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Keep Calm and Carry On: Neither “Private Armies” nor “Foreign Forces” are Heading Up the Potomac

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Keep Calm and Carry On: Neither “Private Armies” nor “Foreign Forces” are Heading Up the Potomac

Charles J. Dunlap, Jr.

Recently Professor Mary McCord published an essay in which she rhetorically re-makes the reality of a scattered collection of rag-tag right-wingers who call themselves “militias” into potent “private armies” akin to what she calls “foreign forces prepar[ing] for potential violence.”

Regrettably, Professor McCord‘s essay lacks a sufficient military perspective to adequately gauge the true nature of the threats.  While we obviously must be concerned about the risks far-right extremists can pose, her essay counterproductively distorts the threat, imperils civil liberties, and - most troublingly – gives these fringe groups the kind of inflated stature and psychological power they so desperately crave.

Professor McCord cites President Trump’s tweet about a comment controversial Pastor Robert Jeffress made on a news program.  Jeffress said: “If the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office (which they will never be), it will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.”  Jeffress later said:

“I was not advocating or predicting an actual civil war if Trump is removed. What I said was such removal would cause a fracture in our country like our country experienced after the Civil War. The Civil War ended 160 years ago, and yet the wounds did not completely heal, and I think if you remove a president for the first time in history — a president who received 63 million votes — it will have the same kind of long-lasting impact."

While Professor McCord doesn’t address Pastor Jeffries explanation, she nevertheless apparently interprets “Civil War like” as meaning, literally, “like” the Civil War in terms of an actual clash of armies.  She seizes upon tweets from a right-wing group called the “Oath Keepers” said to be “associated with the white supremacy and militia movements” including one that says in relevant part:

“We ARE on the verge of a HOT civil war. Like in 1859. That’s where we are. And the Right has ZERO trust or respect for anything the left is doing. We see THEM as illegitimate too.”

Although she concedes that “no violence has yet resulted” from the tweets, she still conjures up a physical peril that she likens to hostile ““foreign forces prepar[ing] for potential violence,” and blames Trump for it.  As a result, she intimates that the response to what she depicts as “private armies” needs to be one sufficiently militarized as if they were to counter the “violence” that the invading “foreign forces” have the capability to inflict.  That goes much too far.

Who are these “Oath Keepers” who worry Professor McCord so much?  A news source says it “bills itself as 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’.”  The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) labels the group an “antigovernment movement” founded in 2009 by a Yale law school grad.  SPLC says the Oath Takers once “improbably claimed more than 30,000” members, and in 2015 contemptuously characterized them as "boys with big guns crying wolf, and we can only hope they don't wind up shooting someone by accident." 

How many “troops” could the “private armies” Professor McCord cites actually assemble?  (For comparison, in the Civil War the Confederacy fielded between 750,000 and 1 million soldiers in its losing effort.)  In 2018 Wired noted the difficulty in assessing the size of far-right groups - which are more than just “militias”.  Wired points out that the best estimates of the 2017 Charlottesville rally - the largest such right-wing gathering in a decade – put the figure at just 500-600 participants (only a few of whom were armed).  This, Wired observes, is “only a tiny fraction of what you’d expect from their [overstated] digital footprint.”  Nonetheless, Professor McCord’s post is illustrated with a photo from Charlottesville of a couple of alleged “Oath Takers” provocatively costumed in a hodge-podge of military-like accoutrements, apparently as evidence of the existence of the “private armies” she dreads. 

How do the few hundred people the “Oath Takers” have been able to muster in recent years match up to America’s security forces?  By comparison to their “improbable” number, the U.S. has over 680,000 sworn police officers, and 2.15 million active, reserve, and National Guard troops - not to mention as many as 100 million men in the “militia of the United States.”  In addition, the U.S. has, among other warfighting assets, over 6,200 tanks, and almost 40,000 armored fighting vehicles.  The Oath Takers?  Zero.

So, no, based on my several decades of military experience I certainly don’t fear these self-described “militias,” and nor should others.  They do not in any sense approach the capabilities of possible invading “foreign forces” that I’ve studied over many years of military service.  Of course, no one should be overly dismissive of any threat posed by individuals or groups who have access to weapons and who act unlawfully but exaggerating the risk can trigger its own set of unintended consequences that also ought to concern us. 

Furthermore, we need to be careful about converting foolish, ill-considered, and even hateful political rhetoric into a grounds to treat those that utter them as if they were foreign enemies.  In helping us think this through let’s recall the example of Aryeh Neier.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Neier, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and then the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), stepped in to help spearhead the defense of the Nazis who in 1977 sought to march through Skokie, Illinois, then home to thousands of Jews – hundreds of whom were Holocaust survivors. 

Neier eventually won his case, but the Nazis never actually marched, and their effort petered out.  Neier, who was vilified for representing Nazis, offered an explanation as to why the Nazis failed, and one well-worth pondering today:

Why did the Nazi message fall on such deaf ears?  Revolutionaries and advocates of destruction attract followers readily when the society they wish to overturn loses legitimacy.  Understanding this process, revolutionaries try to provoke the government into using repressive measures.  They rejoice, as the American Nazis did, when their rights are denied them; they count on repression to win them sympathizers.

I’m convinced that amplifying the threat of fringe groups to that which could be posed by “foreign forces” could instigate the kind of repressive response that concerned Neier.  At some point such a response could go in directions Professor may not anticipate. 

In calculating the wisest response to extremism – from the right or the left - the level violence (or absence thereof) is (and should be) significant.  Yes, it is disturbing that murders by right-wing extremists rose from 37 to 50 in 2018, but so are the more than 16,200 homicides that occurred in the U.S. the same year.  Consider as well that Professor McCord’s Georgetown Law School is situated in what experts tell us is the second-most left-wing city in the nation.  It’s a place where actual violence occurs with disturbing frequency: homicides in particular are climbing (131 in 2019, an 11% increase over 2018).  While other cities may be worse, Washington suffers “a crime rate of 60 per one thousand residents…one of the highest…in America compared to all communities of all sizes.” 

The point is this: that’s real violence, not conjectured, and no one is calling for a response as if “foreign forces” or “private armies” were heading up the Potomac. 

A localized law enforcement response is the only one being considered – and properly so - even though the physical threat is demonstrably greater than that posed by right-wing extremists.  In my view, we ought not let any extremists achieve their psychological objective.  Wouldn’t you bet that they are actually hoping to be psychologically intimidating as opposed to trying to physically wage some sort of “civil war”? 

Does anybody really think the tweetsters that so agitate Professor McCord have any appetite for taking on even a SWAT team, let alone the U.S. military?  Put another way: are we really facing a truly unprecedented crisis from these so-called “militias” that requires extraordinary measures as if we we’re facing “foreign forces prepar[ing] for potential violence” as Professor McCord characterizes it? 

Although today it’s the left seeking a crackdown on the far right, it wasn’t always that way.  Writing in a 2016 Time article Bryan Burrough recalls that in “a single eighteen-month period during 1971 and 1972 the FBI counted an amazing 2,500 bombings on American soil, almost five a day.”  Burrough explains that “[n]early a dozen radical underground groups, dimly remembered outfits such as the Weather Underground, the New World Liberation Front and the Symbionese Liberation Army, set off hundreds of bombs during that tumultuous decade.”   Regrettably, the effort to stop such attacks and other domestic unrest led to excesses by the CIA, the FBI, and even the military - overreaching that compromised civil liberties and American values

Treating American citizens here in the U.S. - even those with dangerous and repulsive ideas - as if they were foreign enemies is seriously misguided.  Sure, an energized and better-resourced law enforcement effort makes sense, but any inference that we ought to bring to bear here at home the kinds of weapons, tactics, and other military capabilities (along with an armed conflict legal architecture) used to battle jihadists overseas or to confront “foreign forces” who have violence in mind, is unnecessary and profoundly mistaken.  We’ve seen this movie before, and it isn’t a good one.

Preserving civil liberties in a time of great political stress is not easy or, as Aryeh Neier’s experience amply demonstrates, especially popular - but it’s vitally important.  Abiding by Colin Powell’s advice to not to take counsel of our fears can serve as a bulwark against becoming what we don’t want to be.  In short, keep calm and carry on.

Categories: civil war

About the Author(s)

Charles J. Dunlap Jr., the former deputy judge advocate general of the United States Air Force, joined the Duke Law faculty in July 2010 where he is a professor of the practice of law and Executive Director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security. His teaching and scholarly writing focus on national security, international law, civil-military relations, cyberwar, airpower, counter-insurgency, military justice, and ethical issues related to the practice of national security law.

Dunlap retired from the Air Force in June 2010, having attained the rank of major general during a 34-year career in the Judge Advocate General Corps. In his capacity as deputy judge advocate general from May 2006 to March 2010, he assisted the judge advocate general in the professional supervision of more than 2,200 judge advocates, 350 civilian lawyers, 1,400 enlisted paralegals, and 500 civilians around the world. In addition to overseeing an array of military justice, operational, international, and civil law functions, he provided legal advice to the Air Staff and commanders at all levels.