Editor’s Note: David J. Morris is a former Marine infantry officer and the author of “The Evil Hours: A Biography of PTSD.” He teaches writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The views expressed here are those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.
Like most Americans, I watched the January 6 Capitol insurrection on television with a tortured mix of horror, disgust and awe. As a former Marine officer, my disgust grew, then eventually boiled over as I noticed that mingling in the throngs of malignant supposed super-patriots and frothing conspiracy junkies were serious-looking guys outfitted in tactical gear, wearing unit patches and insignia that I recognized.
Undoubtedly, I told myself, most of these insurrectionists were merely, as one vet friend put it to me “Navy SEAL cosplayers,” and couch potato combat enthusiasts who staged paintball wars on the weekends, but whatever hope I’d had evaporated like a rain puddle in a Laredo parking lot when NPR reported last week that nearly 1 in 5 of the people charged in the insurrection by the FBI were middle-aged military veterans, i.e. guys like me.
The attack on the Capitol is an event that will be investigated and parsed for years to come, not to mention jousted-over during Trump’s second impeachment trial in the Senate set to begin next week. As a history nerd, one of the first things that jumped out at me was how much the insurrection resembled Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome. As I wrote the following day in an email to a professor friend: “A charismatic, outsider politician incites a march on the Capitol but declines to participate. Check. Disillusioned veterans in military paraphernalia advancing on government buildings claiming to be ‘patriots.’ Check. Cynical politicians finding common cause with the insurrections for their own gain. Check.”
Now, to be fair, it is all too easy to misuse history in times like this and it’s important to remember that Mussolini’s March on Rome differs from the January 6 putsch in a number of important ways: first among them is the fact that Mussolini’s march actually worked. He eventually took control of the Italian government as a result of the march that he incited, whereas Trump’s attempt to disrupt the transfer of power failed and the violence he and his allies incited will likely lead to a number of criminal indictments; Trump now also has the dubious distinction of being the only president to be impeached twice.
Like so many things about the Trump era, the presence of veterans among the rioters was both shocking and not really surprising. I’d seen a lot of white nationalism during my eight years in uniform; it essentially bookended my military career. The ROTC unit I joined at Texas A&M was known as the “Rebel Company” that featured a caricature of a Confederate soldier on its unit crest. My last year on active duty was spent working at the 1st Marine Division Scout Sniper school, where there was a long history of Marines unofficially using the Nazi SS logo – a logo that many snipers ridiculously claimed stood only for “Scout Sniper.”