NATHAN BEDFORD FORREST was one of the most aggressive generals of his generation, and after his military service ended in a bitter fashion, he went home to Tennessee and found a new way to fight. A defeated general in the Confederate army, Forrest joined the Ku Klux Klan and was named its inaugural “grand wizard.”
Forrest was in the first wave of American veterans who turned to domestic terror once they returned home. It also happened after World War I and II, after the Korean and Vietnam wars — and it is happening after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The sedition trial now taking place in Washington, D.C., features five defendants accused of trying to overthrow the government on January 6, 2021, and four are veterans, including Stewart Rhodes, who founded the Oath Keepers militia. In December, another sedition trial is set for five members of the Proud Boys militia — four of whom served in the military.
The point here is not that all or most veterans are dangerous. Those who engage in far-right extremism are a fraction of the more than 18 million Americans who have served in the armed forces and returned to civilian life without indulging in political violence. Of 897 people indicted after the January 6 insurrection, 118 have military backgrounds, according to the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. The point is that a relatively small number of veterans are having an outsized impact on white supremacist violence, thanks to the respect that flows from their military service. While they are outliers from the mass of law-abiding vets, they are the tentpoles of domestic terror.
“When these guys get involved in extremism, they shoot to the top of the ranks and they are very effective at recruiting more people to the cause,” noted Michael Jensen, a senior researcher at the University of Maryland’s Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.
This is a consequence of our society venerating a massive army and going to war at regular intervals: The last 50 years of far-right terror have been dominated by men with military backgrounds.
There is an added twist that historian Kathleen Belew points out: that while the role of veterans in domestic terror is underappreciated, they are not the only ones unhinged by war.
“The biggest factor [in domestic terror] seems not to be what we have often assumed, be it populism, immigration, poverty, major civil rights legislation,” Belew noted in a recent podcast. “It seems to be the aftermath of war. This is significant not only because of the presence of veterans and active-duty troops within these groups. But I think it’s reflective of something bigger, which is that the measure of violence of all kinds in our society spikes in the aftermath of war. That measure goes across men and women, it goes across people who have and have not served, it goes across age group. There’s something about all of us that is more available for violent activity in the aftermath of conflict.”