The Ad Hoc Tribes of Violence


Image capture of video on social media, showing a concerted group climbing the Capitol stairs.

As law enforcement and amateur Internet sleuths continue to identify those who stormed Congress on Wednesday, some are poring over video of a “disciplined” group in tactical gear, who walk single-file, hand on the person in front of them, up the east Capitol steps through the disordered mob.

Several members of the group have Oath Keepers patches sewn on their body armor and clothing. In video shot later, they are shown at a Capitol building door as it is being breached.

ProPublica and FRONTLINE say, “Oath Keepers [is] a long-standing militia group that has pledged to ignite a civil war on behalf of Trump. Members of the group joined the protesters and insurrectionists flooding into the Capitol. Footage from later in the day shows Oath Keepers dragging a wounded comrade out of the building. Stewart Rhodes, a former soldier and Yale law school graduate, who founded the Oath Keepers in 2009 and built it into a nationwide network, was seen on video standing outside the Capitol building.”

One of the group in question, approaching a Capitol Building door. Image capture from social media video.

NPR reports that the Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Michael Sherwin, said, “Look, we saw in some of these individuals we identified—they look paramilitary almost, right? You’ve got the uniform, you’ve got communication, you have all the paraphernalia. Those show indications of affiliation and a command and control. So I believe we are going to find those hallmarks. But I think we’re weeks, if not months, out to understanding how clear that picture is.”

The Oath Keepers (“Your Oath NEVER expires! It’s time to keep it!”) call themselves “a non-partisan association of current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders, who pledge to fulfill the oath all military and police take to ‘defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.’

“That oath, mandated by Article VI of the Constitution itself, is to the Constitution, not to the politicians, and Oath Keepers declare that they will not obey unconstitutional orders, such as orders to disarm the American people, to conduct warrantless searches, or to detain Americans as ‘enemy combatants’ in violation of their ancient right to jury trial.”

None of that makes much sense, as veterans are neither expected to hold to their oaths once out of the service nor permitted to act on any of the orders listed.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which documents extremist groups, calls Oath Keepers “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today. While it claims only to be defending the Constitution, the entire organization is based on a set of baseless conspiracy theories about the federal government working to destroy the liberties of Americans.”

Oath Keepers showed up at Ferguson with assault rifles (St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar called it “both unnecessary and inflammatory”), and a few went to support the Bundys and their pals, who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon at the start of 2016. Oath Keepers even told their members to patrol polling places during the 2016 presidential election.

US veterans acting as if their service never ended have something in common with Soviet veterans of the Afghanistan war, called Afgantsi. Author Martin Ewans, a former British diplomat, writes:

“Almost all were disaffected…at what they had been through. They found, on return, that they attracted scant popular sympathy and received little assistance in finding jobs, housing or medical care. They started to come together and, unprecedentedly, formed non-Party organisations that campaigned not only for their rights but also for wider social ends. The presence of, and pressure from, the Afgantsi contributed to, and aggravated, the general slide into social disintegration.”

In her collection of post-Afghanistan Soviet oral histories, Nobel winner Svetlana Alexievich shows how the Afgantsi were used as vigilantes and skull-busters. One of her subjects says:

“Nowadays, if the police need to frighten the local mafia they come to us Afgantsi. ‘Come on boys!’ they say, ‘give us a hand!’ Or if they want to harass or break up some unofficial political group, ‘Call the Afgantsi in!’ they say. An Afganets, in other words, is a killing machine, with big fists, a weak head and no conscience. No wonder we’re feared and disliked by everyone.”

The Afgantsi, which included former top officers, prevented the removal from power of Boris Yeltsin, in 1992, and continued to play a large role in Russian politics.

As the Washington Post put it at the time, “One of the common features of the battle-hardened Afghanistan veterans is their willingness to take decisive action to defend what they perceive as Russian state interests. Their public statements suggest that most of them subscribed to the principal goal…to save a great country from economic ruin and political disintegration.”

Make Russia Great Again.

Our own Department of Homeland Security issued an intelligence and analysis assessment, in 2009, titled “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.” It said, “…the return of military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks.”

Other extremist groups, not primarily for veterans, play on service to country and armed violence. Retired Lieutenant General William “Jerry” Boykin (13 years in Delta Force, apparently) is a veteran who cannot sit down because his rhetoric is so inflamed.

“A popular speaker on the conservative Christian speaking circuit, Boykin is constantly on the road, crisscrossing the country from pulpit to pulpit, recruiting a Christian army to battle the forces of Satan, hell-bent, he says, on destroying America with such weapons as same-sex marriage, radical Islamists, gun control, abortion, and a ‘Marxist model’ for world conquest,” SPLC reports.

Groups of this sort traveled to cities where Confederate statues were being removed from their plinths. These included American Warrior Revolution (“WARRIORS OF ALL BACKGROUNDS WHO ARE FED UP WITH THE CURRENT STATE OF OUR COUNTRY AND ARE WILLING TO STAND UP FOR THIS NATION”), the same people behind American Freedom Keepers:

“AFK’s core team is a mix of veterans, both combat and non-combat veterans, with specialties in com’s [sic], hand to hand combat, arms experts, civilian law enforcement, intel and opsec specialists, as well as civilians with fire/search and rescue experience, paramedic and combat medic experience, SERE school and small arms instructor and several others. We feel it’s been one of the keys to our success, our diverse skills brought together.”

The neo-Confederate League of the South’s Southern Defense Force is not specifically a veterans’ organization, though it no doubt has veteran members. It too relies on an “oath” of sorts, an allegiance to an a priori idea, and is paramilitary by design.

“Southerners, the leftist enemy has their army in the streets,” the League of the South’s founder wrote, February 2, 2017, “…rioting, burning, and physically assaulting those with whom they disagree. It’s only a matter of time until they move from major urban areas and college/university campuses into smaller cities and towns, the suburbs, and ever some rural areas. We dare not wait to organize our defenses until they appear on our doorstep here in Dixie. […]

“As a League member, you will have opportunities to increase your proficiency with hand-to-hand defense skills, firearms training (both pistols and long weapons), and other related skills. Also, you will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other Southern warriors in an organization dedicated to the survival, well-being, and independence of the Southern people.”

These groups were present, heavily armed, at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 2017, where Heather Heyer was murdered and 19 others injured by a white supremacist in political alliance with the militias.

Resolve knows no one master. When veteran and paramilitary groups mobilize with no true discipline or authorized chain of command, a stew of gun-love, anger, resentment, partisanship, entitlement, machismo, and physical presence makes mass violence inevitable.

One of our gravest national problems is a cultural addiction to the pornography of military might.

Ashli Babbitt, the conspiracy-loving Trump supporter shot in the Capitol attack, was an Air Force veteran. Before the events of the Sixth, she said on social media, “Nothing will stop us… they can try and try and try but the storm is here and it is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours….dark to light!”

“I’ll watch my six,” she assured people en route to Washington, using the military aviation and spec-ops term romanticized by films and video games. Walking with the growing mob toward the Capitol, she claimed incorrectly that there were three million “patriots” there, which she called “boots on the ground.”

The New York Daily News called her a “military hero,” and quoted her brother-in law after she was dead: “Ashli was both loyal as well as extremely passionate about what she believed in…. She loved this country and felt honored to have served in our Armed Forces.”


John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.