War, and the Privilege of Voting for the “Lesser of Two Evils”

(Photo: Christina Acedo/Daily Titan)


The Costs of War Project, which is a product of the Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs at Brown University, released a report on the human cost of 9/11 wars. In this report, they estimate that anywhere from 480,000 to 507,000 people have died in US wars since 9/11. The deaths, which are only tallied from the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the US drone war in Pakistan, has garnered zero coverage from the US mainstream media. You would think that such a report, that credits the United States as being responsible for over half a million deaths in only three countries, would be covered extensively in any nation that considers itself a beacon for democracy and human rights, but that is not the case. This report was released in November, which unfortunately coincided with the midterm elections, perhaps explaining the lack of media coverage. These midterms were labeled by former president Barack Obama as the most important in a generation, saying “our democracy is at stake”.

What are we to make of a democracy that ignores its own role in the death of over 500,000 people? I would argue that such a democracy barely even qualifies as a democracy, especially if the candidates for office offer no choice to the voters on whether we are to accept a role in such death and destruction. Let’s face it, America is an empire, not a country, and until our elections start reflecting this reality, our ignorance of the issues regarding our destructive foreign policy will never change. Until the voters of this country realize that their decisions at the booth not only impact the reality of people here on this land, but potentially the lives of people in 80 plus countries, we will continue to have more of the same. According to David Vine, professor of Anthropology and author of Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World, there are over 800 military bases in around 80 countries. The cost to maintain this string of military real estate is well over $150 billion annually.

Support for this Empire is bipartisan, even in the era of Trump, who is supposedly the greatest threat to our democracy this country has ever seen. We see again how dangerously narrow that message is, given Democratic support for Trump’s worst impulses on US foreign policy. If Trump were the dangerous, reckless dictator that is claimed by many on the left, perhaps giving his administration more weapons would be considered a bad thing. Not in the eyes of Democrats, most of which voted to approve his enormous defense spending bill. The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act approved $716 billion in defense spending, which was more than what the Pentagon actually asked for, and more than what Trump asked for. These increases were largely due to the supposed dangers associated with a rising Russian/Chinese alliance, so I guess there is no partisanship when it comes to driving a great power arms race.

The bipartisan support for America’s warmongering explains the silence on these issues during the midterm elections, where candidates on the right and the left failed to drive any national conversation about the astronomical levels of military spending, even while talking up the need for better healthcare, education, and roads. Maj. Danny Sjursen, who is a US Army Officer and former history professor at West Point, writes of this bipartisan silence regarding US war violence:

Why should we be surprised? The de facto “leaders” of both parties – the Chuck Schumers, Joe Bidens, Hillary Clintons and Mitch McConnells of the world – all voted for the 2002 Iraq War resolution, one of the worst foreign policy adventures in American History. Sure, on domestic issues – taxes, healthcare, immigration – there may be some distinction between Republican and Democratic policies; but on the profound issues of war and peace, there is precious little daylight between the two parties. That, right there, is a formula for perpetual war.

Perpetual war is terrible, and something that should not be supported by any movement that fancies itself “progressive”. Unfortunately, these are the times we live in. No matter your political affiliation, people in this country are putting the national interests of their movement first. For Republicans and Democrats, politics stops at the water’s edge.

One of the arguments we hear from Democrats when it comes to supporting their candidates is that we must vote for them, because they are the “lesser of two evils”. Not voting for them would be a win for Neo-Nazi fascists and white supremacy, and would make life hard for many people in this country. We also hear that people not voting for such a “lesser of two evils” are privileged. Indeed it would make life harder for a lot of people in this country, but again we are thinking of America as a country, and not an Empire. If we were thinking of America as an Empire, then we would ask ourselves whether our vote would make it harder for people not only here, but worldwide. It is time we started talking about another form of privilege that would force us to ask ourselves those tough questions. Cameroonian philosopher and political scientist Achilles Mbembe asks in his essay Necropolitics “Imagining politics as a form of war, we must ask: What place is given to the life, death, and the human body (in particular the wounded or slain body)? How are they inscribed in the order of power”?

When we fail to see how our voting impacts the lives of people in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other nations where support for the US war effort is bipartisan, we exercise a kind of privilege. Professors Rashna Batliwala Singh and Peter Matthews Wright call this “Imperial Privilege”. This privilege is so pervasive in our politics that it doesn’t apply only to the militarist right. Indeed, this privilege “makes it possible for even the liberally-inclined to turn a blind eye to the toxic footprint of U.S. militarism at home and abroad; to fall silent at any mention of the homicidal decisions of an American President; to exclude such matters from public political discussion and to prevent them from influencing their voting patterns in any way.” It is going to be tough for liberals in this country to accept that some people who might not have privilege in certain aspects have privilege elsewhere, but really this idea isn’t that radical. If we fail to accept Imperial privilege, then discussions of privilege will be at risk of becoming irrelevant, and even elitist. If discussions of privilege only pertain to social dynamics of power in America, then our discussions of privilege are largely nationalistic. When looking at the big picture of global politics, there are oppressed nations and states who live with the constant fear of being attacked by larger nations. It is a privilege simply to live in a nation that never has to fear being attacked militarily.

The “war” in Afghanistan (which I would argue is not a war, but an invasion and occupation) is the longest running war in American history. At 17, this war is old enough to drive, and a time will come soon when 17 year olds enlisting in the armed forces would not even have been born at the time of the initial invasion of Afghanistan. What makes this war even more egregious is the fact that there is a decent segment of the population of Afghanistan that has never even heard of 9/11. Polling data from 2011 from the International Council on Security and Development revealed that in a survey of 15 to 30 year old men in Helmand and Kandahar, 92% of those interviewed were unaware of “this event which the foreigners call 9/11”. That isn’t the case for the entire country, as residents of the major cities are aware of the events, but in a largely rural country, that isn’t the case for many. Do you think these same people care whether it is a Democrat or Republican who is in charge of the bombings, night raids, and other acts of violence committed by the heavily armed storm troopers who for some reason are wrecking unspeakable havoc on their lives?

There are some encouraging signs that came from the midterm elections, albeit very few. There were some candidates who spoke very briefly on major issues pertaining to US foreign policy, and have the potential to bring that focus to Washington. Rashida Tlaib, who was elected to represent Michigan’s 13th district, is the first Palestinian woman elected to the US Congress. In a country that is practically ruled at every step by the Israeli lobby, this is a big deal. Rashida Tlaib has relatives who still live in the West Bank, and has taken a public stance in favor of a ‘One State Solution’ when it comes to the issue of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. That is a pretty radical stance for anyone in the US congress to take, and I wish her the best and hope that her presence in Washington can bring others on the Left to embrace that cause. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was elected to represent New York’s 14th district also spoke briefly on the campaign trail about our runaway defense spending. During an appearance on the Daily Show, she spoke of defense spending given to the military that “they didn’t even ask for” but the message she was trying to put out there was about “reprioritization” saying “and so a lot of what we need to do is reprioritize what we want to accomplish as a nation.”

Believe me, I understand that it is hard selling defense spending cuts to Americans, considering the near two decades of fear mongering over the “war on terror” coming from our politicians and sycophant corporate media. It’s a hard sell unless you tie it into our inability to finance domestic projects like increased infrastructure, health, or education spending. I wish Ms. Ocasio-Cortez didn’t have to frame the discussion of death and destruction of people in terms of fiscal language as opposed to ethical language. We should be framing the issue of war in terms of whether it is right or wrong that America has such power to decide the fate of so many people. We should be discussing these issues in the context of our elections to ask ourselves whether Americans should have such a callous view towards deciding the destiny of so many people given the ability we have to put war planners into office. The congressional elections should have more of a say in this, given the House’s power of the purse and their ability to finance this entire war enterprise. I expect that sort of callousness from the militarist right, but this progressive surge in US politics has not coincided with a surge in international solidarity with the victims of US foreign policy, who face plight and hardship regardless of which major party is in power.

It’s time for us to frame our politics around the notion of America being an empire, and not a country, so the victims of our actions around the world can finally have a semblance of a voice in our elections where their lives are rendered meaningless.


Michael Byrne is a writer and antiwar activist living and working in Washington, DC. He holds a Master’s Degree in Global Interactions from Cleveland State University.

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