The fifth horseman of the Apocalypse

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Many war stories end with hunger wreaking havoc on significant portions of a population. In Christian theology, the Biblical “four horses of the apocalypse,” believed by many in early modern Europe to presage the end of the world, symbolized invasion, armed conflict, and famine followed by death. They suggest the degree to which people have long recognized how violence causes starvation. Armed conflict disrupts food supplies as warring factions divert resources to arms production and their militaries while destroying the kinds of infrastructure that enable societies to feed themselves. Governments, too, sometimes use starvation as a weapon of war. (Sound familiar? I’m not going to point fingers here because most of us can undoubtedly recall recent examples.)

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

As someone who has studied Russian culture and history for decades, I think of Nazi Germany’s nearly three-year siege of the city of Leningrad, which stands out for the estimated 630,000 people the Germans killed slowly and intentionally thanks to starvation and related causes. Those few Russians I know who survived that war as young children still live with psychological trauma, stunted growth, and gastrointestinal problems. Their struggles, even in old age, are a constant reminder to me of war’s ripple effects over time. Some 20-25 million people died from starvation in World War II, including many millions in Asia. In fact, some scholars believe that hunger was the primary cause of death in that war.

We’ve been taught since childhood that war is mainly about troops fighting, no matter that we live in a world in which most military funding actually has little to do with people. Instead, war treasure chests go disproportionately into arms production rather than troops and (more importantly) their wider communities at home. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence and autonomous weapons are being developed with little or no ethical oversight or regulation, potentially removing many soldiers from future battlefields but not from the disastrous psychological scars of war. Meanwhile, in war zones themselves, among civilians, the long-term effects of armed conflict play out on the bodies of those with the least say over whether or not we go to war to begin with, its indirect costs including the possibility of long-term starvation (now increasingly rampant in Gaza).

Today, armed conflict is the most significant cause of hunger. According to the United Nations’ World Food Program, 70% of the inhabitants of war- or violence-affected regions don’t get enough to eat, although our global interconnectedness means that none of us are immune from high food, fuel, and fertilizer prices and war’s supply-chain interruptions. Americans have experienced the impact of Ukraine’s war when it comes to fuel and grain prices, but in regions like sub-Saharan Africa, which depend significantly on Eastern European foodstuffs and fuel, the conflict has sparked widespread hunger. Consider it a particularly cruel feature of modern warfare that people who may not even know about wars being fought elsewhere can still end up bearing the wounds on their bodies.

America’s Post-9/11 Forever Wars

As one of the co-founders of the Costs of War Project at Brown University, I often think about the largely unrecognized but far-reaching impact of America’s post-9/11 war on terror (still playing out in dozens of countries around the world). Most of the college students who made news this spring protesting U.S. support for Israel’s war in Gaza hadn’t even been born when, after the 9/11 attacks, this country first embarked on our decades-long forever wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and all too many other places. By our count at the Costs of War Project, those wars directly killed nearly one million people in combat, including some 432,000 civilians (and still counting!), and indirectly millions more.

Our forever wars began long before local journalists in war zones first started to post bombings and so many other gruesome visions of the costs of war, including starvation, on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and other social media sites, as they did during the first days of the Russian bombing of Kyiv and, as I write, Israel’s seemingly never-ending assault on Gaza. Those journalists haven’t been fettered by the U.S. military’s embed programs, which initially hamstrung war reporters trying to offer anything but a sanitized version of the war on terror. In other words, Americans have, at least recently, been able to witness the crimes and horrors other militaries commit in their war zones (just not our own).

And yet the human rights violations and destruction of infrastructure from the all-American war on terror were every bit as impactful as what’s now playing out before our eyes. We just didn’t see the destruction or slow-motion degradation of roads and bridges over which food was distributed; the drone attacks that killed Afghan farmers; the slow contamination of agriculture in war zones thanks, in part, to American missiles and rockets; the sewage runoff from U.S. bases; the bombings in everyday areas like crowded Iraqi marketplaces that made grocery shopping a potentially deadly affair; and the displacement and impoverishment of hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis because of U.S.-led drone attacks — to take just a few of so many examples. Of course, these aren’t problems as easily captured in a single picture, no less a video, as hospitals full of starving children or the flattened cities of the Gaza Strip.

America’s longest war in Afghanistan deepened that country’s poverty, decimating what existed of its agriculture and food distribution systems, while displacing millions. And the effects continue: 92% of Afghans are still food insecure and nearly 3 in 10 Afghan children will face acute malnutrition this year.

In the U.S., we haven’t seen antiwar protests on anywhere near the scale of the recent Gaza campus ones since the enormous 2003 protests against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, after which those hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators thinned to a mere trickle in the years to follow. Sadly, Americans have proven selective indeed when it comes to reckoning with conflict, whether because of short attention spans, laziness, or an inability to imagine the blood on our own hands.

Denials of Humanitarian Aid

So, too, the U.S. has been complicit in denying aid shipments to people in the greatest need — and not just today in Gaza. Yes, Congress and the Biden administration decided to cut off funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) because of the alleged participation of some of its Gaza staff members in Hamas’s October 7th attack on Israel. But don’t think that was unique. For example, in 2009, our government prevented more than $50 million in aid from entering Somalia, including aid from the World Food Program, even though aid groups were warning that the country stood on the precipice of mass starvation. In 2011, the U.N. officially declared a famine there and, to this day, Somalia’s hunger crisis continues, exacerbated by climate change and wider regional conflicts.

And that’s hardly the only way this country has been involved in such crises. After all, thanks to America’s forever wars, some 3.6 to 3.8 million people are estimated to have died not from bullets or bombs but, during those wars and in their aftermath, from malnutrition, disease, suicide, and other indirect (but no less real) causes. In such situations, hunger factors in as a multiplier of other causes of death because of how it weakens bodies.

Now, Gaza is a major humanitarian catastrophe in which the U.S. is complicit. Armed far-right Israeli groups have repeatedly blocked aid from entering the enclave or targeted Gazans clamoring for such aid, and Israeli forces have fired on aid workers and civilians seeking to deliver food. In a striking irony, Palestinians have also died because of food aid, as people drowned while trying to retrieve U.S. and Jordanian airdrops of aid in the sea or were crushed by them on land when parachutes failed.

This country’s complicity in Israel’s siege and bombardment of Gaza has been disastrous: an estimated at least two out of every 10,000 people there are now dying daily from starvation, with the very young, very old, and those living with disabilities the worst affected. Gazans are trying to create flour from foraged animal feed, scouring ruins for edible plants, and drinking tepid, often polluted water, to tragic effect, including the rapid spread of disease. Tales of infants and young children dying because they can’t get enough to eat and distraught parents robbed of their dignity because they can do nothing for their kids (or themselves) are too numerous and ghastly to detail here. But just for a moment imagine that all of this was happening to your loved ones.

A growing number of Gazans, living in conditions where their most basic nutritional needs can’t be met, are approaching permanent stunting or death. The rapid pace of Gaza’s descent into famine is remarkable among conflicts. According to UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and the World Food Program, the decline in the nutritional status of Gazans during the first three months of the war alone was unprecedented. Eight months into the Israeli assault on that 25-mile-long strip of land, a major crossing for aid delivery has again been closed, thanks to the most recent offensive in Rafah and a half-million Gazans face “catastrophic levels of hunger.” Thought of another way, the fourth horseman has arrived.

Hunger as a Cause of War

Famine is the nightmarish version of the gift that just keeps giving. Hungry people are more likely to resort to violence to solve their problems. War-afflicted Yemen is a case in point. In that country, the U.S. funded and armed the Saudi military in its air strikes against the Houthi-led rebels that began in 2015 and went on for years (a role now taken over by my country). One child under five is still estimated to die every 10 minutes from malnutrition and related causes there, in large part because war has so decimated the country’s food production and distribution infrastructure. Since war first struck Yemen, the country’s economy has halved, and nearly 80% of the population is now dependent on humanitarian aid. A direct consequence of the unrest has been the flourishing of Islamic extremist groups like the Houthis. Countries facing hunger and food instability are, in fact, more likely to be politically unstable and experience more numerous protests, some of them violent.

Nowadays, I find that I can’t help imagining worst-case scenarios like the risk of nuclear war, a subject that has come up in a threatening manner recently in relation to Ukraine. The scale of hunger that the smallest nuclear conflagrations would create is hard to imagine even by today’s grim standards. A nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, for example, would distribute soot into the atmosphere and disrupt the climate globally, affecting food and livestock production and probably causing death by starvation in a “nuclear winter” of three billion people. Were there to be a nuclear war between the United States and Russia, an estimated five billion people might die from hunger alone in the famine that would ensue. It’s not an outcome I even care to imagine (though we all should probably be thinking about it more than we do).

Hunger at the Heart of Empire

Though this country is not (yet) a war zone, it’s not an accident that Americans are facing high food prices and record levels of hunger. The more than $8 trillion our government has spent over the past two decades on our distant wars alone has sapped resources for investment in things like transportation and better water systems here, while ensuring that there are more than 1.4 million fewer jobs for Americans. Meanwhile, military families struggle with far higher rates of food insecurity than those among the general population. Progressives and anyone interested in the preservation of this country’s now fragile democracy shouldn’t ignore the wasting of the lives of those of us who are hungrier, have a harder time affording daily prices, and have more in common with civilians in war zones than we normally imagine.

Seen in this light, the overwhelming focus of young Americans on the Gaza war and their lack of enthusiasm for preserving democracy, as they consider voting for third-party candidates (or not voting at all) and so handing Donald Trump the presidency, becomes more understandable to me. What good is a democracy if it hemorrhages resources into constant foreign wars? Certainly, the current administration has yet to introduce a viable alternative to our endless engagement in foreign conflicts or meaningfully mitigate the inflation of basic necessities, among them food and housing. President (and candidate) Biden needs to articulate a more robust vision for preserving democracy in America, which would include ways to solve the problems of daily life like how to afford groceries.

Still, while I’ll give our youngest generation of antiwar progressives kudos for holding elected officials to task for their myopic priorities, especially on Gaza, let’s also get real and look at the alternative rapidly barreling toward us: another Trump presidency. Does anyone really think that Gaza would be better off then?

What would happen to anyone protesting wars in Gaza or elsewhere? How would we pressure a president who has advocated violence to overthrow the results of a peaceful election?

Concerns about foreign wars can’t be solved by staying home on November 5th or voting for a third-party candidate or Donald Trump. The 2024 election is about preserving our very ability to protest America’s wars (or those this country is backing abroad), as opposed to creating a potential Trumpian forever hell here at home.

Think of Donald Trump, in fact, as the potential fifth horseman of the apocalypse, now riding toward us at full speed.

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Andrea Mazzarino Tom Dispatch