The unimaginable — a modern U.S. civil war — gains considerable clarity and alarming proximity in the documentary “Against All Enemies,” about the continuing rise of far-right extremist groups. Various talking heads here stress that the January 6 insurrection was no aberration but part of a fast-evolving pattern that poses a serious threat to our democracy. Charlie Sadoff’s film focuses largely on the role of military veterans in groups that one way or another seem to be agitating for violent government overthrow, though it also casts a wider net. This densely packed, sobering overview of hitherto subterranean political trends feels tooled for broadcast, where in any case it would have the most impact.
While one would think adherence to their Oath of Enlistment would prevent veterans from joining any such cause, the siren call of online propaganda and individuals’ societal alienation post-service actually make them particularly susceptible. Paranoid rhetoric convinces many they are defending the Constitution (the Oath’s foremost commitment) in attacking others’ free speech and/or advocating a general revolution by “whatever means necessary” — as the Capitol melee amply demonstrated.
They are also particularly coveted in groups with such aims, as their military training provides organizational and tactical expertise. A quick examination of insurrection footage here gives the obvious lie to claims it was just “tourists running amok.” Experts identify clear deployment of organized militaristic force at play, mostly among masked and heavily outfitted “units” of men who contrast with the more random actions of yelling protestors in casual dress.
In mulling why veterans (who comprised a disproportionate number of those eventually charged for January 6 participation) might be drawn towards subverting the government they’d sworn to protect, Sadoff sets up as illustrative examples two ex-soldiers on opposing ends of an ideological spectrum. Former Army infantryman Eric “General E” Braden appears to live in rural Texas tranquility, yet is armed to the teeth against some existential threat or other. He conflates “the cowboy way” with the Second Amendment, which he seems to believe the nation’s highest value. On the other hand, fellow U.S. Army vet Kristofer Goldsmith, suffering PTSD after horrific Iraq combat experiences, rebounded from attraction to groups like Oath Keepers to becoming a self-proclaimed “Nazi hunter,” investigating and exposing the methodologies of such neo-fascist organizations.
“Against All Enemies” frequently returns to their observations, as well as to January 6 footage. Those elements (plus recurrent input from former Army Airborne officer Michael Breen, of Human Rights First) form a bit of a narrative throughline, as the film otherwise covers a compelling if near-overwhelming amount of terrain. That sprawl is kept barely cogent by chaptered sections, and Peter Coyote’s occasional narration. While editor Nick Clark does an expert job with the voluminous material, one could easily see this sharply executed feature going deeper at greater length, without losing any of its urgency.
We get glimpses of prior instances where militia-type groups took it upon themselves to square off against perceived political opponents, such as Portland BLM protests; their involvements with voter intimidation and other anti-democracy efforts; and their seemingly universal faith in the “stolen election” myth embraced by followers of Trump, who famously told Proud Boys to “stand by” during a televised 2020 debate with Biden.
Similar dog whistles and inflammatory rhetoric are sampled not just from far-right media (including “Clockwork Orange”-worthy hyperbolic disinformation videos), but from highly placed officials seemingly acting more out of political opportunism than anything else. Not a few of them, like former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, have suffered scandals that would destroy credibility in any context save that of supporters already under the sway of QAnon and other conspiracy-based world views.
There’s also a historical rewind midway to consider parallels between many groups today and the Ku Klux Klan, itself founded by Civil War veterans, and which held extraordinary sway over the South for nearly a century. When another mass of disillusioned returning soldiers stirred a new rise in domestic extremist organizations after the Vietnam War, the reactionary ideas generated eventually led to such events as the Oklahoma City bombing. Yet it is noted that such perps are rarely branded as domestic terrorists, no matter how blatant their politicized intent, or brought up on Federal charges. They’re usually viewed as “lone wolves,” something that one observer here notes would hardly be the case were any named “Mohammed.”
Jammed with intel as “Enemies” is, there’s little room for differentiation between current radical entities (also including Boogaloo Bois, Patriot Front, et al.), let alone their varying emphases on white supremacy, anti-Semitism, homophobia, racial “replacement” theories, and so forth. What they share is a belief that the nation itself and their own demographic stature within it are under attack, justifying violence as “patriotism” — whether they’ll openly admit as much or not.
Even the most critical observers here are sympathetic to veterans’ involvement, citing the difficulty of leaving closely-bonded service culture behind. “When you’re vulnerable and you’re looking for family, they [paramilitary groups] look like they could be family — providing that sense of mission and camaraderie that you had in the military,” Goldsmith says. But he also warns a “dystopian future” wrought by the orchestrated aggression they seem prepared for “could just be a few years away.”
Sadoff’s documentary proffers some hope at the close, albeit only if creeping authoritarianism is defeated by a return to collective acknowledgement of provable reality. That won’t be easy in a world of manufactured “alternative facts” and AI. As Breen puts it, regarding radicalized veterans, “Their hearts are in the right place — we just don’t live in the same world of truth anymore.” A grim diagnosis of a fast-spreading cancer, “Against All Enemies” may provide much less reassurance than cause for alarm, but its wakeup call is certainly worth heeding.