Brown University study finds US war on terror has displaced at least 37 million people

A new study, published by Brown University’s Costs of War project, calculated that over the 19 years of the US war on terror, at least 37 million people – a conservative estimate – have been displaced or forced to flee their homes. US wars launched in the name of combating terrorism have had a horrifically catastrophic impact on the nations involved.

At a glance, the report – entitled Creating Refugees: Displacement Caused by the United States’ Post-9/11 Wars, lists the numbers of people displaced by US wars against numerous countries. The findings are summarised in Jacobin magazine as follows:

The interventions in Afghanistan have resulted in 5.3 million displaced people; Pakistan, 3.7 million; Iraq, 9.2 million; Libya, 1.2 million; Syria, 7.1 million; Yemen, 4.4 million; Somalia, 4.2 million; and the Philippines, 1.7 million. These numbers are “more than those displaced by any other war or disaster since at least the start of the twentieth century with the sole exception of World War II.”

You may read the report in its entirety here.

Professor David Vine, coauthor of the report, stated the following observation:

U.S. involvement in these countries has been horrifically catastrophic, horrifically damaging in ways that I don’t think that most people in the United States have grappled with or reckoned with in even the slightest terms.

Let’s remember those words; Americans – and I highly suspect, Australians as well – have not begun to grapple with the devastation and trauma of displacement. The title of the report starts with the words creating refugees. My fellow Australians need to bear in mind that the nearly-two decade US war on terror has generated millions of refugees – and Canberra has essentially gone along with these horrific policies.

The mandatory detention of refugees fleeing war and ethnic conflict only compounds the suffering and psychological trauma of life in exile. Being torn away from your home, family, social networks, occupation – this breakage cannot be adequately captured in numbers or statistics. The late Edward Said summarised the experience of exile as follows:

It [exile] is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.

One aspect of the global war on terror that is underreported is the staggering economic cost. Brown University’s Costs of War project has documented that since 2001, the US government has spent $6.4 trillion dollars to fund its overseas wars. The Pentagon, and the US Congress under all previous presidents, has provided an unending – and steadily increasing – financial flow to ensure the continuation of overseas contingency operations.

This stands in stark contrast to the ongoing failure to rebuild the US territory of Puerto Rico, nearly three years after the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico is still struggling to rebuild its electrical and educational infrastructure. Reconstructing the decaying infrastructure of the United States does not seem to be a priority for the Trump administration.

Grief is not a scourge to be inflicted on other nations. No one is denying the tragedy of human suffering experienced by New Yorkers on September 11. What is being disputed is the deliberate cultivation of selective sympathy by Washington – and its allies – which negates the enormous suffering of other, mainly nonwhite, nations. Selective sympathy is the hallmark of tribal white American nationalism.

Since the end of the Vietnam war, the US authorities have assiduously cultivated the myth of the POW/MIA; our war dead are the only ones that matter. The millions of Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian war dead are deliberately excluded from a politicised memorialisation that privileges the mainly white, middle-class, military family aviators, to the exclusion of the nonwhite victims of the American war on Indochina.

The war on terror has gradually and surreptitiously mutated into a great power conflict. Inter-imperialist competition, in which the US is an active participant – has become the main military threat to humanity. In 2018, former US defence secretary and General James Mattis elaborated that interstate global competition, with Russia, China, Iran and others – is the new framework adopted by the US government, not the fight against Islamist groups.

Facing a growing ecological and humanitarian crisis, the uninterrupted spigot of funding for the US military needs to be turned off. By rebuilding a safer, sustainable economy, we can work towards societies that prioritise human and social needs above corporate profits. The US generals and war profiteers must be held accountable for their own actions, and made to pay the costs of rebuilding the societies damaged by their reckless policies.

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