We all watched in shock and horror the Jan. 6 attack on our nation by right-wing militants with insider knowledge of Capitol building security. Many were surprised and rightly disheartened to see several veterans and members of law enforcement among the ranks of the insurrectionists and white nationalists. Unfortunately, anyone with military experience and its culture knows that we’ve had a severe problem of white nationalists in the military and law enforcement for too long.
I’ve witnessed it first hand during my career in military intelligence and counter-terrorism and veteran circles. This is not a new phenomenon; it’s merely one we’ve refused to meaningfully confront. For me, the aftermath of this attack has brought back memories of war trauma, but another distinct memory has also tormented my mind in recent days.
Towards the latter end of my active duty career, a close friend set me up with my now-husband, whom he met in military training. The two of us would go on to join the National Guard and Reserves, respectively, and our friend remained on active duty. One year we visited him in Florida, where he was stationed, and like many times before, ended up at a local dive bar with a group of guys in the special operations community. Our good time was marred only by the presence of one man, known for his love of the Confederate flag, who had made me uneasy in the past with his casual racism. As happened many times before, someone bought another round of shots for the group, but I’ll never forget what happened this time.
Shots were passed around, and someone yelled out for someone to make a toast. As we reached out to put our shot glasses together with loud chatter and music in the background, that man looked me straight in the eyes and gleefully cheered: “Here’s to white women and white power! Oooweeeeee!”
I can still feel my racing heart and the chill of frozen disbelief. But it was the nervous laughs of bystanders that spiked my feelings of fear. No one said anything, and for my own safety, I swallowed my terror and discomfort and ignored it until we left.
The problem is not only that white nationalists are present within the military and law enforcement. The problem is that their presence, particularly in more male-exclusive units, is tolerated and normalized.
As a queer Latina in America and someone trained by the military to meticulously analyze intelligence and predict violence, I know full well that the highest threat destabilizing our country and society is overt and covert white supremacy. American exceptionalism, jingoism, and misogyny are the deadly combination keeping us from assertively hearing what members of Black and brown communities, particularly women, have known and have sounded the alarm against for decades. Inherent bias has created asymmetries in the urgency and understanding of this lethal threat.
Last December, I was invited to testify on a panel at the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Military Personnel. There, I stated that the foremost reason I left active duty was the high tolerance for corruptive behavior at the highest echelons, the institution’s culture of impunity, and the lack of oversight that enables toxic leaders and doesn’t meaningfully account for rapists, white nationalists, and abusers.
One of the greatest tragedies I’ve known is the deep desire to serve one’s country and people, even if it means sacrificing your life, only to realize your country and the institution responsible for your life doesn’t love you back. Learning that the public institution that is most trusted by the American people can treat you as an intrusion while refusing to account for its failures and its real enemies from within is a visceral heartbreak I’m increasingly certain I’m not alone in.
As I watched the assault on our nation’s capital last Wednesday, I felt deep grief thinking of the trauma of underpaid Black and brown staffers. How similar they are to volunteer enlistees seeking to serve the American people, and then being confronted with unchecked white nationalist violence threatening their lives at work.
Americans must wake up to the critical reality that possessing veteran status does not necessarily mean a person also possesses valor. It’s also time for all of us to remember and honor the important, too often forgotten legacies of courageous civil and human rights resistance by principled former military members. The historic life of World War II veteran and civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who was murdered 58 years ago by Marine Corps veteran and Klansman Byron De La Beckwith Jr., inspired and helped define my own calling for service. It is our solemn duty to deepen the legacy of people who served, like Union soldier and revolutionary Harriet Tubman, Navy veteran and labor leader Cesar Chavez, and the “43 Group,” the English anti-fascist collective set up by Jewish ex-servicemen after World War II.
A failed commander in chief, Donald J. Trump has committed the ultimate betrayal of abandoning his country while sabotaging a peaceful transition of power to try and save his own skin. Just one week ago, all 10 living secretaries of defense signaled their concern, and it’s time we stop acting coy about what we know is wrong. Fascism is not partisan, and it’s not creeping. It’s here. History is happening now.
Out of integrity and devotion to the multi-racial democracy we aspire to be, military members and veterans of all security forces have a clear, public choice to make—to be on the right side of history. Choose the will of the people who voted overwhelmingly against neofascism and white supremacy, or be complicit in ushering in an era of American fascism and international authoritarian alignment.
This is our moment to be true servants of the people and a nation we would do anything for. We cannot be rudderless or wring our hands in this firefight. There is no integrity in any public or private institution that harbors or enables white nationalists.
White nationalists must be expelled from all of our institutions, starting with the governmental bodies most entrusted with our collective safety and oversight power. We must impeach and expel all white nationalists and seditionists from the White House, the United States Congress, federal and local law enforcement agencies, and the Department of Defense. To not do so with moral clarity and urgency risks a greater crisis of legitimacy and, even more frightening, it risks a more sophisticated, coordinated attack on the members of Congress with the ultimate power to hold a rogue, war-crime fetishizing president accountable.