In New York’s 11th Congressional District, two veterans are competing for the Democratic nomination. One is a centrist who will strengthen the military-industrial complex; the other is a democratic socialist who built her career fighting it.

Brittany Ramos DeBarros, candidate for New York’s Eleventh Congressional District, addresses demonstrators during an Amazon Labor Union rally in Staten Island. (Victor J. Blue / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

During the 2020 presidential election, when millions of Americans were being bombarded with appeals from Joe Biden and Donald Trump, Brittany Ramos DeBarros called out a glaring flaw in both candidates: neither was genuinely antiwar.

As an Afghanistan veteran, DeBarros could not forgive Biden for supporting open-ended warfare in the Middle East. Writing on behalf of About Face, a network of post-9/11 veterans and active-duty service members, the thirty-one-year-old former army captain lamented the fact that neither major party had fielded an antiwar candidate. “Many of us deployed under the Obama-Biden administration,” she wrote, and witnessed a supposedly anti-occupation White House’s “devastating expansion of militarism.”

President Trump, on the other hand, was “doubling down on those wars” by dropping “record-breaking numbers of bombs on Afghanistan and beyond,” negotiating the largest arms deal in US history, and expanding “terrifying state violence” at home against police brutality protesters.

Even if Biden beat Trump, DeBarros predicted, “the realities of war and militarism” would remain pretty much the same. Antiwar veterans and the peace movement would still need to organize against ever-increasing Pentagon budgets and new opportunities to project US military force around the globe, which come at the detriment of social programs and the fight against climate change.

Two years later, DeBarros has made the transition from peace and social justice activism to electoral politics. Her opponent in the Democratic primary for New York’s Eleventh Congressional District is Max Rose, a former Biden administration official and fellow veteran who represented the district in Congress between 2019 and 2021. In the 2020 election, Rose lost his seat to the right-wing, Trump-backed state assembly member Nicole Malliotakis, who claimed that Rose’s appearance at a Staten Island protest over George Floyd’s death made him a supporter of defunding the police. Trump, for his part, derided Rose as a “puppet” of Nancy Pelosi.

The first accusation is false: Rose does not support defunding the police. But there is some truth to the second charge. Despite his National Guard service during the pandemic and support for ending the US occupation of Afghanistan, Rose is fundamentally a centrist Democrat. The Eleventh District is New York City’s most conservative, but a redistricting that brought parts of Brooklyn into the district may give voters the opportunity to replace Malliotakis with DeBarros, a left-wing Afro-Latina who says she would join the Squad in its struggle against both parties’ destructive militarism.

As DeBarros once wrote from an army barracks, “any of us who care about economic, racial, and gender justice must also rise up against what is nearly unchecked US military aggression.”

Afghanistan Veteran, Antiwar Activist

DeBarros could threaten a Trump-loving incumbent in a district with many streets named after cops and firefighters killed in lower Manhattan on 9/11 and residents who later died in the United States’ wars in the Middle East. She grew up in a military family and in what she calls a “very Republican, libertarian-leaning” part of Texas, which initially made her an “evangelical neo-con crazy person.” After winning a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship, she attended the University of Miami and graduated as a commissioned first lieutenant in the army.

DeBarros deployed to Afghanistan as a platoon leader and strategic communications officer in 2012–13. At first, she believed America was trying to secure the country and help Afghan women. But she says that “it soon became apparent that the US military was the wrong vehicle for achieving that mission.”

DeBarros was still serving as a captain in the Army Reserves when she attended a meeting of Veterans for Peace (VFP) in New York City at the invitation of former navy nurse Susan Schnall, a leader in the 1960s GI antiwar movement and the current national president of the VFP. Two years after attending her first meeting in New York, DeBarros addressed a VFP convention in Spokane.

Her speech raised questions that the organization’s older members have long grappled with: “How do we move from fighting each war, one by one, and begin dismantling the system that allows these wars to keep popping up? How do we get at the roots of the system?”

In the meantime, DeBarros became involved with the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC), a national campaign inspired by Dr Martin Luther King Jr to confront poverty, racism, and militarism. As the sociologist Michael Messner reports in his book, Unconventional Combat: Intersectional Action in the Veterans’ Peace Movement, DeBarros’s speech at a June 2018 PPC rally in Washington, DC, gave her “national visibility as a leader among the next generation of antiwar veterans.” While still subject to military discipline as a reservist, she told a huge crowd that “there can be no true economic, racial, or gender liberation without addressing the militarism that is strangling the morality and empathy out of our society.”

After dodging a court-martial threat and being discharged from the military, DeBarros became a full-time organizer for About Face. Her work focused on exposing the political influence of big military contractors and repealing congressional authorization for open-ended warfare in the Middle East. In 2020, she helped enlist hundreds of other veterans to sign an open letter urging members of the National Guard and other military units to refuse riot duty during nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd.

As she told Truthout, “I can say from experience that the moral cost, the cost to your soul, of following an order that you wish that you hadn’t, is far greater and far more sustained than whatever the military can do to you in the short run.”

An Establishment Darling

DeBarros canvassed for Rose in 2018, when he ran against a conservative Republican and became the first post-9/11 combat veteran to represent New York City in the House. Jon Soltz, leader of VoteVets, hailed the former infantry officer and winner of a Purple Heart and Bronze Star in Afghanistan as “one of the most energetic and exciting candidates in the country.” But DeBarros says she was soon “turned off by his gross nationalism” and aggressive House floor criticism of a newly elected colleague, Ilhan Omar from Minnesota.

The moral cost, the cost to your soul, of following an order that you wish that you hadn’t, is far greater than whatever the military can do to you in the short run.

During his single term, Rose did cosponsor a measure introduced by Representative Barbara Lee that would have rescinded congressional authorization for US military activity in Iraq, and he became one of a small group of veterans in the House to support an accelerated timetable for the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. Rose was also one of the first DC politicians from a military background to endorse removing the names of Confederate generals from US military bases.

Yet in his primary campaign against DeBarros, Rose has received backing from the same politicians who opposed these efforts. With his core identity as a centrist, Rose is typical of the “service candidates” we describe in our new book: politicians with backgrounds in the military or national security agencies who are recruited and funded by the establishments of both parties.

Rose recently spoke to the New York Times for a feature on moderate Democrats like himself. “There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Democratic Party has a problem as a toxic brand,” he said. “There’s a perception that the party is not on the side of working people, that it’s not on the side of the middle class.”

Rose’s claim to be a champion of working people — and a more viable general election candidate — is backed up by endorsements from unions like AFGE, AFT, RWDSU, United Brotherhood of Carpenters, and IBEW Local 3, a building trades giant in New York City. He also has the support of Congressional Progressive Caucus luminaries such as Katie Porter, Pramila Jayapal, and Ro Khanna, who was a national cochair of Bernie Sanders’s last presidential campaign.

But DeBarros also has strong allies in labor and in the progressive movement. She is endorsed by Our Revolution (an offshoot of Sanders’s presidential campaigns), the Working Families Party, Brand New Congress, Citizen Action, NY Progressive Action Network, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Jewish Voice for Peace. Her New York City supporters are aiding her “Brittany for the People” campaign with phone banking and door-to-door canvassing, connecting DeBarros with workers involved in the Amazon Labor Union on Staten Island and other local struggles.

Like many other members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), DeBarros has proven to be an adept small-dollar fundraiser, with more than $600,000 in donations so far. (As of March, Rose had a campaign war chest three times as large.) The Nation has compared her “political insurgency” to those of “other young leftist women of color” from working-class backgrounds like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib.

Military-Industrial Meddling

In the wake of Russia’s military assault on Ukraine, those who hope to prevent DeBarros from joining the Squad have targeted her antiwar credentials. After the DSA issued a statement condemning the invasion and urging the United States “to withdraw from NATO and to end the imperialist expansionism that set the stage for this conflict,” Rose went on the offensive, calling for “an even stronger NATO alliance.”

“America’s unilateral withdrawal from NATO is perhaps the most harmful, stupidest thing, foreign policy decision, that we could be considering right now,” he declared. “America has to double down on its alliances, particularly its trans-Atlantic ones.”

In a February 27 Twitter post, DeBarros argued that “Ukrainian armed defense against fascist invasion” was “justified,” and that the US “should work with international partners to supply and support civil-military defense tactics.” At the same time, she cautioned against “any unilateral actions that could cost more lives in the region and escalate this to a WWIII scenario.” But that didn’t stop a Times reporter from baiting her about her 2019 participation in an anti-NATO panel discussion.

When contacted in March, DeBarros told the Times that she did not support an immediate US withdrawal from NATO “at this time.” “Now is the time to save lives, and to de-escalate the situation,” she explained. “If people would like to have a broader conversation about understanding how we got here and diagnosing what we need to do in order to, you know, shape a different future, then that can come once we have removed ourselves from the brink.”

Five months later, DeBarros is still fielding questions about her position, including on a recent Zoom meeting with supporters. In that discussion, she described Russia’s actions as “an imperialist invasion” and observed that some “anti-imperialist organizations act as if the US is the only imperialist power.” She noted that past US foreign policy decisions set the stage for the current conflict and “the only national security approach that the US has invested in for decades is military force projection,” either directly or through alliances like NATO.

It hasn’t been easy for Squad members to challenge runaway Pentagon spending in Congress. Amid a bipartisan stampede to approve an additional $54 billion for Ukrainian military aid and other forms of assistance, only thirty-nine Democrats voted against the $840 billion National Defense Authorization Act in the House this month. The military-industrial complex has only become more emboldened and better funded since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — the House needs proven antiwar campaigners like DeBarros to stand against it.

“If we don’t address this empty nationalism, this plastic patriotism,” she told the Nation, “we are never going to get the economic and racial justice that we say that we want.”

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