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War, Staten Island, and Post-Post-9/11 Politics
Assessing the Democratic Congressional primary in NY-11
Military valor has long played well for those seeking to serve in Washington. Twenty-six of America’s 46 presidents were veterans; scores more have been elected to Congress. One was Max Rose, a Purple Heart recipient who, in 2018, flipped New York city’s only Republican congressional seat into Democratic hands.
Rose cast himself in the traditional mold of the veteran officeholder: independent, pragmatic, unafraid of military strength but careful to use it. Despite serious political skills, he lost his seat after just one term to Republican Nicole Malliotakis.
Rose is now seeking to oust Malliotakis, but must first contend with a strong primary opponent in a Brittany Ramos DeBarros, a fellow combat veteran. She represents a different archetype – the veteran for peace – one more likely to be found agitating on the steps of Congress than working inside it.
The clear contrasts between them will offer insights on how voters views issues of war and peace now that America’s longest and most protracted conflict, in Afghanistan, has come to a close. There’s perhaps no more suitable place to track the emergence of post-post-9/11 politics than the 11th District, an area with a long military history and which endured a disproportionate toll on September 11th and the ensuing conflicts.
The island once served as the major outpost protecting Manhattan from military incursions. These defenses were located at harbor outposts including Ft. Wadsworth, a now decommissioned base next to the Verrazano Bridge that was also depicted in comic books as the headquarters of G.I. Joe.
The borough today features dozens of markers, memorials, and other ghostly reminders of those lost in America’s wars. The island’s main north-south thoroughfare is named after Father Vincent Capodanno, a Roman Catholic priest and U.S. Navy Chaplain who died serving in Vietnam. A trio of new Staten Island ferries honors Sgt. Michael H. Ollis, a borough native killed in Afghanistan while saving a Polish soldier from a suicide bomber.
The district includes an outsized number of cops, firefighters, first responders, and veterans, some of whom have banded together in solidarity around their shared stresses, as well as perceived threats from the left. Still, Islanders defy easy political characterization.
Many are flag-waving, troop-loving Republicans. Staten Island supported Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, but it counts more registered Democrats than Republicans, and is quickly diversifying. The island has the highest union density in the city and the first organized Amazon warehouse in America. In the 2016 Democratic primary, the borough nearly broke for Bernie Sanders over Hilary Clinton. (Sanders, like Trump, has expressed anti-war sentiments and is exceedingly popular among veterans and military families.)
Interestingly, one of the borough’s most outspoken hawks now sounds like a dove. Michael Grimm, a combat veteran and 9/11 first responder who previously represented the 11th district as a Republican, first decided to run after feeling frustrated by President Barack Obama’s “apology tour” for the War on Terror. Today, he largely regrets our overseas entanglements. “All war is horrible,” he recently told me. “There’s no glory, there’s no honor. It's young men giving their lives and their limbs. We should avoid it at all costs.” Shortly after we spoke, Grimm hauled it to Ukraine, where he penned a similarly unvarnished assessment, for Newsmax, on the unfolding war’s horrors.
New York Magazine has just published my feature on Rose, Ramos DeBarros, and the future of American foreign policymaking. Please read and share it if you can.
Also, if the topic of veteran politicking interests you, please also consider preordering an upcoming book I co-authored with Steve Early and Suzanne Gordon called “The Veterans: Winners, Losers, Friends, and Enemies on the New Terrain of Veterans Affairs.” We dedicate a whole chapter to the history and future of veterans in politics. For other good reading in this area, I’d check out The Nation’s in-depth profile of Ramos DeBarros, Michael Kruse’s old profile of Rose, and an old Baffler piece I wrote on stolen valor in politics.
Finally, a programming note: Battle Borne has now been totally free (and mostly dormant) for many months. That’s largely due to a number of intense assignments — including the aforementioned book and a multi-year Mother Jones investigation I recently completed on Valley Forge Military Academy.
Moving forward, I’ll mostly use Battle Borne to promote and expand upon my reporting in newspapers and magazines. I’ll also occasionally throw up small investigations, interviews, and features.
I want to thank the dozens of paid supporters who were crucial in making my work possible during many precarious months of this pandemic. If anyone has questions, concerns, or story ideas, I’m always available at firstname.lastname@example.org
Peace & Love.