Why would military veterans commit insurrection?
Updated: May 20
Creator: Brendan Smialowski | Credit: Getty Images
Copyright: 2007 Getty Images
The violent January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection is still fresh in our minds. As a veteran, I was particularly saddened and dismayed, yet also not surprised to see that vets had taken part in the insurrection. I asked myself, “why would military veterans commit the crime of insurrection?” Based on personal experience, I already knew the answer.
Under U.S. law, an insurrectionist is someone who “incites, sets on foot, assists, or engages in any rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the United States or the laws thereof, or gives aid or comfort thereto.” The crime carries with it a prison sentence of up to ten years. The Treason, Sedition, and Subversive Activities chapter enumerates other, more severe crimes, including “Advocating overthrow of government,” punishable up to twenty years, or treason, for which someone could be sentenced to death. Any active-duty military member who participated in the January 6th insurrection could potentially face treason charges as, due to their oaths, they owe allegiance to the United States. However, it would be highly unlikely that anyone would face these consequences. The U.S. has only ever had forty federal treason cases in our history, and even fewer convictions.
Two weeks after the Capitol insurrection, a report found that Veterans had been disproportionately arrested and charged for their involvements. The report cited some cases of veterans belonging to right-wing extremist groups. And notably, Ashli Babbitt, the woman who was shot and killed by a police officer inside the Capitol, was an Air Force veteran. But we should not forget that slain Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick was an Air National Guard veteran himself. Sadly, there were other instances of “blue-on-blue” violence that day. Military veteran police officers in Washington, D.C. came face-to-face with insurrectionists who identified as veterans as well.
As military members, especially when in uniform, we were directed not to openly voice personal political views. For the past two decades, Americans ranked the military as one of the most trusted public organizations in the country. Part of the reason may be because military members are supposed to be, outwardly, politically neutral. It is a concept with which I heartily agree. However, military members and veterans tend to lean conservative, which I can attest is the case, based on personal observations and interactions.
Conservative military members who I knew identified with Republican politicians, whom they saw as more “pro-military.” Republican leaders tend to espouse issues such as increased military spending, Second Amendment rights, tax cuts, and conservative social issues. So, when the head of the Republican party promoted the narrative that the 2021 election was stolen and called for “American patriots” to “stop the steal,” there were bound to be conservative military veterans who rationalized that it was still their duty to follow the commander-in-chief. Trump stoked the fears of many conservative veterans – that the country and their way of life would turn socialist. I can also personally confirm that for many older vets who grew-up or served during the Cold War, the idea of socialism growing in the U.S. is especially abhorrent. Therefore, when the President implies it is your patriotic duty to stop Congress from certifying Electoral College votes to prevent socialists from taking over, then how could it be a crime?
Yet the military is also representative of U.S. society as a whole. Although more conservative and male-dominated, the military, and its veterans, are actually quite diverse, reflecting the country at large. A noteworthy statistic though, is that veterans are incarcerated at a lower rate than non-vets and are less likely to have committed previous offenses. This statistic supports the idea that veterans involved on January 6th, who ordinarily might not commit crimes, felt emboldened to be able to do so with impunity with Trump’s support. However, we know that the election was not stolen, and those who criminally stormed the Capitol, including the many veterans, were on the wrong side of history and the law.
Should those veterans be treated differently because of their prior service to the country? Some say “no,” and I agree. As noted, the military reflects the rest of society, but is also trusted more. Implicit in the acceptance of veteran status is to continue to uphold higher moral standards. So, even after their period of duty is complete, veterans are expected to positively represent their service branches to society, in exchange for lifelong benefits, such as health care, education benefits, and housing loans. The unwritten contract is that veterans should not damage the military’s hard fought, trustworthy reputation. Those veterans who blatantly advertised their military affiliation immeasurably eroded that trust. Any special treatment given to veterans involved in the insurrection would be a slap in the face to all other veterans who dedicated their lives to the causes of freedom and democracy.
All military members were required to take an oath to “support and defend the Constitution, against all enemies, foreign and domestic” upon commissioning or enlistment. Veterans can continue to live up to their oaths as private citizens in many ways, including being active in their communities, kind to their neighbors, and as productive members of the workforce. What they should not do, is to commit the crime of insurrection against the country and democracy that we all served together, and that we presumably still hold dear.