Gang Violence

Reading this week:

  • African Conflicts and Informal Power: Big Men and Networks edited by Mats Utas

I was reading, as I am wont to do, the New York Times, when I came across this article:

Veterans Fortify the Ranks of Militias Aligned With Trump’s Views

It, uh, it sparked some feelings and thoughts and frankly I’m not entirely sure what all of them are. Fortunately I have a blog on which I can write whatever half-baked thoughts I have, and also fortunately no one ever reads it so there is little risk of repercussion. So here we go.

The article is about the so-called “militias” (“armed gangs” or “terrorists” is a better term) that have grown over the past decade or so, and as you have gleaned from the headline, how a number of them include a high percentage of veterans.

My first half-baked idea has to do with the type of gun nut who thinks the second amendment exists because people might have to literally take up arms against a tyrannical government. This, in the 21st century, always seemed more than a bit whack to me, mostly because I don’t think it would work. While there are more guns than people in the US, gun ownership is concentrated in a fairly small number of people, and the government’s military has the advantage of things like warships with Tomahawk missiles and special forces soldiers and satellites and drones and all the other things that make it really effective at killing people, more so than civilians with rifles, even if they are assault rifles with high-capacity magazines. I have other objections to the general notion, including the fact that if you want to overthrow a government violent rebellion isn’t even the best way to go about it, but let’s just stick with the government-versus-people scenario.

Mostly I need a convenient place to stick this link, but first off the Pentagon has wargamed a scenario where it goes against a domestic threat. I don’t know what their assumptions are, but the probably deciding factor in a second civil war is which way the military would go in the scenario. This is part of what that New York Times article speaks to, I think. I think that the veterans in these groups sort of assume that the military would be on their side. On one level, that’s not a crazy assumption. I know I just said you can’t pigeonhole veterans, but I think it is fair to say that the military leans right on the political spectrum. I would hesitate to ascribe that, Heinlein-style, to any particular characteristics of the military lifestyle. I think the military mostly recruits from right-leaning areas of the country and so the people that wind up in the military are right-leaning. So these gangs/militias are right-wing, they have right-wing veterans who know a bunch of other right-wing military, so they might assume that the military would favor these groups. Not a crazy assumption.

The next half-baked notion I want to talk about has to do with the oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. First off, and I will mention this because I don’t know where else to put this in, but I took the Oath of Office as a Peace Corps Volunteer which really threw me off. I didn’t know we did that, and so I was surprised when it happened, and for a while there I really had to think about my role in the Peace Corps and how I would defend and uphold the Constitution if called upon. I eventually just decided the enemies of the United States, foreign and domestic, weren’t going to be storming into my Zambian village, and gave up thinking about it. But of course I took the oath far more often as a member of the military.

The most significant thing I want to point out in this half-baked section is that upholding that oath is not necessarily a straightforward thing to do. This intersects with the article when it comes to the Oath Keepers. They’re another one of these gangs, but their schtick is that they claim to be continuing their oath to uphold, etc. The fact that these guys can claim to be doing that while the Southern Poverty Law Center calls them “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today” should be telling. Like I just said, I took the oath a lot as a member of the military. Specifically, as an officer, I took the Oath of Office. However, enlisted members of the military, and therefore the majority of the military, take the Oath of Enlistment. These are pretty similar, except that the Oath of Enlistment includes specifically the line that they swear to obey “the orders of the officers appointed over me,” while officers simply don’t swear that.

Why the difference? I always figured it was because while saying you’re going to “uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” sounds all nice and straightforward, man that is hard to put into practice. If you were to be serious about it, every single person who swears that oath would need to be a constitutional scholar. How else could you decide with any certainty whether or not any particular order you are given is against your oath to uphold and defend the Constitution?

I don’t think you could spin a scenario that would be obvious 100% of the time. If, as a member of the military, your commanding officer orders you to storm the White House and capture the President, that seems pretty straightforwardly like an unlawful order and unconstitutional. But then again what if the President is there illegally, because he refused to concede in a contested election, or something? Then maybe getting him out of there is pretty constitutional? But how is any member of the military really supposed to be able to tell? Even if you’re the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, I’m going to bet you’re probably not an expert on that sort of thing, and you’re just going to have to go with the best advice you can get. If you’re some enlisted guy, what chance do you have?

The answer to the conundrum is mostly “well this doesn’t really come up all that often,” and the other part of the answer is the difference between the Oath of Enlistment and the Oath of Office, mentioned above. Every member of the military has an obligation to not follow an unlawful order. But for enlisted members (in my interpretation), the default assumption is that an order given to you by an officer is probably lawful. Unless there is a pretty specific reason you should know it’s unlawful, you won’t be faulted for carrying out those orders (and I think the bar is pretty high; you can seriously argue after massacring a village that you were just following orders). Officers, on the other hand, don’t get that pass. You have a responsibility, as an officer, to not simply assume an order you are given is lawful, and actively counter all those orders that you receive that don’t pass that bar.

But then again, I just pointed out that even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs probably isn’t going to be an expert on these things. So how is some random junior officer to know what to do? This is why I don’t think the military is likely to break from the government in power. In a scenario where the legality of a given order is in question, I personally think the military is going to default to the most conservative approach (do you have to emphasize “small-c” in writing?), which will be to follow orders. Even the almost universally beloved (within the military) “Mad Dog” Mattis will make the legally shaky move to deploy troops to the southern border when asked, and only actually balk when it came to not deploying troops to Syria. All that to say, I don’t think there is much chance of the military breaking with the government, even if the government orders it to deploy against American civilians.

The final half-baked bit is the alignment of these armed gangs. A few points here. The original NYT article I linked to notes that these gangs are “traditionally” anti-government. That makes sense to me, from a “the second amendment is in case we have to take up arms against a tyrannical government” perspective. But the alignment of a number of these groups have been changing, and again as the article notes “as [the militias] have inserted themselves in cities with large protests, the groups have found themselves sometimes welcomed by local law enforcement” (I personally wonder how much of that is due to the efforts of white supremacists actively working to infiltrate both the military and law enforcement, so that it’s not so much law enforcement welcoming the militias, but simply a case of overlapping membership). But these gangs aligning themselves in any way with either law enforcement or the military really undercuts the notion of fighting against a tyrannical government. It’s hard to say you’re defending the people of the United States when you kill those people. However, the point I was trying to wander to is that although I think it is unlikely that the military will break with the government, if these gangs are aligned with the government, they could wind up on the same side anyways. The real driving force behind these gangs isn’t to uphold freedom and democracy (because frankly you can’t do that from behind a gun), but just hateful, fearful, American racism. If your goal is to kill Black and brown people, aligning yourself with the American government is historically not a bad way to go about it.

Those are my half-baked thoughts. Maybe someday they’ll coalesce into something meaningful.