I was driving home from a militia muster in the Virginia mountains last summer — after another day immersed in preelection talk of civil war — when I found myself reflecting, as I often have in the year since, on Norman Mailer’s “The Armies of the Night.”
The book is about the 1967 anti-war protest at the Pentagon and, more broadly, the factionalizing unrest of that period and how Vietnam fueled it. It also explores how the quiet or mostly quiet acquiescence to horrors abroad, horrors carried out by U.S. troops in the name of an entire democratic nation, degrades a society. At one point, the narrator imagines himself encountering “Grandmother, the church-goer, orange hair burning bright” at a slot machine in Las Vegas. “Madame, we are burning children in Vietnam,” he tells her. “Boy, you just go get yourself lost,” she replies. “Grandma’s about ready for a kiss from the jackpot.”
The book turns its lens on the left as well, even on the anti-war protesters marching on the Pentagon. In its violent climax, as soldiers bludgeon young demonstrators in the night, Mailer cites an account that appeared afterward in the Washington Free Press, a newspaper founded by campus radicals. It was by Thorne Dreyer, then 22, who went on to a prolific career as a writer and activist. As the beatings commenced, Dreyer wrote, “I began to resent the ‘super-militants’ who created so much pressure to stay. Because that was nothing but goddamn bourgeois politics. … People have to come to terms with what violence means. It’s not something to groove on and cleanse your soul with.”
I see a desire for violence as catharsis in many protesters on the left and right today and in the people cheering them on from their living rooms. It’s an effect, I think, of the two full decades of war that Americans will mark on this year’s September 11 anniversary, with the drone strikes and commando raids of the so-called war on terror carrying on in the background even as American soldiers leave Afghanistan and end their combat mission in Iraq. War, especially interminable war, does this to a nation. It makes people want to claim the sanctity of combat for themselves and to inject the stakes of conflict into their lives. The protesters at the Pentagon were there to stand against the violence of Vietnam, but some of them wanted a piece of that violence for themselves. They were jealous of the soldiers in that way; the war had infected them too. The difference with the post-9/11 wars is that there’s no draft and there have been no corresponding liberal armies in the streets, at least not any focused on the nation’s foreign conflicts. People crave the trappings of war more as they understand it less, and these modern wars, to a degree that would probably shock the people of Mailer’s generation, have been absent from our collective political consciousness.
At the same time, all of us still know, in some perhaps unacknowledged part of our minds, that we each own a piece of the sublime suffering that has unfolded for 20 years on the frontiers of the American empire, the incinerated children and demolished cities, the service members coming home to die by suicide. Even those who never served have been grooving on the violence of the war on terror for years as armchair militants. Many Americans, like me, have never known adult life without it, growing up against the backdrop of terrorist threats, removing shoes at airports, invasion, occupation, Guantánamo Bay — stakes we understand to be so terrible that the only answers are drone bombs, surveillance, civilian casualties. We’ve learned to put our morals on hold and ask forgiveness later as we assent to whatever it takes to extinguish the threat. We’ve become accustomed to labeling people as insurgents and terrorists, too, and to all the moral permissiveness these terms imply, moving us well beyond the orange-haired grandmother’s passive assent.
And inevitably, it has all bent back on us. These wars have seeped into our lives and discourse in ways that color how we see not only the wider world but also our neighbors — Muslims at first, then our political opponents. They’ve made Americans more war-like, opening our minds to ideas like collateral damage and unbounded conflict that are now taking hold in our politics.
I write about right-wing militancy and speak often with Americans engaged in it. In the year leading up to the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, as I sat in on preelection organizing sessions and talked for hours with those preparing for political violence, I noted the ways that the forever wars had turned inward. Americans were so used to considering themselves at war with enemies they didn’t understand — and to a constant agitation at the hum of perennial conflict — that they were turning on one another. When a country is at war for so long, moral boundaries gradually fall away. The forbidden becomes permissible, first overseas and then at home. The idea of collateral damage is one example: In the war on terror, we’ve decided, the deaths of innocents are allowed and even justified, so long as they help us feel safe. Another is unbounded conflict: the idea that anyone, anywhere can be a target, that the battle is everywhere, all the time. First the war expanded, under President George W. Bush, to the foreign suspects detained and tortured far from Iraq and Afghanistan. Then it kept stretching: to Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen killed in Yemen under President Barack Obama, along with his 16-year-old American son, and to anyone killed in the drone strikes or secret commando raids in the many countries the war on terror has touched. A third concept is the ability to label broad swaths of people as insurgents and terrorists and the freedom this gives you to demean, monitor, imprison, and attack them.
These three ideas came together at a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall near Nashville, Tennessee, one evening last July. I was sitting in a windowless banquet room with a few dozen people who’d responded to a call from the Oath Keepers, a prominent militant group known for recruiting soldiers and police. As we waited for the meeting to begin, an Iraq War veteran about my age began telling me about street battles and running convoys down Iraq’s deadly highways. Then he started talking about how sometimes in Iraq, American soldiers had to kill children. A kid might emerge from an alley strapped with a bomb, and there’d be nothing to do but shoot to save yourself. Someone else chimed in: “I’d prefer that to the alternative of being splattered against the wall.” To which my conversation partner had a two-word reply: “Pink mist.”
When a country is at war for so long, moral boundaries gradually fall away. The forbidden becomes permissible, first overseas and then at home.
The meeting’s organizer arrived: Stewart Rhodes, the Oath Keepers leader. He stood before the crowd and began to rile them about the threat of a stolen election and how it was connected to the protests and violence in the streets. He was calling the protesters insurgents and domestic terrorists. He said that soon antifa would be using IEDs, or improvised explosive devices. It was jarring how precisely the speech mirrored the conversation I’d just been having, how seamlessly the old conflicts overseas could blend into the new one at home. “Us old vets and younger ones,” Rhodes finally said, “are going to end up having to kill these young kids.”
It can feel at times that the forever wars are, for many on the militant right, a prelude to the battle they think they’re waging now in their own country. Like Rhodes, they paint elements of the left as insurgents and domestic terrorists and talk about how war at home might be brutal but necessary, a step along the way to making peace with civilian suffering. The veterans among them obsess over the oath they swore to protect the Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic” — and to them, foreign and domestic enemies have become one and the same. The left, in their minds, combines all the threats they fear most: Black Lives Matter, antifa, Marxists, undocumented immigrants, radical Muslims. But it’s not only people involved with militant groups who speak this way; calling leftists insurgents and domestic terrorists is widespread on the American right. Following the Capitol attack, meanwhile, some liberals are deploying the same terms against conservatives.
A country crosses a threshold once it divides into two sides — Alawite and Sunni, pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine — that cast one another as terrorists. That’s not to say we’ll end up where Syria or Ukraine did, but the forever wars have at least helped condition many Americans to start thinking that way. I recently spoke with a left-leaning officer in the National Guard who’s worried that the unit he leads might be ordered to respond to civil unrest one day. He recounted how, back in his cadet training, he’d paused at the part about defending the Constitution against domestic enemies. “I raised my hand at the time,” he said, “and asked, ‘What is an enemy in the domestic context, and who’s going to tell me what that is?’” Fast forward two tours in Afghanistan and years of escalating division in the United States. “I thought about this a lot last summer, if my company was sent to go and deal with a civil disturbance, and I was told that I needed to go and clear an area of BLM protesters, or they’re describing antifa as an enemy combatant,” he told me. “I would not be able to follow those orders.”
I asked if he’d follow orders to clear a right-wing protest, and he paused. “I’d definitely be more willing,” he said. Would he consider treating any right-wing groups as enemy combatants? “That’s such a gray area,” he replied.
There’s a book by the journalist Sebastian Junger that I sometimes hear former soldiers reference, called “Tribe.” It asks what draws Americans to fight in these foreign conflicts and why they miss the wars when they’re back at home. Junger lands on the idea that there are pieces missing from American society — cohesion, a sense of purpose — that come naturally in extreme situations like war. So the troops are running from something and toward something at once. This is likely true, and I’ve experienced it myself, but we should also understand that our problems at home are rooted, in no small part, in the same wars to which these soldiers have been fleeing. The irony of the book’s title, in this age of tribal politics, is not lost on Junger; the book is also an attempt to diagnose the causes of America’s division. “Modern society,” he writes, “has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”
Junger is one of those war correspondents who defines himself by conflict, wrapping the danger around himself like a photographer’s scarf, which is another way of grooving on violence, and I resent this in part because I worry that it afflicts me too. “Tribe” contains a perfect anecdote that acknowledges the fundamental obscenity of any journalism or art or self-styling built on the backs of people who are suffering. Junger was giving a talk about war one day when “a very agitated man stood up and started screaming that he was a Vietnam vet,” he recalls, “and I didn’t understand the first thing about war — it was all obscene, down to its smallest detail. Then he stormed out.”
Junger describes the veteran as someone “clearly in need of some way to vent,” but there is a refreshing simplicity in the truth the man has revealed. I find, often, that he has become part of my internal monologue regarding any representation of war, including in my own work, that portrays it as having something to do with valor or heroism or saving Private Ryan or bands of brothers — obscene! — or as being anything, really, other than senseless, abject suffering. Obscene, obscene, obscene. War might be necessary sometimes, but it is also dead children, and nothing else. And so it was that I became preoccupied with right-wing militancy. In October 2016, after spending a day documenting mass graves in Iraq, I returned to my hotel, turned on my laptop, and searched for news about the American election. I saw a tweet by a former U.S. representative who vowed to grab his “musket” if Hillary Clinton won, then read a story about a self-styled militia whose members said they were training for a potential fight if she became president. I began to notice more and more of this sort of talk, and the idea that Americans could be threatening civil violence at home — obscene! — sent me down a rabbit hole that only deepened when I returned to Trump-era America after a long stint abroad.
Too many Americans can’t appreciate their own good fortune at living in a country that — however many and real its problems — is not at war within its borders.
The difference with Iraq, of course, is that there is no war in America, and most of the people threatening war have never experienced one. What makes this obscenity even more pronounced is that there are people all around the world trapped in real wars who’d give anything to escape them. Too many Americans can’t appreciate their own good fortune at living in a country that — however many and real its problems — is not at war within its borders and can’t see how different that reality would be from whatever they’re imagining as they sink ever deeper into their tablets and phones. My concern is with whether we’re moving any closer to that nightmare. Even if it remains distant, any step in that direction is unacceptable to me.
Typically, the standard for journalism about right-wing militant groups has been for the reporter to “embed” with them by visiting a shooting range or attending a scenario-based civil war training. But the real story is in sitting with them in their quiet places as they’re stewing, conspiring, daydreaming — while also noting all the ways they’re otherwise leading normal American lives. The dramatic tension comes in trying to discern when we’ve crossed from their headspace into reality, like in the television drama “Mr. Robot.” In that show, a 20-something hacker with anti-capitalist leanings interacts with a figment of his imagination, his dead father, who appears as he did in the protagonist’s childhood, an avatar of a more innocent time. Their conversations drive the hacker to destructive acts that channel the currently cross-partisan impulse to just burn it all down. Dreaming of the revolution is low-stakes until it isn’t. In the same speech in which Rhodes, the Oath Keepers leader, talked about antifa using IEDs, he encouraged people to form local militias to protect their towns and counties, saying they could be just like America’s founders. A month later, Kyle Rittenhouse shot and killed two people while patrolling at a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Look closely at America’s unraveling and you can see the zero-sum mentality that has been socialized through the war on terror for two decades. If the people on the other side are terrorists, insurgents, and extremists, then the sins of your own side can almost always be rationalized. Rhodes called Rittenhouse a “hero” and a “patriot,” which perhaps was to be expected. More alarming is the rush by more mainstream conservative figures to champion Rittenhouse as a cause, as well as the revelations from a data breach earlier this year that at least one police officer has donated to his legal defense and several more to a fund for the officer whose shooting of a Black man sparked the protests that brought Rittenhouse to Kenosha in the first place. One telling image of today’s America was briefly on display this spring when police in Minnesota raised a “Thin Blue Line” flag during protests over the killing of another Black man, Daunte Wright, with Derek Chauvin on trial 10 miles away. Rhodes and the Oath Keepers have lately become the subject of FBI investigations into January 6, but their years of focus on bringing people from the police and military communities into right-wing militancy may have a more lasting effect than whatever they did at the Capitol. Rhodes, a veteran himself, never deployed overseas but understands that any real civil conflict is defined early on when members of the security forces pick sides.
Many liberals have a zero-sum mentality of their own that exacerbates the problem of American militancy and also causes them to misapprehend it. If I told one of my neighbors in the deep-blue suburb where I spent the last few years that there are cops among the militias, they’d say, Of course. Cops are racists and fascists. They also don’t know any cops. They don’t think about what a police officer represents to many people: an upstanding citizen with a desirable, admirable job, endowed with public trust and responsibility or, at the very least, a bulwark against chaos.
I recently visited a woman in a neighborhood in rural Vermont where a politically mixed group of families have taken up arms, literally, against a man who opened a firearms training facility next door and then began hosting a local militia and threatening people who complained. She has fought back with town board petitions, local organizing, and stare-downs with strangers as they drive past her house. Adding to her fears, she’d heard that a handful of police also trained at the facility in its early days, which made her wonder if it had backers among local law enforcement. She’s a National Rifle Association member who flies a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and considers herself a supporter of police; even her left-leaning neighbors are the kind of people who’d donate to a Police Benevolent Association fundraiser. So think of it again from the woman’s perspective: What would it mean for police to be sympathetic to militant groups, and where would it leave you in trying to convince your friends and neighbors that the militants were the bad guys?
“All of my firearms were loaded, and I had Molotov bottles made up. Had the Capitol fallen, my Trump-supporting neighbors were dead meat. I took an oath too, in fact, I took a couple of them. You can let the right-wing know about this.”
She showed me the body armor and weapons she has positioned against her bedroom windows. How much of the threat is real and how much in her mind? That’s a question for many Americans these days, and hypervigilance is one of the ways the war on terror has helped break society down. I get messages from people around the country who tell me they’re worried about those around them. “I have neighbors down here in Tennessee who have been drooling at the mouth to see a bloodbath,” one woman wrote. “I believe our right-running brothers feel destitute and powerless. No place at the Democratic or Republican tables where the wealth and power are passed around. Nobody needs them anymore, and that’s about as sad as it gets. I weep for them, but they are definitely leaning toward what the Bible calls bloodlust.” Someone else sent posts an old high school friend had put on Facebook and asked if he should report him to authorities. A man in the Midwest wanted to know if there were Oath Keepers among his local police because he believed that they were harassing him. “A number of people from this area … went to the January 6th rally,” he wrote. “Several hardcore Q-Anon types hang with law enforcement and they are also hardcore Trump supporters.” A former corrections officer and soldier in his 60s described his reaction to watching the Capitol riot unfold on CNN. “All of my firearms were loaded, and I had Molotov bottles made up,” he wrote. “Had the Capitol fallen, my Trump-supporting neighbors were dead meat since there would no longer be ‘Law & Order’ or a nation. … Deadly serious, and I’m not alone either. I took an oath too, in fact, I took a couple of them. You can let the right-wing know about this.”
Since January 6, meanwhile, our perennial hunt for terrorists has moved closer than ever to mainstream politics. Another left-leaning officer, this one in the U.S. military reserve, told me the term definitely applies to the people who stormed the Capitol. “They were attempting to use force and intimidation in this case to literally effect a political outcome,” he said. He has attended social justice protests and is sympathetic to antifa; I asked if applying the “terrorist” label to people involved in the Capitol riot could help conservatives deploy it more effectively against left-wing protesters. Did he see anything wrong with so many Americans reverting so often to this word and its expansive meaning? “Right there is part of the problem,” he said. “Even if it fits in one instance, it sets things up with equivalency. The problem is, I struggle with what is a better term.”
We discussed his fears that right-wing militants could launch an insurgency one day, which he considered a “minority of possible outcomes,” but one worth considering. He walked me through his analysis of how it might start. “It doesn’t take a lot of people to shut down some major pieces of infrastructure and cause incredible problems, and it only takes one relatively small group of extremists to recognize that and to act on it and to be smart enough to mostly keep their mouths shut,” he said. “And then the question is, do they portray themselves sympathetically? Does government action and direct action rally people back to [the insurgents’] side, and how do political leaders on the right react? Where [else in America] does this trigger more small insurgencies and copycat-type events?”
His understanding of insurgencies came mainly from his time in the military, he said, and study of COIN, or counterinsurgency doctrine. I asked if 20 years of war overseas had made domestic insurgency more likely. “I would definitely say so,” he said, “and it doesn’t even have to be a vet. It can also be just somebody who’s paid attention to the forever wars.” Could it have affected him, too, and the rest of society? “You could look at some of this, especially the extreme distrust of Muslim Americans and Arab Americans in the wake of 9/11, and just the belief that there could be a terrorist next door, as kind of the beginning,” he said. “And the fear of Islamic terrorism morphed slowly into this idea that, ‘Oh, well, there’s other groups. They don’t have to be Muslim. They can be other things at home, you know, like BLM or antifa.’ I definitely think that’s something that both sides of the political spectrum have the capacity for, and maybe that is just the effect of a shared trauma and shared fear.”
There’s no equivalency between the left and right at the moment when it comes to militancy. Its prevalence among conservatives is the result of a transformation many years in the making that has involved a fundamental revision of right-wing politics. You could even call it radicalization. But it’s too convenient for liberals to slap conservatives with comparisons to extremism overseas — and naïve to pretend we can all be as detached from the problem as that.
In 2018, when I’d moved back to the United States after six years covering conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere, I had dinner in Washington, D.C., with Rasha Al Aqeedi, a writer and analyst from the Iraqi city of Mosul. I’d been there over the previous years, she’d moved to the States, and we were meeting for the first time. I was telling her that I wanted to start covering militancy at home and that I worried about reactionary politics reaching into my own circles. I explained that people close to me were diehard Trump supporters and the last time I’d spoken to one of them, a teenage boy, he’d been talking about sexuality and gender roles, with his innocent young face, in a way that reminded me of one of those backward, vaguely hostile old-timers I’d drink with after rugby games at college in North Carolina. “Oh, my god,” she said, her eyes lighting up with recognition. “You’re a Sunni!”
She meant that Sunni Islam — which counts her as both a member and a political refugee — is the dominant branch of the religion, but many of its adherents, like many white conservatives in America, act like a threatened minority and seem forever prone to radicalization because of it. The Islamic State and Al Qaeda are Sunni. The overwhelming majority of Sunnis are normal people, obviously, but it was always eerie, overseas, to see the way the scale could slide from the right of center to the extreme and how the extreme could win broader sympathy if it grounded its attacks and rhetoric in the politics of Sunni grievance. Those from less radical segments of society were often inclined to dismiss the threat from extremists because of their familiarity: We know them and can manage them; their hearts are in the right places; they have only gone astray.
We can acknowledge these echoes, but it’s misleading to linger on them for too long. A fuller, more honest accounting of our unraveling would turn the flashlight in the other direction and see where else this tunnel leads. I also have the sort of background that dominates our political, cultural, and media establishments, with the trappings of elite institutions and international, multicultural experiences that signify the new kind of success and entitlement that are meant to be overtaking the old. From my perch in a blue neighborhood of a major city, I could see how liberals can exacerbate the national conflict with their own narrow views and echo chamber politics. Many of them tend to justify and dismiss violence when it’s more ideologically familiar and shares their political goals. They can engage in their own versions of tribalism and dehumanizing speech that, through the funhouse mirrors of social media and hyperpartisanship, transform them into the very villains the right sees coming for them.
I was talking with a militant-minded U.S. Army reservist who lives in Minnesota about how the wars I witnessed overseas didn’t just happen overnight. The conflict gathers force in places you think don’t affect you while you more or less go about your life, until it finally explodes in your backyard. I had in mind how, over the last year, I’ve seen militant groups carving out influence in conservative strongholds while many liberals feel safely ensconced in their progressive neighborhoods. I was surprised by how vehemently he agreed with me — only he saw it coming the other way. “This is what gets all of us very nervous. This is why people like me prepare,” he said. “First you see it in Minneapolis. Then you see it in St. Paul. And then Portland. And everyone says, that’s just in these big cities. No, man. Once they run out of places to burn, do you think that because your house is not in Minneapolis, it’s any less susceptible? We need to understand that it’s like a rolling wave. It can go from these cities down into the suburbs and the country, and if you want to live in your own little bubble, you’re just going to be caught by surprise.”
I’d push a stroller past “Hate Has No Home Here” and Anthony Fauci signs and other symbols of a nation obsessed by myriad issues, many of them urgent and worthy of concern, except for one. And I’d think about the toys and children’s clothes I’ve paused over in the wreckage of U.S. airstrikes, the father searching for the pieces of his wife and daughters who kept repeating, “Everything happened before my eyes.” I used to have conversations in the Middle East with people who’d unload about the suffering they believed America had inflicted there and then say, graciously, that they only hated the U.S. government, not the American people, that they knew there was a difference. I’d respond that there isn’t — every citizen is accountable for a democratic government’s sins.
Every citizen is accountable for a democratic government’s sins.
The war in Vietnam shared the same senselessness as the forever wars, the same drag-on effect, the same notion of the crumbling, unseen edges of American empire. One difference is that now we’ve become accustomed to the wars, the suffering, all of it. “It’s just been continuing in the background, like someone turned a TV set on, and all that brutality — we just became numb to it,” Thorne Dreyer, the writer whose report on the Pentagon protest Mailer quoted in his book, told me when I called him recently. “It’s given us a sense that war is inevitable, you know? That there is this endless war, that it’s always going to be there, and that we’re kind of powerless to do anything about it. And it desensitized us [to it]. It’s kind of rubbed off on our society, that it’s just war, it’s just fighting, but there’s no logical reason for it. And there’s no way to win.”
And so the wars have come home. What’s so dangerous about our current political battles, in fact, is how internalized they’ve become. They’ve moved beyond politics. Concepts like terrorism and unbounded conflict helped make this happen. So did the impulse, which has now spanned four administrations and two decades, not to regard the burning child, as Mailer portrayed it — to ignore our collective responsibility for the suffering. Because of this, we risk becoming a nation that is forever at war, and we don’t need to imagine future scenarios of civil conflict to understand what this might look like. It’s enough to mark how much we’ve already changed.
Correction: September 15, 2021
An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the USA Network drama “Mr. Robot” as an HBO show.