Confronting antigovernment domestic extremism in Appalachia
In conversation with a National Edward R. Murrow Award winner.
Plenty of media have run stories on the veterans who are working to bring home Afghans who worked alongside Americans abroad. They’re known as members of “Digital Dunkirk” or “Team America.” Informal networks banded together to assist in extracting Afghan nationals from Kabul as the deadline of a U.S. withdrawal loomed at the end of August.
The veterans I have the pleasure of knowing are oftentimes journalists. I’d met a few while pursuing my M.F.A. at Columbia University, and still more during my time as a staff journalist at The New York Times. Others are combat veterans who are drawn continuously back to conflict, near and far.
In mid-summer, I travelled through West Virginia in the hopes of discovering something new about long ignored cultural, religious, and economic divisions in our country. Along the way, I met and spoke with several dozen people whom I hope to introduce to readers of War, U.S.A. One of those people is Chris Jones, a Report for America corps member leading investigative coverage at 100 Days in Appalachia. (Disclosure: I volunteer as an RFA mentor.) He is a Marine Corps veteran and served four years in the infantry and as a machine gun squad leader in Afghanistan.
We spoke in late-summer. Last month, he won the National Edward R. Murrow Award in the Hard News category of Small Digital News Organizations for his reporting on domestic extremism.
When we last spoke you said that being a veteran who covers domestic violent extremism sometimes offers an inroad to far-right or extremist groups, but that you try to avoid deploying it as part of your press credentials. But how has being a veteran shaped the stories you report?
I came into journalism directly out of active duty and I approached both jobs as a form of public service. I think the experiences I had in Afghanistan as a Marine entirely shaped my reporting, I got into journalism to go back to Afghanistan, not the the other way around, and in many ways the first few years of working as a freelance photojournalist covering Afghanistan was simply me trying to understand and unpack the experiences I'd had as a machine gunner in Helmand province. In some ways being a veteran gives you a unique perspective on America; simultaneously being deeply a part of American culture and an outsider to it. I've found that to be useful when covering stories here. I think being a veteran has also given me the ability to be extremely critical of institutions that are used to a level of deference or intimidation that they don't inherently deserve. I've also benefited from having a group of guys I trust with my life who come from very different backgrounds and have very different political views to bounce my work off of which has helped me keep my work grounded in a sense of reality rather than getting caught up in the heat of the moment.
You’ve recently written a bit about the platforming of domestic extremists. You use the example of a New York Times article which compares veterans who participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection with the capitol police who were “doing their patriotic duty in a fractured country.” How can we understand both the victims of extremism and the influences driving people toward militias, violence, and extremism?
It's important to deploy empathy when covering any story, but being empathetic does not inherently mean creating a sense of false equivalency between a group of people who were the victims of violence and those who were committing the violence. The prevalence and rise of extremism in America that culminated in the January 6th insurrection attempt is really difficult for Americans to face because it's not coming from somewhere else, it's deeply baked into the very fabric of our society and country, and culturally we're predisposed to see our threats and problems as coming from somewhere or someone else. The fact that the people and institutions that spent the last few years eagerly driving Americans to shoot at, run over, and terrorize other Americans for carrying signs and walking down streets are almost entirely wrapped up in patriotic symbology and rhetoric makes it much harder to be critical of them and to see them for what they are, since many Americans trust these symbols and rhetoric.
I think understanding what has caused so much violence and division requires a very difficult and frank conversation with yourself about the fact that something like the American flag is a very scary and dangerous symbol for millions — possibly billions — of people around the world, and an increasing number of people who are fearful of the flag live in America (NYTimes just did a piece on this phenomenon btw). To understand why this is the case at home, you need to be able to separate your personal feelings about the flag and American exceptionalism from the ways its been deployed as a symbol by very dangerous and anti-democratic figures and institutions over the past few years.
I think another aspect of understanding what has driven so many Americans to become violently anti-democracy is to see them as victims, but to acknowledge the agency these people had in their actions. The rush to implicitly forgive the people who participated in the J6 insurrection by portraying them as victims of Trump's rhetoric is dangerous. These were fully lucid adults from predominantly middle class or upper middle class backgrounds who chose to be there, and they should be held accountable for that, not infantilized. The other side of that coin though is they have the agency to learn from their mistakes. I believe that as journalists it's important to tell those stories and show folks in the same boat that, you know, while they directly participated in a insurrection against the US government and attempted to prevent the peaceful transfer of power in the executive branch by force, if they choose to walk away from that they're not going to be treated like shit forever, and the non-extremist parts of society will welcome you. No one is born a terrorist, you become one through your actions. You stop being one through your actions as well.
Have you found militia connections between local, state and military leaders in Appalachia?
The short answer is yes, there's tons of connections between non-state armed groups and local/state leaders. There's militias here that have members of law enforcement in their ranks, as well as active duty and reservist military personnel. Most of these groups are little more than social groups for guys who like dressing up and playing domestic terrorist on the weekends with their buddies which in and of itself isn't illegal, but understandably concerning in light of the past few years. However, people who participate in these groups while serving in uniform or in elected office are not stupid — they keep their participation very secret and minimize their contact with the groups in a way that would reveal their affiliation to the public or nosey journalists like myself. After January 6th, a lot of groups disbanded and people with jobs in law enforcement, political office, and the military left in droves as they feared being arrested or found out by federal law enforcement. It remains to be seen whether they're just waiting for the heat to go away or if this represents a sustained downward shift in participation.
There's a pervasive misunderstanding that being in the military begets a desire to join a militia. Have we, as journalists, have missed that counter narrative?
I'm not sure how pervasive that narrative honestly is outside of certain media bubbles, but it's definitely a narrative seen bounced around by pundits on TV or Twitter. The reality is that the only correlation between military service and a desire to join violent terrorist organizations is that being a veteran makes you extremely attractive to far right extremist groups who spend a lot of time and effort trying to recruit veterans, and have done so since the 1860s. White supremacists and far right anti-government extremists have been fine tuning their recruitment strategy for literally hundreds of years, and they understand that veterans give your group legitimacy in the eyes of people who consider veterans to be society's "good guys". In the post-9/11 era, they realize that veterans who've spent time fighting an insurgency in Iraq or Afghanistan are also inversely well equipped to help train for and fight one in America. An Army EOD tech, for example, doesn't just know how to dismantle bombs, he also knows how to build them. Recruiting someone like that to your white supremacist group that may only have 4-5 core members means you can now commit acts of terrorism with relatively little personal risk. It also means if you want to go to a public rally or hold an event, people who would otherwise dismiss your group or your rhetoric will stick around and listen out of respect for the EOD tech's service.
While there have been examples of committed neo-Nazis and anti-government extremists enlisting in the military with the explicit purpose of going back to their extremist group afterwards, there is no military-to-militia pipeline or anything like that. It's also important to remember that the reason far right extremist groups dress up in military clothing and equipment is to convince the public that there's more military veterans in their groups or to make themselves seem closely aligned with the US military. Because the military is silent on issues like this as part of a broader culture of being stoically apolitical, it gives the far right the space to claim affiliation and affinity with the military without worrying about the DoD saying "we want nothing to do with you stop wearing our stuff you goons."
But veterans are also easy targets for these groups. You noted that the life experience of "killing people with your friends" is valued by whatever flavor of the far-right group, but not society. How can a veteran more easily transition when, in their early twenties, all they know is war?
As far as what veterans can do to transition, I'm not really qualified to say what would or wouldn't work for everyone. I know for myself one of the healthiest things I did was spend time fully unplugged from the internet, from the parts of society that loudly embrace veterans, and tried to really develop a sense of myself that had nothing to do with the Marine Corps. I was fortunate to get into photojournalism, where I developed a skill set that had nothing to do with the Marine Corps, so I could enter spaces and interact with people without feeling obligated to lead with my military experience as my primary qualifier to have an opinion on something. I was really lucky to have had the time to hike the Appalachian Trail after I got out, and that gave me a lot of time and space to think about who I was and what I was leaving behind. Most veterans don't have that luxury of tapping out from society for a couple months, and are often forced to rely on their veteran status to help with employment and as an identifier in social settings. While that's not in and of itself a bad thing, I think the way America embraces veterans is largely self-soothing rather than genuinely interested in helping people who fight on her behalf. "Thank you for your service" ends with a period, not a question mark, and I don't think that's by accident.
This is a large part of why I distanced myself from "vetbro" culture and the whole cottage industry of veteran branded products and services. After serving in combat, one must put down the gun and pick the plow back up, developing a new sense of identity and purpose as an American beyond the veteran label. I personally don't want to live in a society that's primarily focused on my machine gunner skills and what I did downrange, because I don't want to reinforce those skills or bring an appreciation for violence home with me. War is not good, no matter how cool we make it look in Hollywood or how badass a gopro helmet cam made it look. Coming back to some sections of American society that were interested in what I did during the war not because they want to know how I'm doing or help me get away from that part of my life, but because they thought it was cool and good was really concerning for me, and it was surprisingly difficult to avoid those types of spaces or rhetoric because they so aggressively target veterans.
I think veterans and companies who lean into fetishizing combat know — or should know — that what they're doing is incredibly destructive to society and to veterans themselves. It encourages an idea in young impressionable Americans that their sense of value is primarily derived from their lethality, and if there's not a war overseas to join then of course they'll turn that sentiment inward and look for targets at home. Forcing veterans to collectively wear incredibly traumatic experiences on our sleeve as some sort of cultural identifier without encouraging a conversation about the wars we fought means there's no space to unpack and explore the complexity of fighting in a war that most of American society ignored. Boiling down the experience of combat to the individual ability and willingness to kill erases the entire political and ethical context in which the killing was done, and more importantly erases America's willingness and ability to think about what the impact of that killing was on the people who were on the wrong end of American rifles overseas.
If you look at the Vietnam era anti-war activism, veterans played a massive and highly public role in protesting against the war. Today, media and society largely silence and marginalize — and attack — veterans who use their experience to do anything other than blindly support the military as a concept and the belief that anything the military does is justified because it's our military that's doing it.
Creating a cultural identity around what most folks did for 4 years in their late teens/early twenties would be laughable in any other context — we laugh at the guy dressing like a teenage skateboarder in their 30s, yet no one blinks when you see a 40 year old man wearing a Grunt Style shirt about being a sheepdog when it's clear the guy is a decade away from his last pull up.
Lastly, there's a great point you made on the phone about a cultural separation that happens when you're out in Helmand province, or serving overseas with little access to the internet or U.S. culture. Are we seeing a sort of disenfranchisement vis-a-vie combat deployments overseas?
I don't know if it's fair to say that young (predominately white) men and women who voluntarily remove themselves from society are "disenfranchised" in any way — we can all still vote, we get to go to college for free, we get free Denny's on Veterans Day, free health care for the rest of our life, and hiring preference for government jobs. We're arguably one of the most enfranchised demographics in the country in a lot of ways. However, I do think there's an element of cultural alienation that comes from being removed from American society for a year at a time when culture moves at the speed of the internet that we don't talk about. I joke about leaving the US in 2010 and when we came back in 2011 everyone was listening to dubstep music, and we'd sort of missed that entire cultural phenomenon and had to play catch up with pop culture. Having these 9 to 13 month long blocks of time missing from your experience in American culture can cause some real alienation and frustration in veterans that I don't think gets fully resolved.
When it's something like music it's relatively harmless, but when you have young men getting out who missed the discourse around the #MeToo movement, or Black Lives Matter, and they feel like something shifted in America without them and that it's targeting them, that can lead to some really dangerous resentment that can lead veterans towards groups who are looking for that sense of cultural alienation as an entry point for recruitment.
I don't think this is an issue that one organization or governmental department can fix — it's going to require a substantive cultural shift in how we interact with our veterans, and how we embrace them as whole people beyond their experience in war. If veterans come home to a country that doesn't seem to be the one they left to fight for, and are further feeling like this new version of home doesn't like them because of something out of their control, we're not going to have a healthy relationship with each other.