The Real Costs of 9/11 in Numbers and…


(Image: International Center for 9/11 Studies, public domain)

In a poignant article by George Packer published in The Atlantic to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11, this sentence is highlighted: “The lives scarred, destroyed or prevented from existing by the murder of 2,977 people must number in the hundreds of thousands.”  Fair enough.

Let us apply that arithmetic to the hundred-thousand-plus Iraqis killed by the U.S.-led coalition in the 1991 war triumphantly named “Desert Storm.”  Then the number of lives scarred, destroyed or prevented from existing must be in the millions. 

Some history is called for.

In 1979 anger towards the Shah of Iran and his repressive rule boiled over into a revolution led by radical Islamists.  As happens in most revolutions, the ousted rulers were replaced by those practicing an even higher degree of repression, torture and murder.  Different leaders, same system.

In a furious and dramatic action driven by zealous young men, on November 4, 1979, 52 diplomatic workers in the American Embassy in Tehran were taken hostage by students and then held for well over a year by the Iranian government.

There were consequences in the US. In 1980 Ronald Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter in a landslide victory and his image as a strong leader was burnished by the release of the hostages on Reagan’s inauguration day in January 1981.  Reagan’s Vice President was George H.W. Bush, a former head of the CIA.

In Iran, the Shah’s generals fled or were executed, creating a vacuum of military expertise that was immediately seized upon by the leader of neighboring Iraq, Saddam Hussein.  Hussein’s army invaded Iran in September 1980, ostensibly to regain territory Iraq claimed as its own.  Being afraid of an overthrow of their own monarchies, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait supported Iraq in what became an eight-year war of attrition between Iran and Iraq.

During those years, oil from Iran and Iraq never stopped flowing to the industrialized world. It was a convenient arrangement; if Iranians and Iraqis were engaged in killing each other, that would keep them from interfering with the governments of other Middle East countries. And so the West and China did what the West and China did best: maintain their balance of trade with the oil-producing countries by selling those countries billions of dollars in armaments.

And the major exporters of armaments to Iraq between 1980 – 1988? France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the U.S.A. and Spain.  Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates loaned billions of dollars to Iraq.  China and the United States sold arms to both Iran and Iraq.

The United Nations brokered a cease fire between Iraq and Iran that ended their war in August 1988.  An estimated 500,000 Iranian and Iraqi soldiers had been killed in the war and an estimated 11,000 -16,000 Iranian civilian deaths, many from Iraq’s chemical weapons’ attacks, were reported.

Now the folly of the arms sales to Iraq became clear.  All that materiel was bound to be used.  And then George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s Vice President, was elected President in November of 1988.  

Saddam Hussein was suddenly abandoned by his former allies, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.  Not only did those two countries refuse to forgive the loans they had made during the Iran-Iraq war, they lowered the price of a barrel of oil so that that Iraq was unable to repay the loans.

In July of 1990, American General Norman Schwarzkoff and his staff ran elaborate, computerized war games pitting U.S. troops against Iraqi armored divisions.  These quiet, secret preparations by the H.W. Bush administration went unnoticed by the public.  Iraq’s August 2, 1990 invasion of Kuwait was presented as a completely unexpected blitzkrieg.

In response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush and his administration conceived a “New World Order”, a coalition of widespread countries, to oust Iraq from Kuwait.  Between September of 1990 and January of 1991 the U.S. and its allies, most of whom had sold weapons to Iraq during the 1980’s, transported more than 700,000 troops to Saudi Arabia in preparation for a ground war in Kuwait and Iraq.

On January 12, 1991, the U.S. Congress authorized war against Iraq.  The Senate vote was 52 “Yay” and 47 “Nay”, with Republicans being in the majority of the “Yay” votes.  The House vote was 250 “Yay” and 183 “Nay”, again, with the majority of “Yea” votes coming from Republicans.

“Desert Storm”, the aerial war against Iraq, commenced on January 16, at night, providing a spectacular pyrotechnics show for the televised bombing of Baghdad.  The unrelenting air war took out military and civilian infrastructure all over Iraq, in an onslaught that lasted 43 days.  The U.S.-led coalition’s air campaign made an average of 2555 sorties a day.  U.S. planes alone dropped 84,200 tons of bombs on Iraq.

In February 1991, the U.S. military used about three billion gallons of fuel in one week, just to move the frontlines nearer to the Iraqi border with Saudi Arabia, in preparation for the ground assault.  Another ten million gallons of oil were used during the ground assault itself.  Total fuel consumption during the Gulf War was eight trillion gallons of fuel.

Coalition forces bombed 28 Iraqi oil refineries.  On February 15, 1991, the retreating Iraqi army began dynamiting facilities south of Kuwait.  Over 700 oil wells were set alight.  The bombing of the refineries and an oil tanker caused some 1,600,000 barrels of oil to enter the Gulf directly, creating a monstrous environmental disaster.  Six to eight million barrels of oil a day were going up in smoke.

What were the consequences of this massive consumption of oil resources to wage the 1991 Gulf War?  

U.S. bombs destroyed Iraq’s 1400 water supply and sewage treatment plants.  300,000 tons of raw sewage began to flow daily into Iraq’s rivers.  The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency predicted, in 1991, that such destruction would lead to epidemic disease, especially among children.  Then chlorine and medicines that treat such diseases were embargoed by American post-war sanctions against Iraq.  A 1999 United Nations Children’s Fund report blamed the sanctions for killing half a million children younger than five, over a period of seven years.

A retired software engineer in Seattle, Bert Sacks, traveled to Iraq in 1997 and delivered $40,000 worth of antibiotics, aspirin and cough medicine there.  In May of 2002, after his eighth trip to Iraq, Sacks was threatened, by the U.S. Treasury Department with fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars and 12 years in jail time for violating sanctions.

Gerri Haynes, a nurse from Woodinville, WA, travelled to Iraq four times as head of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility and stated in a 2002 interview that childhood leukemia rates in Iraq began to rise five to seven years after 1991, the expected time frame following radiation exposure, and remained inordinately high.  Many believe, she said, the cause of this condition is depleted uranium from American bombs.

Saddam Hussein is rightly considered a monster.  But what do we consider ourselves, that children should be deliberately killed so the U.S. oil companies could control the oil reserves?

In the 1992 presidential election Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush; Clinton went on to win re-election in 1996.  During Clinton’s presidency the bombing of Iraq never stopped.  A Canadian college dean named Richard McCutcheon recounted his personal experience in visiting Iraq multiple times between March 1991 and April 2001.  He noted that daily bombing raids by American and British pilots killed random civilians and destroying their homes and businesses.  He was stunned.  The Gulf War had never ended.

George H.W. Bush’s son George W. Bush was elected president in the credibly disputed election of November 2000.  After the 9/11 atrocity in 2001, American headlines brayed “Why do they hate us?”

For the answer, see the above.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11/2001, were Saudis.  In May of 2017 the U.S. and Saudi Arabia sealed a weapons deal worth nearly $100 billion, with another $350 billion promised over a period of ten years.

The costs have been enormous. And not just in dollars and lives lost. The amount of carbon put into the atmosphere and the waters of the Persian Gulf by the war called Desert Storm in 1991 and then Desert Shield in 2003 is staggering. The environmental damage is catastrophic.

How do we face up to the ravages we wrought? The costs to America of 9/11 were high. Our escalation of those costs in the twenty years since has not honored our ideals. A start might be in committing to support resilience in agricultural and fishing systems throughout the world, based on respect for humans and nature.

That, to this old woman’s eye, is the only endeavor that can offer us a future.

Kate Bradley
Kate Bradley
Kate Bradley is a retired college librarian, grandmother, and ardent fan of the musical variety played on She lives in Sammamish.


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