'Against All Enemies' Explores Why Veterans Are Drawn to Extremism and the Danger They Could Pose

(Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival)

"The problem is not the bomb itself," Gen. (ret.) Stanley McChrystal says in an interview with filmmakers, describing how to combat improvised explosive devices in Iraq. "You have to go 'left of the boom.' You had to go upstream from the problem and look at where the problem is coming from. Where is the energy?"

McChrystal, former commander of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, is one of many veterans, officials and experts interviewed in the new documentary film, "Against All Enemies." The movie takes a deep look at the Jan. 6 insurrection, the roots of military extremism and why so many veterans of the armed forces are attracted to those movements.

"When I look at Jan. 6, of course, there were people who did violence and climbed gates and caused trouble, but in my view, they were likely the foot soldiers. They were the result of the efforts of other people," McChrystal says.

More than a thousand people have been charged with storming the Capitol that day, the filmmakers say. According to research conducted by National Public Radio (NPR), one in five of those defendants served in the U.S. military.

"Against All Enemies" is a very dense but engaging documentary that not only shows the evolution of extremism from the start of the 20th century through today, it also tries to explain the appeal of these groups to the veteran community by exploring all sides of the issue, even that of the extremists themselves.

The film reveals that Jan. 6 wasn't just a once-in-a-lifetime event; it was the latest in a developing pattern of attacks that could pose a serious threat to American democracy. Many of the groups leading the charge are military veterans.

"The challenge with having veterans directly involved is twofold," McChrystal says in the film. "They bring a certain expertise. They might bring in organizational skills or military skills that can make a movement more dangerous. The second thing that's disturbing is, in our society, veterans have legitimacy; they have a particular place of respect."

Their presence not only brings legitimacy of service to alt-right groups, it brings the potential for recruiting more veterans with military skills to the extremist cause. "Against All Enemies" uses veterans like former Army officer Michael Breen. As the president and CEO of Human Rights First, a nonprofit that researches and uncovers extremist tactics, he reminds us that those skills aren't limited to firearms.

"There are places in our military where we are trained to start and fuel insurgencies," Breen says in the film. "There are places in our military where we are trained to overthrow governments or work with armed militias to do that sort of thing. I'm not saying this to be alarmist, and I don't think we need to be afraid of our veterans. I do think we need to have a solid understanding of how badly this can escalate."

For those wondering how bad it can get, "Against All Enemies" takes us back to the late 1960s, when Vietnam veteran Louis Beam launched his right-wing movement that echoed the same talking points used today. Beam created a network of militia cells that even used early forms of the internet to communicate, disseminate radical literature and plan robberies, bombings and other acts of violence across the country.

From Beam, the film fast-forwards to 1995, when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, friends who met while in the U.S. Army, bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Then in 2021, of course, comes the Capitol insurrection.

Kristofer Goldsmith, a former U.S. Army forward observer, was initially attracted to groups like the Proud Boys, but is now a self-proclaimed "Nazi hunter," tracking and exposing their activities. He warns that there is already a future for extremism, forming in Gen Z-led groups, some of which are openly fascist and advocate violence. The groups, say the experts and veterans, are sliding to authoritarianism or worse: a civil war.

One of the biggest reasons veterans are attracted to alt-right groups, Goldsmith believes, is the lack of the culture of service and the bonds it forms. When veterans leave the military, they also leave their service family, and these right-wing paramilitary groups fill that hole.

"When you're vulnerable and you're looking for family, they look like they could be family, providing that sense of mission and camaraderie that you had in the military," Goldsmith says.

"Against All Enemies" premiered at the 22nd annual Tribeca Festival​​ in June 2023. It was produced by former U.S. Navy aviator turned writer and podcaster Ken Harbaugh and award-winning director Charlie Sadoff, who also directed the film. Its executive producer is New York Times bestselling author and documentary filmmaker Sebastian Junger.

It can be viewed through July 2, 2023, on Apple TV, Roku, Fire TV and web browsers on iOS and Android devices via Tribeca at Home.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on LinkedIn.

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