There have been a lot of numbers thrown about recently regarding the cost of the war in Iraq. The estimates now suggest the war will run through trillions of dollars.

It’s difficult for me to think about the war in those terms, not because the numbers are so big, but because money is only part of the story. If we are going to talk about the cost of this war we can use much more modest numbers that have deeper significance.

For instance, 4,000 is much less than a trillion, but that is how many brave American soldiers, men and women, have died. A trillion is a lot more than 250,000, but that is one estimate of how many Iraqis–including women and children, have died. Millions more are displaced.

And though the terminology has changed through the decades–shell shock, battle fatigue, post-traumatic stress disorder–there is an emotional price to be paid by the thousands who witness the carnage of mechanized warfare.

Only after we fully embrace and understand the human cost is it appropriate to discuss the monetary impact. But even then the cost is best seen in human terms.

The American Friends Service Committee has done a good job of doing just that. They have calculated the cost of the war in terms of certain missed opportunities. Observing what the cost of war could be accomplishing in our country is a stunning revelation.

For example, the Friends calculate that the war in Iraq is costing American taxpayers about $720 million a day. If we were to apply those dollars to efforts that make life better or help people in need, what could we buy?

The cost of war for one day in Iraq could build 84 new elementary schools.

The cost of war for one day in Iraq could hire nearly 13,000 new elementary school teachers.

The cost of war for one day would fund 95,000 Head Start slots for needy children.

The cost of war for one day in Iraq could provide over one million poor children with free lunches.

The cost of war for one day war in Iraq could provide 35,000 college scholarships.

The cost of war for one day in Iraq could provide health insurance for 164,000 adults or 424,000 children.

The cost of war for one day in Iraq could provide over a million homes with renewable solar energy.

The cost of war for one day in Iraq could build 6,500 low cost homes for needy families.

And the list goes on.

We are familiar with the beautiful prophetic vision of Isaiah and Micah where at some future time of peace we learn to stop waging war. The prophets envision a time when we will take our implements of war and beat them into implements for growing and harvesting food.

But the prophetic tradition knows another truth. The prophet Joel writes about the realities of the cost of war–especially on the weak and the vulnerable. This is not some future event. Joel describes a current and ongoing tragic element of war. In order to wage war, sometimes we must take resources that make life better, and beat them into swords and spears.

I wonder how many ploughs and pruning hooks the Iraq war will ultimately take from us, and how many more sons and daughters?

James L. Evans serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.

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