Today’s extremism feeds on war, anger, aggression, fear, hatred, and racism. To end it, we must first abolish war, reject lies, and embrace one another without rancor.
War is an extreme condition. Twenty years of seemingly endless war in response to the 9/11 attacks is an extreme situation, especially for a self-avowed democracy. After the American Revolution, James Madison warned Americans that long wars favored autocracy, eroded individual rights, and fed corruption, which would weaken democracy. A weaker democracy means that ordinary Americans have less say. They perceive a government that is beyond entreaty and suasion. Citizens may then look for answers elsewhere: to cult-like demagogues promising to make America great; to fringe organizations dedicated to “taking back” America from someone, some enemy, often an enemy within (perfidious Democrats, undocumented immigrants), sometimes an enemy without (China, Russia)–and at times, both.
A constant state of war—shrouded in mendacity, rife with profit for a few—created the conditions for extremism in America.
In the latest report on military extremism, which I helped author, we uncover a harsh truth: America’s 20-year global war only spreads terror further. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were based on lies. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There was no way to bring freedom and democracy, or a “government in a box,” to Afghanistan. Military leaders knew the “surges” in these wars had no staying power (“fragile” and “reversible,” General David Petraeus then said). So it proved. More than $6 trillion was wasted. Thousands were killed; tens of thousands were wounded in body and spirit—and that’s only counting American casualties.
A constant state of war—shrouded in mendacity, rife with profit for a few—created the conditions for extremism in America. Troops alienated by official lies and unwinnable wars predictably became bitter and cynical. With the mainstream media selling corporate-driven happy-talk and featuring senior ex-CIA and military generals presented as unbiased experts, veterans sought answers elsewhere, in some cases joining or following QAnon, the Oath Keepers, and similar organizations espousing false or fringe ideologies, including white supremacy. Lies begat more lies, but the original sin was war.
If the first casualty of war is truth, the persistent casualty of endless war is the very integrity of democracy.
Nearly one in five rioters charged in the protest at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, were veterans. Many of these same protesters also faced financial difficulties and Covid-related debt. The Air Force veteran killed at the Capitol, Ashli Babbitt, was one of them. She was also a fervid supporter of Donald Trump. Military service values action and commitment to a cause perceived to be larger than oneself. Veterans like Babbitt believed they were “stopping the steal,” urged on by a civilian commander-in-chief who was eager to exploit their energy and anger (and gullibility) for his own selfish purposes. But let us not blame Trump alone. Wars fought for false causes, wars in which harsh truths were so often suppressed, created the estrangement and anger that an aggrieved and petulant leader tapped into and so cynically exploited.
Stopping extremism within the military won’t be done by creating “woke” warriors. More diversity training and celebrations of LGBTQ accomplishments aren’t enough. Militarizing the police isn’t the answer, nor is domestic surveillance and suppression, manifestations of the war on terror brought home to American soil. Endless foreign wars, endemic militarism, insidious lies: these are the root causes of extremism. The solution is to stop the wars and end the lying
It’s also about stopping forces within American society that prosper when Americans are kept divided, distracted, and downtrodden. “Divide and conquer” is a time-tested stratagem. To succeed as a democracy, America must overcome the forces of division and come together. This includes class division, the yawning gap between the haves and have-nots, and the deepening chasm between those two groups and the have-even-mores (think Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates).
“Canceling” extremists won’t achieve this. What works is instilling common purpose, banding together, restoring America’s democracy by rebuilding it equitably and inclusively. Unite Americans behind the ideal of a nation guided by a Constitution to which all are citizen-believers, for which all are willing, if necessary, to die defending.
Extremism in the pursuit of a more democratic, more united America is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of ending wars and the violence and profiteering they breed is no virtue. It’s time for Americans to become a new kind of extremist—extreme in their love of democracy, of justice, of virtue, of honor, of peace.
Today’s extremism feeds on war, anger, aggression, fear, hatred, and racism. To end it, we must first abolish war, reject lies, and embrace one another without rancor. We must acknowledge our anger, pursue more diplomatic courses, embrace cooperation and collaboration and especially compassion, as we care for those who have borne war’s burdens. Achieving a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations, will end extremism. Nothing more than this—and nothing less—will suffice.