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The Far Right in Uniform: How Extreme is the U.S. Military?

4 2 9
08.04.2021

It was around noon and I was texting a friend about who-knows-what when I added, almost as an afterthought: “tho they seem to be invading the Capitol at the mo.” I wasn’t faintly as blasé as that may sound on January 6th, especially when it became ever clearer who “they” were and what they were doing. Five people would die due to that assault on the Capitol building, including a police officer, and two more would commit suicide in the wake of the event. One hundred forty police would be wounded(lost eye, heart attack, cracked ribs, smashed spinal disks, concussions) and the collateral damage would be hard even to tote up.

I’m not particularly sentimental about anyone-can-grow-up-to-be-president and all that — in 2017, anyone did — but damn! This was democracy under actual, not rhetorical, attack.

As the list of people charged in connection with that insurrection rose, ways of analyzing their possible motivations grew ever more creative: at least nine of the rioters who broke into the Capitol had a history of violence against women; almost 60% had had money troubles; and above all, 50, or 14.5%, of the 356 people arrested at last count, had military connections, as did the woman killed by a policeman that day. (Veterans and active-duty personnel account for 7.5% of the U.S. population.) More than a fifth of the arrested veterans have been charged with “conspiracy.”

The need to understand why an estimated 800 people ransacked the Capitol, attacked the police, and threatened elected representatives, journalists, and the basic functioning of American democracy is both practical and emotional. Thinking that we know what motivated the rioters makes their rebellion feel a little more manageable (at least to me) and might just help prevent something like it from happening again.

Given my background — I’ve been writing about soldiers and veterans for years — my management technique has been to look at the military links to that assault.

I’m hardly alone. In one of the few times other than Veterans Day in this century when American journalists seem to have remembered that our military was crucial to our national experience, a number of them began covering that link. A regularly updated NPR list shows that almost all of those with military affiliations in the Capitol that day were veterans. Several had previously been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan; one had worked on presidential helicopters and so (like another of the rioters) would have had a top-secret security clearance; one, who wasn’t actually at the Capitol but whom the FBI is eyeing for conspiracy charges, was on the staff of former congressman Ron Paul; and one had even been in the Peace Corps. Nearly all of them were men and nearly all were white. Two were Citadel cadets, but only two were active-duty personnel. (One of those had, in the past, come to work at a Navy yard in New Jersey decked out in a Hitler mustache and hairdo and reportedly made anti-Semitic comments daily. He got admonished for the mustache; the comments continued.)

I admit that I was surprised by all this, although I probably shouldn’t have been. After all, last year, even in the age of Trump, the FBI had opened 68 investigations into domestic extremism involving current or former members of the military.

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that many of those veterans were affiliatedwith the far-right Proud Boys or Oath Keepers and much has been made of why such groups would want to engage people with military experience who bring with them training, skills, possible access to weaponry, and the twisted credibility of government-issued hero status. Far less was said about why people in the military might be attracted to far-right groups.

The Link Between Extremist Culture and the Military

A week after the Capitol invasion, 14 Democratic senators wrote a letter calling on the Pentagon’s Inspector General to investigate “white supremacy” and “extremism in........

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