Murphy's Law: Still Paying For The American Civil War


April 6, 2013: If the experience with the American Civil War (1861-5) and the Spanish American War (1898) is anything to go by, the United States will still be paying for more recent wars more than a century after the fighting stopped. That’s because the U.S. government is still paying $50,000 a year to widows and disabled (before age 18) children of veterans of those two wars. The last widow of an American Civil War (1861-65) veteran died in 2003. Privacy laws do not allow identification of the few Spanish-American and Civil War beneficiaries left but they exist.

Many of the 50,000 troops wounded or injured in the last decade will develop long-term disabilities. Past experience has shown that the long term care of wounded veterans (and pensions for the survivors of the dead) gets very expensive and goes on for a long time. Even troops who are not wounded in combat suffer illness and injuries that have long term consequences. This is particularly true in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where there are a lot of diseases that Americans are normally not exposed to, and that tends to have unexpected long term impact. Note, for example, that the cost of World War II (over $3 trillion in current money) was doubled, by the 1990s, because of veteran’s benefits and obligations. We won't stop paying for World War II until the 2030s. Thus we can expect that the war on terror won't be paid for until sometime in the 22nd century.

Some veteran’s benefits are more difficult to quantify. For example, the U.S. has made it easier for the spouses of troops killed in combat, or those retired with 100 percent disability, to get government jobs. The spouse has to be qualified for the job but with this preference they go to the head of the list of those qualified. This preference makes it easier for the thousands of qualified spouses to get jobs throughout the United States.

Veteran’s preferences have been in place for over a century, giving men who have served an edge in getting a government job. Formal preferences began after the American Civil War (1861-65) and were greatly expanded after World War II (1941-45). Some states have preference programs as well. Spousal preferences are relatively new but recognize that, since World War II, it's common for husbands and wives to both work. For widows, and spouses of disabled veterans, a job is often as essential as pension or disability payments. So this move does a lot for the morale of all military personnel.


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