I’m not a fighter. I know saying that out loud in some corners of American culture is sacrilege. But I’m not. It took me nearly 20 years in the service of arms to come to terms with the type of animal that I was. The deployments and awards and promotions on paper might lead one to think something that wasn’t true. In reality, I built teams. And I created capabilities. I was a leader and a builder; like nearly everyone else at some level. The world told me I was a warrior though. And so that was my identity. Until one day it wasn’t. Then I was lost for a bit. 

The truth is that most of the people I worked with weren’t fighters either. They were builders or leaders or technicians. Some had a craft or a knack for something specific. But at a molecular level, they weren’t fighters. They fought because they knew that they could and they believed that in that ability there was responsibility to do the nation’s fighting. Some call it service. The beauty of military service isn’t the violence. The beauty of service is the sacrifice willingly given to do things one wouldn’t rather do, if not for the benefit of others.  

We don’t fill the book shelves with books about building though. I’ve lost track of the warrior best sellers and podcasts folks I’ve worked with have put out. The world tells us we’re warriors. Hard. Maybe even damaged. But we’re full of fight…we’re told. Until we’re not of course. And then it doesn’t tell us much at all anymore. 

There’s an asymmetry in status that comes from a relatively small voluntary force and prolonged generational wars. World War II vets didn’t get to walk around calling themselves warriors too loudly when they returned. Every third Joe they ran into on the street was there too. They had limited hero currency above the room. They were appreciated, not worshiped. And they had post war America to build. Eugene Sledge didn’t write With the Old Breeduntil 35 years after he came home. Imagine today’s vets sitting on that story for four decades? 

We couldn’t sit on the Bin Laden raid story for more than two trips around the sun before that book came out. I’ve watched movies about battles that happened with people who were there while deployed to the place it happened. This is the world we live in. One must do something with the story of their service. Otherwise, it’s a waste. It’s a hell of a market. But the status comes with a shadow. 

Some part of America has been radicalized over the last four years. If you watch them filming themselves as they committed crimes on January 6th, the pattern is unmistakable. In my old life, the suicide bombers believed they were doing god’s work. In America, they believe they’re doing America’s work. And that one day what they did will be viewed by history as positive; even heroic. And most will still believe it as they watch their lives go up in flames right before their eyes. Because the world that they live in isn’t the same one the rest of us do. In their world there is an unspeakable, all-consuming injustice afoot. And stopping it is worth any price. 

That’s how radicalization works. It’s how it worked with the suicide cells I chased in Iraq. And it’s how the January 6thmob was formed. At the heart of it is a common message; loss of status. Make something great…again. 

People who have been down forever don’t make for good radicals. It’s the ones who can be convinced that they were once something and could be it once again if not for the unjust actions of others that you have to watch out for. And in this frailty lies the intersection of American radicalization and many of the men and women I served with.  

They’re searching for a signal. And the only one they know how to receive is that they’re fighters. And the only one telling them there’s a fight, is the one telling them their country is being stolen right out from underneath them. Or that there’s an elite pedophilia ring perpetuated by Democrats. Or that someone is coming for their guns. Or that lawless leftists are taking over our cities. Or that caravans of foreign marauders are amassing on the border. But more than anything, they’re being told that they can be fighters again.

The radical “stop the steal” movement failed in its attempt to take over the government. It failed because it did not have institutional support from the military. And it won’t. There is no planter class who will lose everything unless they stop the incoming president’s agenda. Today’s military is run on technology platforms and defense contracts. The DOD is not the risk. It’s the vets. The forces that radicalized the foot soldiers on January 6thare going to be radicalizing vets for some time. Law enforcement is also uniquely vulnerable. The status they signed up for has been eroded by global protests and the media. Not surprisingly there’s substantial overlap between those groups.

My year group hit the 20 year mark not long ago. On schedule, my classmates and friends have been leaving the service. I can tell you a few things about what I’ve observed. First, there are diverse beliefs among our servicemembers. Second, our active duty members aren’t at much risk to be radicalized because of the institutional and technological controls that limit them. Lastly, veterans leaving the service are the risk. I need to be crystal clear here. This is not most vets or even a plurality. Few will gear up, grab their zip ties and charge the Capitol. But plenty flirt with the absurd messaging that perpetrates the signal online.

If you speak out against it as a vet, as I do, you’ll find the scariest things that wander into you’re DMs and inboxes come from other vets. It starts with a “you of all people should know better” tone. And then it degrades into veiled threats. And then you realize that they’ve been lost.

I was lost once too. The worst decisions I ever made came between the time I got out and the time I figured out that my purpose was to lead and to build and that I could do that anywhere. I don’t have a fix for the phenomenon of post service vulnerability. But I do have a warning. We shouldn’t get cute with this threat. We shouldn’t let it run for a bit. And we shouldn’t view it any differently than we would any other type of insurgency. We’ve built up some strong counter terrorism muscles over the last 20 years. It’s possible one political divide is whether or not we’re willing to use it against the groups taken out of the shadows and into the light of day by the outgoing administration. If that’s the case, I’m a one issue voter. 

No group has posed a bigger threat to the institutions I swore to defend than the current domestic insurgency that reared its ugly head January 6th. The veterans that took part in it and I are not on the same team any more. And if we have to vote one way for as long as it takes to get that message across, than that’s the way it’s got to be. 

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15 replies »

  1. Sean – some more clear & courageous writing. Thank you! I was in complete alignment with you up until your last two sentences. Of course, I understand the sentiment. In ideology, and the willingness to use violence in support of wild conspiracies, we are no longer on the same “team.” But, for better or worse, we are still US citizens, “stuck” here together. In our broken, dysfunctional political system, where average Americans no longer feel they have any power, voting for one corrupt party over another will not fix anything. It’s my thesis and passion, that we need to fix the system itself as a top priority. Then, perhaps, fewer of our wayward brothers and sisters will feel like their only viable option is to take up arms. Remember, it’s our ridiculous primary system, with plurality voting, that allowed a very small number of Americans to nominate our woefully under-qualified, outgoing president. They wanted a “disrupted in chief,” and he delivered. He used racist rhetoric, and sowed dangerous divisions from his very first announcement by the golden escalator. I believe our common enemy is the political system, itself, and extremism from both sides of the political spectrum. Will we commit to finding common ground to reform our broken system and save our Republic? Or, Well we continue dividing and tearing each other apart?

    • Sean, it is when you reach inside yourself this deeply and take us with you that attracted me to your writing — and I am and have been hooked. Thank you. I want your voice in our new leaders’ ears.

      You see this group of domestic terrorists from relatively recent times. I am a member of a group that bears the albatross that is the existence of such terrorists from the very beginning of our country. Your view is of violence-trained; radicalized vets. My view encompasses those who would have fought hard to avoid a military draft, but want that warrior rush. They want it handed to them by virtue of their skin color and the brainwashing mythology that moves through popular culture as American history. They want the movie version.

      We’ve been here before, and before that before. This cycle must be broken.The question upon us is what the majority of Americans want, and whether we are willing to persist in order to achieve it.

  2. Let’s be clear here. There is not one “Republican” Party right now, but three. There is the stump, which is composed of the very few people like Romney and the other 9 who have shown the courage to stand-up and tell the truth despite whatever the political consequences. There are the cowards who have cringed, and “made their knees weak, and cultivated a supple spine from endless bowing and groveling in the dust” for fear of incurring the wrath of Trump, whom they saw as a golden ticket to continuing political power no matter what he did or does. Then come the ideologues, who with Machiavellian [not to say Stalinist] cynicism believe the means will justify the ends when they arrive at what Karl Rove believed could become a “permanent Republican majority”. Under Trump, there has been a very long tail wagging a dog gorging itself on the guts of our trust and belief in our political norms while too many of us [Left, Right, and Center] took the stability of our government for granted. Whatever the sins and flaws of the Democratic wing [and there are many] , it has been ringing the alarm bells loud and long since before the election of 2016. Mr. Bronner, you are right in so far as there are huge problems built into the current system to be addressed, but these have ebbed and flowed since the rise of the industrial age without up-ending our otherwise very stable system of government. Now, it looks as if we have a limited time to restore order within the country, and its former standing beyond our shores. This we cannot do unless the barbarians who breached the gates on January 6th are exposed and neutered. We cannot just lay down and extend an olive branch because they won’t accept it, but yes, we must find a way to build bridges between what remains of the parties that Trump knowingly and maliciously egged into warring camps in his quest to paint a gilded “T” on the annals of our nation. Then and only then can we return to the business off attempting to root-out the every day corruption endemic in the practice of “politics as usual”.

  3. I am a vet, and could not agree with you more. The danger of not stamping this out is huge, and we do have the capability.

  4. Very brave for you to be writing about this and yet if you and other vets don’t speak out and try to reengage with vets then I fear we will have a long civil war (not with thousands of armed troops fighting against each other) but insurgency, domestic terrorism, political spectacles, etc. This would tarnish the sacrifices vets have made in recent years.

    I would advocate for a New Deal type commitment where we harness social workers, educators, mental health experts, etc. to reach out to as many of these insurgents as possible. Some are unreachable and may need be dealt with through force like you had to use in Iraq or Afghanistan. However, if we don’t address the underlying symptoms I fear use of force will recruit more adherents to the far right extremist groups for every one we kill or capture similar to ISIS, Al Qaeda, Baathists, etc. In short, this isn’t like the deck of cards of bad guys in Iraq that we can simply eliminate and think the job is done. Like you said more eloquently than me, if we don’t go all in and quickly we may add another forever war into our portfolio.

    • Great idea!! We need to win back and heal “hearts and minds,” one fellow American at a time. Not all of them will be reachable, but this is exactly watch a counter insurgency requires!

  5. I agree with the overall sentiment of the article and our political system is indeed broken—I fear irreparably. In addition to our failed political system, a great deal of blame can be laid at the feet of our news media. However, the 150-200 rioters on January 6th do not reflect the 99% of Trump supporters. The events of January 6th were an isolated incident and comprised of a couple hundred people who entered the Capital Building for a few hours. There have been countless MAGA rallies since the 2015/2016 primaries and none have been remotely violent. I’m sure there will be cries of “what aboutism” but to be fair, accurate and honest, the political left (ANTIFA, BLM) have spent the better part of the last several years destroying neighborhoods, private property, tearing down statues, establishing “autonomous zones” etc. The loudest voices on the Left decrying January 6th were also the very same voices cheerleading ANTIFA and BLM riots. Democrat, Republican, and Media leadership are truly awful, two-faced, and don’t care about the average citizen which I think is largely why Trump got elected and has a such a large following. He spent the last four years goring everyone’s Ox and sacred cows. The Trump administration was assaulted from the day he was elected with the Washington Post and Democrats calling for impeachment, Democrat lawmakers refusing to attend the inauguration, wild unrelenting accusations hurled by the news media… and this was sustained for four years. And now there are insincere cries of unity from the Left…it’s no wonder Trump supporters are angry.

    The bottom line is 75 million Americans need to figure out how to get along with 75 million other Americans. One step in that direction is recognizing that leadership will not come from our political class, it starts with us. Neither side has behaved with the comportment or maturity we expect.

    • Virgil, you’re wrong.75 million need to learn how to get along with the 80 million who are sick and tired of your palaverous blather false logic and failed economic theory.

      It started before 2016, it started with the TEA party and with Limbaugh, Beck, and the others hoping for Obama’s failure, America’s failure.

      “Lock her up” is a statement of violence. Chanted repeatedly at those “peaceful” rallies.

      I find it sad that you still think Trump cares about anyone but himself. He played you, as populists do. He’s still playing you.

      • There was not a Muslim ban… travel was restricted from 8 countries, two of which are not Muslim. That leaves 44 Muslim majority nations whose citizens were free to travel to the US including Indonesia which is home to the world’s largest Muslim population of roughly 225 million Muslims.

  6. I agree with some of what the author said. The military, along with any large group will have a full spectrum of political beliefs. Those who raided the Capitol were barely a few hundred, with some ex-military. As I looked at the videos of the Capitol riot, with decades of military and LE experience, it did not look like an insurrection, it looked more like a protest, with each further step, participants saying “OMG, we got this far?…Now what do we do?” The loss of life was tragic, but the Capitol event was a security breakdown, not a planned takeover.