Beta Point (Deaths in War > Deaths in 9/11)
Back when they were trying to design fusion reactors, the engineers used to talk about the beta point, the point at which the process actually produced more energy than it took to bring it off. Although no one much talks about the possibility of fusion reactors anymore (partly due to Pons and Fleischmann’s cold fusion confusion from 1989 the public lost interest), the idea of the beta point has returned in the discussion of the world’s energy future. First many experts point out that the end of the age of oil is not necessarily when the earth runs out of oil, it actually begins when it takes more than a barrel’s worth of energy to get a barrel of new oil out of the ground. Many people don’t realize it, but that point is closer than most of us realize. Second, critics of bio-diesel repeatedly point out that it currently takes something like a gallon of oil to make a gallon of bio-diesel. Think about it, you have to power the machines that plow and harvest the fields, then you have to process the stuff somehow and get it somewhere. Both of these “Beta points” remain very controversial in the meantime.
Now there’s this intriguing policy beta point, the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have now exceeded the number of people who died in 9/11, 2,973 deaths. This does not include civilian contractors, journalists, or more significantly the number of Iraqis, foreign fighters, or Afghans who have died in the conflict. One might not want to count those who have actively participated in what they call the “resistance”, but the much larger number of dead Iraqis and Afghans includes thousands of children and civilians. In fact, the vast majority of deaths in both places haven’t been military personnel or even terrorists. It’s been individuals who were going to mosque, shopping at the market, applying for a job with the police, or even in at least one horrifying incident attending a wedding.
The Yahoo article is quick to point out that it’s not unusual for the military reaction to an outrage to cost more lives than the original incident. One thing most people don’t know is that the allies actually suffered more casualties in World War 2, largely due to Russian losses, than the Axis powers. This is particularly frightening when one is reminded that close to 100,000 Japanese died in a single night of fire bombing at the end of the war (a much larger number than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
The current cost of the Iraq war is officially 375 billion dollars btw. Even in war one needs to ask the question “When does it stop being worth it?” and that assumes that it ever was. At some point, even the most vociferous supporters of the war have acknowledged that the United States needs to draw down troops. In the “optimistic” version, this happens when Iraqi security forces get more capable. There are currently more US troops in Iraq than there were twelve months ago.
So, here’s a somewhat intriguing question. What’s the “beta point” for our Middle Eastern adventure? While it’s hard to calculate dollars against say a “sense of security” or just the satisfaction of “getting rid of that tyrant Saddam”, will we have gotten 500 billion dollars of value out of the mission? Btw, 375 billion is the “official” cost, we’ve paid far more than that when you ask the question what do we ordinarily get that we also haven’t been getting, e.g. security resources have gotten moved around in some fairly shifty ways.
It’s even more gruesome to compare the value of lives lost, American and non-American, against some more abstract goal, but if this was all somehow about 9/11 what’s the “beta point”? We have quietly slipped past one of them. The administration hasn’t been anxious to mention it nor does the President keep a sign at his press conferences like the one that used to be outside McDonald’s.
I know there aren’t necessarily straightforward answers, but this is what executives in all other fields have to do. They make decisions and then have to find a way to measure whether or not that particular course of action was a net positive or a net loss. If it’s the latter, you usually get fired though almost never tortured. At some point though, the best you can do is what the classics folk call a “Pyrrhic Victory”.
In the meantime, I invite anyone to share thoughts on what the beta point should be here.