Military veteran activism spans the political spectrum
Recent reports indicate that former combatants are disproportionately recruited into extremist organizations and that former servicemen have helped fuel paramilitary violence for decades. While it is crucial to consider these realities, Wynn’s statement serves as a reminder that people with military backgrounds – like any other diverse group – have complex and varied histories and militant identities. Recognizing the multiplicity of veterans’ advocacy efforts is crucial, in part because organizations have long sought to increase their power by claiming to be the sole or primary representatives of those who serve. In fact, no militant ideology is – or ever has been – the natural envoy of veterans.
In the early 20th century, military service in the United States was generally publicly celebrated as righteous, and advocacy organizations valued the allegiance of veterans. After World War I, veterans’ groups and politicians consciously sought to combat leftist tendencies among former servicemen. For example, in the 1920s, the politically powerful American Legion supported the provision of state-funded veterans’ benefits, even though the group was openly anti-Communist. The Legion embraced government programs, in part because leaders feared that so many veterans would be lured into anti-establishment organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World. ‘When a man wants sympathy and doesn’t get it, he’s a good subject for the radical agitator,’ a legion leader warned in 1920, suggesting federal generosity to veterans could undermine appeal more threatening ideals such as work-class solidarity.
Many were drawn to local chapters of groups like the American Legion because of the appeal of kinship with neighbors — not primarily because they identified with the political stances or incendiary rhetoric of the organization’s leaders. .
For example, although some high-ranking American Legion officers trumpeted the far-right anti-communism of Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, historian Olivier Burtin reveals, the rank and file did not necessarily respect. Hundreds of surveys of teachers’ union members and American Civil Liberties Union affiliates at the time revealed that there was little effort among Legion chapters to undermine academic freedom or local civil liberties.
While acknowledging that some members, chapters and leaders of veterans’ organizations have acted consistently and at times violently to advance anti-democratic causes, it is also helpful to recognize that these actions did not necessarily represent the will of all, or even most, veterans.
This is especially clear when we expand the view of historical veteran activism beyond politically sanctioned groups such as the Legion and consider organizations and individuals who have embraced more radical agendas. Throughout US history, including recent years, some veterans have embraced anti-war and anti-imperialist ideals. Former servicemen from marginalized groups, often galvanized by the paradox of being forced to fight for freedom on behalf of a country that did not offer them equal citizenship, became leaders in struggles for rights of American Indians, Blacks, Latinos and immigrants.
In the 1970s, inspired by the example of previous generations, Thomas Wynn’s National Association of Black Veterans straddled the worlds of civil rights and veterans activism. In 1972, the organization, then known as Concerned Veterans of Central City, or IVOCC, led a march with other community groups to protest the police killing of a 19-year-old black woman named Jacqueline Ford. Although the cause apparently had little to do with veterans affairs, IVOCC representatives helped form a committee of prominent black citizens who led several rallies and demanded a hearing with the police chief. on what the Milwaukee Star called “the long-standing threat of police brutality in the inner city.”
While the period following the Vietnam War saw an increase in left-wing activism among veterans, right-wing extremism also intensified. Vietnam veterans joined white power groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, as their counterparts had done after previous wars. By the early 1980s, historian Kathleen Belew shows, a network of paramilitary organizations had adopted a strongly anti-government agenda that continues to shape white supremacist extremism to this day. Former service members, Belew notes, “were instrumental in leadership” and brought “particular expertise, training and culture” to the groups.
Although it is difficult to quantify the extent of former military involvement in paramilitary groups in the late 20th century, commentary on currently rising extremism focuses on the disproportionate involvement of veterans. Political scientist Eric Hodges notes that 10% of those arrested for their involvement in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol uprising were veterans, an overrepresentation given that former military personnel make up just over 6% of the U.S. population. Hodges cites a variety of possible factors – for example, inflammation of “nationalist sentiments” by Donald Trump’s “fiery rhetoric” “combined with…military training and combat exposure”. Catrina Doxsee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies offers an alternative explanation, which also applied to white power organizations in the 1970s: that extremist groups “tailored recruitment to military personnel” given their “specialized knowledge and abilities “.
But of course, it’s not just the distinctive skills of veterans that right-wing militant groups seek. It is their apparent credibility. Indeed, according to recent research, in pre-World War II Italy and Germany, Fascist and National Socialist parties “claimed that they represented ‘the veteran’ to gain legitimacy for their cause. “. But the bands hadn’t really gained widespread support among former service members.
A century later, amid the efforts needed to counter a real and dangerous rise in extremism, it is imperative to resist the idea that right-wing paramilitary organizations represent some sort of unified will of people with military backgrounds. The multifaceted history and legacy of veteran activism teaches us that such an assumption is both inaccurate and perilous.