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The true cost of human life and why it matters

The true cost of human life and why it matters

Photo credit: Aubrey Graham (2009)

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Miller, C., & Barber, B. S. (2016). It’s only money. Do voters treat human and financial sunk costs the same? Journal of Peace Research, 53(1), 116-129.

Talking Points

  • In the U.S., financial sunk costs create a desire to leave a war.
  • In the U.S., the number of casualties during war has little effect on public war support.
  • There is no difference in public opinion between providing an ally with military personnel vs. providing financial assistance.
  • Using sunk costs to justify an ongoing war does not work—the U.S. public doesn’t support the ‘Don’t Let Them Die in Vain’ argument.
  • If the expected benefits are no longer perceived as being worth the costs, voters will not support a war.


There are obvious differences between the human and financial costs of war, but their respective impact on war support needs to be further distinguished. This study helps bring attention to the unusual priorities behind war support in the United States – including the decline in war support when faced with financial costs but an indifference to human costs.

This study uses the combined approaches of multiple academic fields and the Environmental Protection Agency’s monetary evaluation of a human life to learn more about war support in the United States. The research team combines three academic theories: the sunk costs fallacy from behavioral economics, and the prospect theory and sacred values protection model from psychology. By merging these theories, the study seeks to determine whether human and financial sunk costs impact public opinion towards war differently.

Respondents from the United States were asked in a series of interviews about their level of support for different war scenarios costing various amounts of money and/or human lives. By factoring in the Environmental Protection Agency’s $7.4 million evaluation for a human life, researchers can measure the respondent’s attitude towards war’s financial costs to understand if the American public is more affected by human or financial casualties during war.

The combination of the above theories, along with past research and the human/financial cost of war equation, led to the creation of the ‘don’t let them die in vain’ hypothesis. This phrase is commonly used by politicians urging for continued war support (Bill Clinton in 2005; George Bush in 2006; and even Abraham Lincoln in his 1865 Gettysburg Address). The hypothesis states that loss of human life during war would increase public war support more than the loss of money spent on the war. The authors also propose that: a) human sunk costs will be more influential on war support than financial sunk costs; b) the American public is more willing to send money than troops to assist an ally during war; c) human and financial sunk costs are treated differently; and d) both human and financial sunk costs will increase war support.

Interestingly, the research findings often differed from the original hypotheses. The sunk cost fallacy had little relevance to United States war support. Even more surprising was that: a) financial sunk costs led to a decrease in American war support, while human sunk costs had no impact at all; and b) the American public has no preference over fighting a war with money or with American soldiers.

This research exposes important misconceptions in U.S. foreign policy and public war support. Many have argued that the human and economic costs of any war are too high. However, the above findings may help to bring attention to the unusual priorities behind war support and the way political leaders can use public opinion to their advantage (*1).

Prospect Theory: People value potential gains and losses differently. Therefore, if a person were given two equal choices, they would risk more when faced with a potential loss than if they were faced with a potential gain.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy: The increased commitment in the midst of failure with the hope of recouping costs that have already been exhausted, even when more effective alternatives exist.

Sacred Values Protection Model: It is impossible to accurately relate a monetary value to human life, and that even trying to compare the two goes against human morality.

Contemporary Relevance

Differentiating between human and financial costs of war is especially relevant to many of the foreign policy decisions faced by every U.S. administration. The U.S. strategy for addressing security concerns has largely shifted from using large numbers of military personnel to using the country’s financial resources. This is exemplified by approaches like the active drone program or the billions spent on arming and training the militaries of other countries.

A major takeaway from this research is the blatant disregard to morality we have grown accustomed to when prescribing value to a human life. Perpetual wars have drastically desensitized people to the loss of life, leading to the belief that the citizens of a country have become more dispensable than their financial security.

This information gap between the public and its country’s wars also supports the increasingly recognized gap between the military and the rest of the population (*2). The United States’ wars are not fought at home, leading to a physical and emotional disconnect between the public and those on the front lines. It has become more common for the public to disassociate themselves from their country’s military unless they maintain a direct personal bond such as an active-duty family member or veteran.

Practical Implications

This research suggests that the public generally disagrees with the ‘Don’t Let Them Die in Vain’ mentality. Under every condition throughout the study, human and financial sunk costs did not lead to an increase of war support.

Therefore, government leaders should not attribute the withdrawal from a conflict as a betrayal to those that died fighting in it. Rather, as this research suggests, they should seriously weigh the supposed benefits of going to war against its high human and financial costs – and make the various options and justification for their decisions available to the public.

Considering the number of human casualties did not lower war support, this may suggest the public lacks a clear understanding of the true costs of military action. If made more aware of the human and economic costs of war before committing financial or human resources, there may be a decrease in war support. Activists and public officials who position themselves against war can use this information to address their intended audiences.

Continued Reading

Goodman, A. 2015. The Costs of War, the Price of Peace. Transcend Media Service.

Fisk. R. 2013. The Cost of War Must Be Measured by Human Tragedy, Not Artefacts. Transcend Media Service.

Keywords: war support, costs of war, public opinion


(*1) Peace Science Digest Vol. 1, Issue. 1, page 6: Proven Decline in Public Support for War When the Alternatives Come to Light.

(*2) The military-civilian ‘disconnect’. Ewing, P. 2011. Politico. (; The military-civilian Gap: Fewer family connections. 2011. Pew Research Center ( the-military-civilian-gap-fewer-family-connections/).

The above analysis is from Volume 1, Issue 2, of the Peace Science Digest.


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