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.