society. That makes the need for America to invest more in the mental health and rehabilitation of veterans not just a moral or ethical obligation, but an economic one too … especially at a time when calls to defund the police are also growing. 

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