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A veterans group takes aim at domestic extremism and misinformation
After doom-scrolling through my social media feeds on the afternoon of Jan. 6, now known as the Capitol insurrection, I wanted to engage with the veteran community. It’s one of the reasons why I started this newsletter and micro-website, because at that time two types of veterans confronted each other on the steps leading into the U.S. Capitol. Both groups had taken the same oath to protect the constitution. Only they maintained two diametric interpretations of what it mean to uphold their oath.
Divisions were sowed on both sides of the veteran sphere, with Capitol Police who were once veterans confronting other veterans seeking to storm the Capitol building. Forty-five veterans were charged for their complicity in the insurrection. Not only were there veterans, but also an active-duty Marine Corps officer from Virginia.
Roughly twenty-five percent of veterans charged in the insurrection had connections to right-wing extremist groups like the Oath Keepers or Proud Boys. Those veterans who were charged comprise all branches of the military and its reserves. And they were not only enlisted soldiers, but commissioned officers and decorated special forces operators. They served in every major American engagement in the last 60 years.
One man who was arrested and charged in the riot had a handbook titled “Step by Step to Create Hometown Militia.” The findings in the notebook underscored how deeply a sense of patriotism became diametrically opposed to the nation’s values, how many veterans believed what they were doing in storming the Capitol building and chanting about a stolen election was an extension of their military service.
The reasoning behind the riot was clear: those who participated were goaded by President Donald J. Trump into believing Democrats rigged the election against them, a claim that has been widely disproven. What is most disturbing is the rise in misinformation targeting veterans specifically. So rampant is the targeting that the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee scheduled a formal hearing on disinformation and violent extremism recruitment targeting veterans.
Six months later, a group of veterans and military family members launched a nonpartisan organization “dedicated to building a more perfect union” through community building, veteran outreach and education to address domestic extremism and misinformation. “The group hopes to recenter positive patriotism in American life and use their skills and passion as veterans to promote and protect our nation’s values,” according to a press announcement. (Full disclosure: a We the Veterans board member was a founding paid subscriber to War, U.S.A., but has not reviewed the contents of this interview before publishing, nor influenced my editorial independence.)
I spoke via email with Anil Nathan, a second-generation Air Force veteran and We the Veterans Foundation board member. Most recently, Anil worked for Uber in what has to be one of the coolest post-military roles I’ve come across: he led the company's near-term aviation products, including UberCopter, the world's first multimodal aerial ridesharing service.
We discussed the ways by which We the Veterans plans to foster civic engagement across county and state lines, and what steps they’re taking to address targeted efforts which undermine the core values of military service.
Anil, can you share a little bit about yourself and why this mission and initiative might be personal?
I’m a first-generation American and second-generation veteran. My dad was drafted into the Vietnam War in 1969, one year after emigrating from India. He had an opportunity to defer his enlistment but chose to serve believing this country would provide a better future for him and his family. My dad retired after 23 years of service on active duty and, with my mom, created the foundation of opportunity and possibility for their kids and grandkids that is the definition of the American dream. I took my oath 27 years after my dad took his, feeling a duty and obligation to support and defend the Constitution and the democracy that made my family’s story possible.
That’s why the insurrection on January 6th, and the failures in civic responsibility that led to it, have hit me so hard. Like a majority of veterans and Americans, I was infuriated, appalled, and distraught by what I saw. And it raised a fundamental question - if I don’t take a stand and do something to help address the threats to our democracy now, what did my service and my father’s service mean? That was a really tough thing to ask myself, but it became clear that I needed to continue to serve our democracy beyond wearing a uniform.
Why six months after the insurrection? When did the idea for We the Veterans take shape?
Six months gave time to reflect on the meaning of January 6th and appreciate the scope and scale of the threat we face. The idea for We the Veterans started in the immediate aftermath of the insurrection, with a group of veterans and family members concerned about the number of veterans who participated in the insurrection and the health of our democracy in general. Addressing misinformation and extremism in the veteran community seemed like a logical place to start, in part because we are best-suited to blunt these threats within our own community, but also because pushing back against misinformation and veteran participation in extremist organizations is essential to addressing the issue of violent extremism in our country on a broader scale. To our knowledge, there is no one else out there working to bring together experts from academia and think tanks, the government, the private sector, and leaders from other veterans organizations to tackle this issue head on. That’s exactly what we aim to do.
What can community and family members do to address violent extremism and misinformation in the veteran community?
Research from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) suggests bonds of trust are the most effective way to counter violent extremism and misinformation. This often means family members and friends are best positioned to make a difference. Similarly, veterans can help other veterans because there is a familial-level of respect and trust inherent between them. To address these problems, we can:
Improve our digital literacy, practice good digital hygiene and recognize that defending the nation includes being responsible with our online behaviors. There are free courses available that can help you protect yourself and educate others. By being careful to avoid unwittingly spreading misinformation while amplifying and standing up for credible information and institutions, we deny hostile influencers the intellectual terrain they need to attract new followers. Further, when we shine a light on misinformation, including highlighting how a piece of disinformation is intended to manipulate us into turning against our fellow citizens and democratic government, we can innoculate those around us to future hostile narratives.
Provide veterans with community, value, and a sense of purpose. This can be through social engagement, meaningful employment, or purposeful volunteer work. Veterans can struggle in their transition from military to civilian life, or many years after separation if they fail to find a sense of significance as a civilian. Opportunistic extremist groups seek to provide the sense of purpose, belonging, value, identity and clarity you lose when you leave an institution like the military. Friends, family, and fellow veterans can encourage others to seek these things in positive ways and can serve as role models and leaders themselves to bring others along with them, providing an alternative to extremism.
Focus on civics. As leaders, if we ground our behaviors, speech and relationships in a real understanding of American civics, we become psychologically and socially more comfortable navigating the complexities of the real world. A community that respects honest debate, checks and balances, compromise and problem solving is a community that will sniff out and reject the superficial appeal of black and white extremist narratives and their violent, destructive solutions. By strengthening our civic foundation, we enhance our resistance and resilience to anti-democratic rhetoric.
At We the Veterans, we are pursuing all of these initiatives and more. We have an ambitious plan to hold a high-level convening on January 6th in Washington DC and virtually, which will include partnerships with experts from academia, government, and the private sector to find solutions to the problem of extremism and misinformation in the veteran community and the nation more broadly.
Within that community, what does that misinformation look like? What are the warning signs for someone falling into fringe movements and ideology?
Within the veteran community, misinformation is often cloaked in the guise of patriotism. The creators of misinformation push their agenda by characterizing their view as pro-American or pro-military, relying on evoking an emotional response. For example, one piece of misinformation (Russian-sponsored propaganda in 2016) showed a picture of a homeless person, claimed it was a homeless veteran, and lambasted the White House for cutting funding for the VA. Although veteran homelessness is a vital issue, the ad relied on an emotional response from the viewer (about homeless vets) to believe the misinformation (the untrue assertion that the White House had cut funding for the VA).
Extremist movements and conspiracies have to create polarizing “us vs. them” narratives, which often involve things like coded speech and the use of specific symbols to differentiate those inside the group from their adversaries. They then create narratives of victimhood, placing blame on “them,” and often using dehumanizing language to make it easier for an individual to engage in harmful behavior against “them.” This harmful, offensive behavior is often described in defensive terms, to protect “us.”
It sounds obvious, but extremists engage with extremist content and socialize in extremist networks online and in-person. Importantly, when individuals start to contemplate engaging in violent extremist behaviors, they often tell someone close to them of their intent to take action. All of these things are potentially observable to friends and loved ones. It’s critical we empower people to take these warning signs seriously when they observe them and engage in an intervention. We the Veterans is creating an informed and empowered violence prevention ecosystem among veterans organizations and military families to help do exactly that.
Can you share more about the group's planned summit?
Over the next six months, we’ll be inviting key stakeholders to help us generate and prioritize concepts that can be executed by We the Veterans and our partners along seven lines of effort. That work will culminate on January 5, 2022 when those stakeholders will meet in person to network across the working groups and produce campaign plans for each line of effort. On January 6, 2022, we’ll host a virtual event for veterans and their families to learn from the top experts about the issues of violent extremism and misinformation and how they can be an essential part of the response to these threats. The event will initiate the process of empowering veterans and their family members to use their skills and station in American society to protect democracy, to protect the veteran “brand,” and to help their fellow veterans who may have gone astray.
We hope to make every January 6 moving forward a day focused on recommitting Americans to our democratic process and a fact-based civil discourse, and reminding the world that the American experiment is still a “shining city on a hill”. We are committed to bringing together a community of organizations and stakeholders who share in this incredibly important mission.
For what can veterans hope to lean on We the Veterans?
First and foremost, we aim to be a connector. We want individuals as well as organizations like the VA to come to us with a challenge and know we can help bring together the right people to help them solve it. That might be something big like the misinformation and extremism challenge we’re working on now, or something relatively small like connecting a recently separated veteran with other veterans in their local community.
Second, we aim to be a steady, trusted voice. There is so much sensationalism out there, and we want to challenge ourselves to rise above that, see things as they really are, and find research-based solutions. We don’t have to have an answer to everything, but we do have a responsibility to make sure whatever we’re saying is grounded in truth and outcome-focused.
Finally, we want to help veterans, their family members, and allies identify specific actions they can take to address key challenges facing our democracy, beginning with misinformation and extremism. Voicing disapproval isn’t enough--we have to do the hard work. That work will be easier with many of us doing it together.
Anything else you'd like to add?
A lot of people in our country are feeling dissatisfied, but they aren’t sure where to start or if they can make a difference. As veterans, we’re used to working as a team through big, complex challenges with a lot of ambiguity, but I suspect all of our co-founders would say they felt that way at some point in the last year. We the Veterans is a testament to what can happen when people resolve to take action, work through challenges together and stick with it.