The events of Jan. 6 were surreal and heartbreaking for America — for most Americans, anyway. It was a horrible experience on many levels, seeing our Capitol attacked and defaced and hearing the news of people who lost their lives in the process.
But for me, the most gut-wrenching part of my experience of this horrific national tragedy was the realization that many of the rioters were military veterans as their identities were revealed, one after another. Ashli Babbitt, who was shot as she attempted to climb through a broken window into the Speaker’s Lobby, was a 14-year Air Force veteran. Larry Brock, who broke into the Senate chamber wearing tactical gear and carrying a handful of flex cuffs, is a retired Air Force officer and a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy. Mark Leffingwell, a former guardsman, has been charged with assaulting a federal officer. Even Jake Angeli, a.k.a. the “QAnon Shaman,” famously photographed wearing animal skins, horns, and face paint, is a Navy veteran.
And now, in the aftermath of the attack, law enforcement is investigating how widespread military and veteran participation really was that day. Lawmakers are calling upon the Pentagon to investigate, as well. In light of reports that some Capitol police were complicit in the riots, some lawmakers are even questioning whether the members of the Guard who will protect Washington this week can be trusted not to have been “radicalized.” Something deeply, deeply wrong is happening within the military community — or at least, that’s the perception. That’s a serious problem.
In his statement on the riots, former President George W. Bush described the rioters as “people whose passions have been inflamed by falsehoods,” and that characterization applies to the veterans who participated that day. I won’t specifically address the veracity of arguments coming from political leaders prior to this event, but I do want to speak to the false information that is widespread throughout the internet. Some media outlets, like CNN and the Washington Post, have rightly reported that internet disinformation, like the QAnon conspiracy theory, was partly responsible for the radicalization of some of the veterans who participated in the riots. But the notion of propaganda aimed at veterans isn’t new – various government agencies and private organizations started identifying these disinformation campaigns years ago. Congress, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and various other government agencies have acknowledged that the problem is real and are taking steps to address it.
One noteworthy study is the two-year investigation by Kristofer Goldsmith of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). Goldsmith started to investigate internet disinformation campaigns targeting veterans in 2017, when he found social media accounts falsely posing as Vietnam veterans’ groups. He even found one that fraudulently posed as his own organization. He found that one page, “Veterans of Vietnam,” has had admins from Italy, Ukraine, and Russia. Likewise, he found that “Veterans Nation” had no American administrators and frequently shared content that was originally created in Russia. Another page he cites, “Vets for Trump,” was hijacked by a Macedonian businessman and used to spread disinformation. Pages like these are often aimed at fomenting discontent with the American government and specific elected leaders, and they are specifically designed to play on veterans’ emotions and appeal to their patriotic values. It’s been a cheap and incredibly effective form of psychological warfare, and the worst part is, it’s so effective because we’re helping them do it. In an era of unprecedented access to information and in a military rich with educational resources, this is unconscionable.
Unfortunately, Goldsmith’s findings are consistent with my own experiences on social media. I’ve watched many fellow military personnel and veterans share memes containing information that is untrue (and easily refuted) and seem to be aimed at creating political discord or distrust. Some make obviously false claims about the Constitution, recent legislation, or the words and actions of our elected leaders. I’ve seen many who falsely quote our Founding Fathers to imply that it’s a patriot’s duty to overthrow the government if its members get out of line. It’s a chilling thing to see, and what’s even more chilling is how these people react when I try to address the lies. I’ve had people tell me that, true or not, it’s the “sentiment” of the claim that matters. Some accuse me of having political motives for fact-checking, and others accuse my fact-checking sources of being “ran [sic] by the left.” The existence of foreign disinformation is now a reality that has been proven and accepted by multiple government and independent agencies, but this truth is normally laughed off or treated as a harebrained conspiracy theory by the same people who are gullible enough to believe and spread information that is clearly false.
And now, our Capitol has been attacked by people who were made angry and delusional by this kind of content. Now, the Joint Chiefs have found it necessary to take the extraordinary step of affirming the truth of Joseph Biden’s election and emphasizing the military’s fundamental and primary responsibility to support and defend the Constitution. Because the ugly truth is that some military veterans have been radicalized by disinformation, and some were among the people who attacked the Capitol. That fact is beyond dispute at this point. Also beyond dispute is the fact that some of our lawmakers, our law enforcement personnel, and our fellow citizens are beginning to question the loyalties of the very military or former military personnel who are or were assigned to protect our nation.
In other words, the spread of disinformation among military personnel and veterans has now become a national security issue.
We need a reset. Though our duty is to remain apolitical in our public behavior as we support and defend the Constitution, we’re still constantly exposed to politically charged information, and we have to process it responsibly. We — military personnel and veterans — have to approach politically charged content dispassionately, as intellectually, civically, and morally responsible citizens of this country; that’s what military personnel and veterans are supposed to be — we have to be. Our first duty is to the Constitution, but the Constitution and truth are inextricably linked because the Constitution was designed to ensure public access to the truth. As Americans, we have a responsibility to respect and protect both.
Maj. Grace Miller is an aircraft maintenance officer in the United States Air Force. She previously taught English at the United States Air Force Academy and the University of Minnesota. At both institutions, the writing curriculum included evaluating information sources for credibility. The views expressed in this paper represent the personal views of the author and are not necessarily the views of the Department of Defense or of the Department of the Air Force.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.