I’m sitting here trying to draft an op-ed about the anniversary of the Winter Soldier hearings, whose 50th anniversary is January 31. But my brain is stuffed with news of a different kind of soldier-dissent — the kind now being exposed in the aftermath of the Capitol invasion of January 6. I keep getting asked about the many military folks involved in that action, and whether I think I should try to write about those whose names most of us know: Ashli Babbitt, shot for trying to breach the Russell building, or Jessica Watkins and Donovan Crowl, who were just now among those charged with conspiracy for the action.
On Sunday evening, Donovan Crowl, 50, a former U.S. Marine, and Jessica Watkins, 38, an Army veteran, surrendered to the authorities in Ohio after they published photos of themselves on social media wearing combat gear and saying that they had stormed the Capitol. They were charged in a criminal complaint with unlawful entry, disorderly conduct and obstructing an official proceeding.The F.B.I. said Ms. Watkins considered herself the commander of the Ohio State Regular Militia, which is affiliated with the Oath Keepers. In a social media post by Ms. Watkins, Mr. Crowl was depicted with the caption: “One of my guys at the Stop the Steal Rally today.”
You can watch them do it in this amazing New York Times video compilation of their own social-media posts. Note the term Oath Keepers, the white-supremacist former-vets group we first heard of in 2009, as it assailed the election of President Barack Obama. I’d decided not to give them much oxygen, just as I’d decided earlier about Timothy McVeigh, when I wrote about Gulf War I. He got one paragraph, which is below:
The war’s most famous dissenting soldier was the white supremacist who cracked the decade in half: Timothy McVeigh, who had won a Bronze Star in the Gulf. The white-power movement he was following had been sparked by Vietnam veterans, who escalated the Rambo psychology into a domestic race war. (See Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (Harvard University Press, 2019)). In April of 1995, McVeigh, accompanied by his former NCO Terry Nichols, drove a truck loaded with explosives into central Oklahoma City and blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people, including 19 children. Press stories included contradictory statements on what he had seen and did, some musing about how an aspiring Green Beret had grown so full of rage against his government. For years to come, the concept of the “dissenting soldier” would evoke more the shaven-headed neo-Nazi McVeigh than the assured Fahey or the tireless Jeff Paterson.
In some ways, my entire book is an effort to give that phrase the progressive potential we all know, embodied by the video above. You can see why I was reluctant to try to follow McVeigh’s neo-Nazi descendants, the Oath Keepers.
But then the Oath Keepers decided to jump on the Trump-loving protofascist wave that almost crashed our democracy. A few journos saw it coming: Last fall, The Atlantic‘s Matthew Giglio got a chance to immerse with the group including its co-founder Stewart Rhodes. Giglio writes that 2009 “was a moment of anxiety on the American right: As the Great Recession raged, protesters met the new president with accusations of socialism and tyranny. ‘The greatest threats to our liberty do not come from without,” Rhodes wrote, “but from within.’ Republicans had spent eight years amassing power in an executive branch now occupied by Barack Obama. The time for politics was ending. ‘Our would-be slave masters are greatly underestimating the resolve and military capability of the people,’ Rhodes wrote.”
That piece appeared online around the same time as mine at Waging Nonviolence about Veterans for Black Lives; we were both writing just as the Oath Keepers were showing up at Black Lives Matter protests with guns and defending Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, and talking explicitly about the possibility of civil war. I haven’t seen what Giglio has written about January 6, but I’m guessing he has become a resource for the FBI.
Last fall, I was annoyed that the Oath Keepers were getting so much press while tens of thousands of others were showing up against them. From a news standpoint I guess I was wrong; but so much of the coverage has seemed bedazzled by the military cred these guys claim instead of calling them out repeatedly for the racists they are, Giglio only mentions the Southern Poverty Law Center in reference to the fact that the Keepers’ database was leaked there — not why SPLC finds them so terrifying. And former SEAL Adam Newbold, who stayed behind when his fellow Oath Keepers invaded the Capitol, got to spew his hatred to TV cameras and get profiled in this fawning New York Times piece, which unrolls his growing up in bucolic Lisbon, Ohio without noting that the area was long a hotbed for the Klan and doesn’t bother to explore Newbold’s Facebook networks,
A dear friend asked me, early on in this, if I was going to write about Ashli Babbitt, who died on January 6 and has gotten a lot written about her, from the NYT to this exposure of her anti-immigrant videos on Twitter. I haven’t seen any that connected her to the now well documented racism in the Air Force, so that’s worth monitoring. But anything I write about any of these people would have to do so in that spirit of anti-racist investigation – not honoring their activism with the language I use to describe the important work I have long tagged soldier-dissent.
Now back to writing about Winter Soldier for real. And maybe I’ll eventually get to ask John Kerry and Jane Fonda if they’ve thought about how the coup has squashed this important anniversary.
Photo: Camp Marks in Anacostia in 1932, in what no one can say wasn’t soldier-dissent.