Biden needs to talk about the costs of our wars to America’s allies

Memorial Day is a day of remembrance. This week, President Biden delivered a moving address at Arlington National Cemetery, speaking of a card he carries in his pocket with the precise number of 7,036 written. This number represents the 7,036 American service members killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, or as Biden put it, “fallen angels who lost their lives in these conflicts.”  There was a notable absence in the president’s remarks, however: the sacrifices America’s allies have incurred in these same wars. 

Regardless of one’s views on these wars, recognizing the burden shouldered by U.S. allies in America’s post-9/11 wars is important. A focus solely on the American service members’ lives lost and the costs to U.S. taxpayers leaves us unable to see the full picture. When we talk of Memorial Day, and of our post-9/11 wars, we must talk about the families around the world affected by our wars. The expansive nature of this conflict makes it vital to memorialize not only the Americans fighting for this country, but the allies standing alongside us, and the civilians harmed by our actions. 

I recently looked into the consequences of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to our U.S. allies for Brown University’s Costs of War Project, documenting the pain incurred by leading contributors such as Germany, Britain, Italy and Canada. Among the NATO allies, 455 British service members died in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2017; Canadian forces documented 158 fatalities in Afghanistan in the same period; 48 Italians died in Afghanistan and 33 in Iraq. How many Americans know of their sacrifices? How many Americans even know that Italy deployed troops to Afghanistan and Iraq? 

British and Canadian troops were more than twice as likely to get killed in Afghanistan as their U.S. counterparts. Although the U.S. suffered by far the greatest number of fatalities in absolute terms — 2,316 American troops were killed in the country between 2001 and 2017 — Canadians and British soldiers sent to Afghanistan were more likely to die. Of course, the United States military provided many important non-combat functions and was responsible for most of the air operations in both conflicts, which were less likely to result in fatalities. The core point is that U.S. allies were not hiding from the fight, as some have argued.  

Acknowledging and commemorating the dozens of countries involved in our wars is an important part of strengthening and preserving our relationship with them. Most of the countries that contributed troops to operations in Afghanistan and Iraq did so primarily because the U.S. asked. Recognizing how costly this must have been, and thanking our allies for their sacrifice, is the least we can do. 

President Biden understands diplomacy. He also understands that former President Trump’s almost constant criticism of allies as “freeloaders” did a lot of damage. By acknowledging the partnerships and sacrifices made by our allies, President Biden can illustrate the value of having allies. It also can push back on the nefarious “freeloader” myth. According to my calculations, from 2001-2018, Germany gave $5.8 billion, Britain donated $4.7 billion and Canada contributed $2.4 billion in foreign aid to Afghanistan, which is roughly the same percentage of their GDP as the United States’s giving. Although the dollar amounts differ, the burden is similar. 

British military spending in Afghanistan from 2001-2017 was $28.3 billion, whereas Canada spent $12.7 billion on its deployment. For these countries, that is the equivalent to half of one year of their entire defense budgets. Without these wars, these countries might have spent more on other programs. For example, Canada’s spending in Afghanistan was roughly the same as one year of its equivalent to Social Security. 

Of course, the primary focus of an American president on Memorial Day should be the sacrifices of American service members, their families and friends. But as this past year has shown us, we don’t live in a vacuum. In his speech on Monday, President Biden noted, “What we do now, how we honor the memory of the fallen, will determine whether democracy will long endure.” By providing a more complete picture of our wars, President Biden would not only strengthen his administration’s international good will, but also honor our allies’ memories, recognize their sacrifices, and help bring these decades-long wars to an end. 

Jason Davidson is a professor of political science and international affairs at the University of Mary Washington who specializes in alliances and international security. He is the author of “America’s Entangling Alliances: 1778 to the Present.” Follow him on Twitter @profjwdavidson.

Tags Allies Donald Trump Joe Biden Memorial Day NATO post-9/11 War in Afghanistan

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