American historian Howard Zinn, a veteran of World War II, once wrote, “I wonder if people and governments would be so eager to fight if they were able to see what physical combat and its consequences truly look like. Too often the reality is concealed by faceless numbers.”
After nearly two decades of military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States recently came dangerously close to another war. The alleged enemy this time is Iran. More than two years after unilaterally withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA), and after imposing multiple rounds of crippling sanctions on the Iranian economy, on January 2 the United States assassinated the highest-ranking military official of the Islamic Republic, General Qassem Soleimani.
In the immediate aftermath of Soleimani’s killing, many Democratic politicians were quick to both rationalize and question the intent behind the decision. Joe Biden, for instance, emphasized that while Soleimani “deserved to be brought to justice,” the decision to assassinate him was an “escalatory move” in a volatile region. Pete Buttigieg, invoking a similar kind of both-sidesism in his statement, pointed out that Soleimani was a “threat to the safety and security” of Americans, but that the decision raised practical concerns about Iran’s response.
But from this chorus of concern and criticism, it was Bernie Sanders who most emphatically called for opposition to yet more American war overseas.
Unlike his colleagues, Sanders did not qualify his immediate response to the news of Soleimani’s killing with an evaluation of the Iranian general’s moral character. Instead, Sanders sought to make tangible the abstraction of war — to humanize the costs of military conflict both at home and overseas. Soon after the news broke, Sanders tweeted “The U.S. has lost approximately 4,500 brave troops, tens of thousands have been wounded and we’ve spent trillions.” He continued, “Trump’s dangerous escalation brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars.”
In subsequent days, Sanders elaborated that his opposition to war derived fundamentally from his understanding of the concrete brutalities of military conflict. During a late-night appearance on Stephen Colbert’s show, Sanders put his frustration with the obliviousness of the political elite to the terrors of war as follows:
We sit in Congress in our beautiful rooms … and we do not know what war is about. I’ve met with the mothers of young men who lost their lives in the [Iraq] war. I’ve met with the wives. I’ve met with the kids. I’ve met with the soldiers who came back without arms and legs, who are dealing with PTSD today. War is a horror. And it is time that politicians understood that we should do everything humanly possible to avoid war.
The heart of Sanders’s opposition to war was simple: wars are not faceless affairs that revolve around numbers. Rather, wars are fought by everyday people, amongst everyday people, and the atrocities that they bring about specifically involves human death, destruction, and misery.
For Iranians like me, Sanders’s comments struck a chord. I grew up in the immediate aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War in Southern Iran. I witnessed firsthand the consequences of death and destruction that wars invariably result in. Nearly one million Iranians perished during the eight years of conflict, with similarly needless casualties among Iraqis, while numerous other millions would return home with various physical and psychological injuries from which they’d never recover.
And in recent years, the horrors of warfare have been supplanted with the brutalities of life around the economic sanctions’ stranglehold, which hurt working-class people the most. In October 2017, I lost my father because we could not procure life-saving medications that he needed, due to an artificially produced medical shortage resulting from US-imposed sanctions — sanctions that Bernie Sanders had singly opposed just a few months earlier.
But if progressive politicians like Sanders want to forestall wars, they cannot be the lone and unsupported voices of opposition. Rather, they need activist and political allies to continue to amplify the message that wars—both economic and military—are horrors that destroy blameless lives. In short, Sanders needs an actual movement behind him, both on the streets and in the halls of power.
Bernie Sanders is not an ordinary politician. Unlike most of his colleagues in Washington, Sanders’s early career did not start at an elite law school, but in grassroots organizing and activism — from marching on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr, to protesting the war in Vietnam, to getting arrested for protesting segregation at University of Chicago.
To appreciate the influence that activism had on Sanders’s political thought and character, we can observe the frequency with which Sanders’s critique of American imperialism draws on King’s critique of capitalism and militarism. Echoing King’s demand for a “radical revolution of values,” to reverse the trend wherein the United States “continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift,” Sanders reminds us that the “Pentagon is set to grow by $90 billion,” imploring us to stop “handing over billions to the military-industrial complex.” Much like King, Sanders is acutely attuned to the brutal reality that “it is rarely the children of the billionaire class who face the agony of reckless foreign policy. It is the children of working families.”
But the influence of mass organizers like King is also deeply reflected in the ethos of movement building that Sanders has popularized in recent years. This was borne out by Sanders’s unique fundraising style during the 2016 primary. Sanders himself often emphasizes that his presidency will not be shaped around the authority of a Commander in Chief, but rather around the mass mobilizing of an “Organizer in Chief.”
And this is a crucial reason behind Sanders’s appeals to young people, many of whom have followed his stead to themselves become organizers, agitating on the ground against income inequality, racial injustice, climate injustice, immigration injustice, and on other related fronts. Bernie Sanders has already laid the groundwork for a popular movement against all forms of inequality—including wars overseas that worsen inequality at home and abroad.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, opposition to the war in Vietnam was led by diverse coalitions of students, women’s rights activists, and civil rights organizers. As the war intensified, so did the movement’s opposition. In the 1970s, student strikes rippled across the country’s college campuses. These once-isolatable strikes would soon evolve into mass protests throughout the country. These repeated waves of protests helped force the United States to finally withdraw its troops from Indochina in April 1975.
In 2020, we do not have an organized anti-war movement that can instantly move to organized action as the need arises. But Bernie Sanders’s candidacy has given us not just a trustworthy anti-war ally, but millions of electrified people — a diverse coalition of folks across all demographics — united around a popular disaffection with the political establishment, including a deep frustration with the propensity of status quo for endless war upheld by entrenched decision-makers. This movement represents an enthusiasm for radical change unlike any we have seen in decades. And remarkably, Sanders has instilled in the core values of this movement an understanding of the connection between foreign and domestic policy — the realization that spending on wars overseas contributes greatly to the scarcities that ordinary Americans face at home.
But Sanders is also drawing on the momentum of his movement to propose actionable forms of legislative oversight, especially on the war-making powers of the executive branch. Alongside Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), Sanders recently introduced legislation that would prohibit funds for acts of war against Iran that have not obtained congressional authorization — acts like the illegal assassination of Qassem Suleimani. As a sort of sequel to the War Powers Resolution that the two lawmakers introduced last year, this legislation would greatly curtail the war powers of the president through freezing the Pentagon’s funding in case of unauthorized war with Iran.
Thus, Sanders might very well be the first politician who is inviting voters and anti-war advocates to avail themselves of legislative powers that would hold him, and all future presidents, accountable.
Lastly, the ascendancy of Sanders as a progressive stalwart in recent years has inspired the mainstream emergence of anti-war politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN). In the last two years, these lawmakers have demonstrated an unflinching reluctance to accept business-as-usual on both domestic and foreign policy matters. For instance, in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Omar voiced deep criticism of the use of sanctions as a standard disciplinary foreign policy instrument, arguing that such measures too often hurt the people that we purportedly want to help. In similar fashion, at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform in May 2019, AOC publicly excoriated the executives from the military contractor TransDigm for price-gouging American taxpayers. In this sense, AOC and Omar are decidedly unlike your run-of-the-mill DC politicians. But we need to acknowledge that neither of them would have likely risen to such prominence without the support of Sanders and the movement that he has built. To this end, Sanders and affiliated organizations, like Our Revolution, need to continue to support and invest in the young, ambitious voices of anti-war advocates from the progressive left.
As we get closer to Super Tuesday, and remain close to the possibility of another war in the Middle East, we must continually remind ourselves that we need an anti-war movement and we need it urgently. Bernie Sanders is the only candidate running for president who has continually proven himself an ally of the still-burgeoning anti-war movement, or of a bottom-up approach to enacting social change in general. He has laid the infrastructure and given us the tools to build such a movement. But we can’t take what we have for granted.
A social-democratic approach to domestic policy requires an anti-imperialist approach to foreign policy. We have to foreground this connection with Sanders’s supporters and organize them against thoughtless, warmongering foreign policy.