New documentary explores why some veterans join the extremism movement

by Vern Evans

A new documentary produced by war journalist Sebastian Junger and Navy veteran Ken Harbaugh explains the link between veterans and violent extremist groups and explores what their participation could mean for the future of democracy in the United States.

“Against All Enemies” premiered at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival and is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+. It features interviews with members of Congress, academics and experts, leaders of militia groups and veterans who advocate against extremism.

Junger, Harbaugh and director Charlie Sandoff were motivated to make the film after viewing footage of Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, when rioters in camouflage and tactical gear forcibly entered the U.S. Capitol in a failed bid to overthrow the 2020 presidential election results, Harbaugh said.

According to data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism, known as START, 193 individuals with military backgrounds had been charged or convicted for their roles in the breach of the Capitol as of September 2023. That accounts for about 17.5% of all defendants charged in the attack.

The filmmakers claim veterans were manipulated by political influencers, such as former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, former President Donald Trump and other elected officials, who preyed on their sense of duty to the country. Those leaders provoked people from a distance but didn’t face any consequences, argued Harbaugh, a former Navy pilot.

“Those who committed these acts should be prosecuted and held accountable, but the ones I’m even angrier at are the leaders who will fist-pump an insurrectionist and get them to charge a barricade, and then run like hell when it gets too scary,” Harbaugh said. “They know better, yet they are willing for political reasons to lie, to spread disinformation and to have the burden for acting on that carried by these veterans.”

The filmmakers want the documentary to serve as a warning about the precarious nature of democracy in the U.S. and the violence that could occur following the upcoming presidential election. It’s also a call to action for veterans to resist individuals and groups who might try to radicalize them into an extreme political ideology. A veteran’s friends and family members play an important role, Harbaugh said.

“At the end of the day, it is going to come down to one-on-one conversations between a veteran who is at that crossroads and someone who loves them, someone who cares about them,” Harbaugh said. “You’ve got to be willing to have those tough conversations with the veterans in your life.”

Recent studies about veterans and their involvement in violent extremist groups describe the problem as “small numbers, high impact.” The number of violent extremists among the overall veteran and military population is tiny, but this group has an outsized impact once radicalized, Mike Jensen, a researcher at START, told Military Times last year.

According to Jensen’s research, one-quarter of all mass-fatality extremist crimes committed from 1990 through 2022 were carried out by perpetrators with military backgrounds. The military-trained offenders were almost twice as likely to be successful with their plots than those who were not.

“Against All Enemies” opens with an interview of Michael Breen, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran and the president of Human Rights First, a human rights advocacy organization. Throughout the film, Breen describes the skills veterans bring to extremist groups. He argues that many of these veterans have good intentions, but they are motivated by disinformation that invokes their oaths to protect the country.

“There are places in our military where we are trained to start and fuel insurgencies … to overthrow governments,” Breen said in the movie. “I’m not saying this to be alarmist, and I’m not saying we need to be afraid of our veterans. What I do think is that we need to have a solid understanding of how badly this could escalate. We’re not at the point where violence is the solution to our problems, but there are a lot of people trying to convince veterans and others that we are, and that’s a very dangerous thing.”

A portion of the 1 hour, 46 minute-documentary is spent reflecting on the insurrection. While participants failed to overturn the election results — and 1,387 people were charged with crimes — Jan. 6 isn’t viewed among extremists as a failure, argued Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent and founder of the Soufan Center, a nonprofit focused on global security challenges.

“Jan. 6 was a huge success for them,” Soufan said in the film. “It inspired so many people here in the U.S. and even in Europe that violence is the way to change the government, that it’s the way to change establishments in the Western world that they consider corrupt and evil.”

Retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal made an appearance in the documentary to offer a dire warning: “I think the worst case scenario is probably worse than most of us want to imagine.”

“I could see a civil war,” he said.

The filmmakers interviewed multiple members of extremist organizations, including Eric Braden, a former Army infantryman and founder of a Texas militia group. Braden claimed with conviction that the 2020 election was stolen by President Joe Biden, and he spoke about his absolute distrust of the elections process and of the upcoming presidential election in November in particular.

Braden painted a bleak picture of the state of the country and baselessly insisted that continuing on the current trajectory would “kill us, this country and our freedom.” Like McChrystal, Braden also expressed the possibility of a civil war.

“There’s imminent civil war,” Braden warned in the movie. “If we don’t fix our elections and actually make them bona fide again, we don’t have to win 2024. There is no 2024.”

Many of the experts and veterans interviewed in “Against All Enemies” urged Trump, Flynn and other elected officials and political influencers to quit spreading disinformation about the U.S. election in their large audiences, but none of those interviewed expressed much hope that they would stop.

Breen described effective campaigns the U.S. government carried out during World War II that taught troops and citizens to recognize and resist Nazi propaganda that targeted the American public in the 1930s and 1940s. The country has the ability to launch a similar campaign now to combat disinformation about the US elections process, Breen said, but only if Americans can unify on the issue.

“Opposition to Nazis was a goal shared by both parties in America,” Breen said. “Right now, this conflict is far too partisan, too divisive and too politicized. We know how to do this, but it takes unity.”

This story was produced in partnership with Military Veterans in Journalism. Please send tips to [email protected].

Nikki Wentling covers disinformation and extremism for Military Times. She’s reported on veterans and military communities for eight years and has also covered technology, politics, health care and crime. Her work has earned multiple honors from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the Arkansas Associated Press Managing Editors and others.

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