What Do Paramilitaries in the Streets of Portland Signal for November?

In recent weeks, the Trump administration has begun pulling paramilitary forces from various domestic security agencies and dispatching them to domestic protests within the US. Headlines like the infamous Tom Cotton op-ed, “Call in the Troops,” are not helping us achieve any clarity on what exactly they are doing and which agencies they come from. All of this, of course, is happening four months ahead of a presidential vote in which one of the candidates (the president) has been cagey about accepting the results of the election. We asked writers and veterans Phil Klay and Matt Gallagher, along with military scholar Risa Brooks, to consider the developments of the last month, in Portland and elsewhere, and to look ahead to November.


Matt Gallagher: Like Phil and Risa, I imagine, I’ve been watching what’s been happening across America at the protests with a mix of grave concern and moments of pride and genuine inspiration. The former is constant and looming, while the latter comes in bursts—the black National Guardsman in DC stoically mouthing “I’m black and I’m proud” with the protestors, as one example, the large US Navy veteran standing his ground in Portland against a barrage of nightsticks and then flipping them double birds, as another—but that they’re getting recognized and shared means a lot, both to me personally and for defying easy narratives about veterans and what we believe.

Of course a good amount of Homeland Security forces are probably military veterans themselves, but I think that’s why things like Portland’s “Wall of Vets”—the second line most nights, as I understand it, behind the Wall of Moms—are so powerful. It reveals a truth that sometimes gets lost in this era of an all-volunteer military, that many different ideologies and creeds and world views make up the ranks. No political party in modern America can lay singular claim to service and patriotism.

A few years back I worked at the nonprofit IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) as a speechwriter, and got a crash course in the political world of veterans and related policymaking. It’s a place of sharp elbows! Veterans operating together as a political animal is nothing new, of course—the Bonus Army and Vietnam Veterans Against the War as two famous examples—and sometimes I’ve worried that our generation of vets consumed that understanding too easily. So it’s really cool to see our post-9/11 social capital being used for a broader cause and purpose. Don’t get me wrong, vets need advocates and I’m glad we have strong, committed ones, but we’re only a piece to the puzzle of America, not a special class or caste.

Related: retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling wrote an excellent op-ed taking DHS to task for outfitting its agents in camo. We’re too close to a dangerous edge with civ-mil relations, there’s no doubt about it, and that didn’t begin with the George Floyd protests. But at the risk of coming across as an optimist, I’m cautiously hopeful that firm, resolute pushback both on the ground level and in the policy sphere will keep us from it. (Though if Tom Cotton and his naked ambition ever gets elected president, I’ll gladly lead any and all We’re Fucked parades.)

The stakes for our citizenry and our democracy are very high, but so many of those involved seem to be playacting.

Both of your writings have educated me on civ-mil matters before, and walked me back from despair before, so how are things looking from your vantage points here in this summer of madness? In hard times in Iraq, one of my best sergeants would raise a hand into a fist and “rock the hate fist.” It’s a move of power and agency, I believe, and I’ve been doing it a lot myself during these trying days. Be well.

Phil Klay: Hi Matt and Risa, I also share concerns about the way veterans and the symbolism of the military is increasingly used as leverage in political fights. As one of the last major institutions in American life enjoying sky-high approval ratings (a poll last year found that 83 percent of Americans trust the military “to act in the best interests of the public,” as compared to 37 percent for elected officials), the military is a political prize, sought after by both sides.

I’m used to seeing this in the foreign policy realm, such as when then White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer tried to evade criticism of our policy in Yemen by claiming that anyone who questioned the success of the raid in which a Navy SEAL was killed “owes an apology” to the fallen. But we also see the mystique around service brought in on other fronts. Sometimes this is buffoonish, as when the current White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany claimed the military bases named after Confederate generals couldn’t be renamed without dishonoring the dead troops who deployed from them (I think that you, Matt, summed up the veteran response to the claim rather aptly on twitter: “If any of my fallen friend’s last thoughts were of the fucking base they deployed from, I’ll eat Kevlar.”).

In other cases, its more subtly insidious, as in a recent anti-Trump political ad positing a partisan divide between real and “fake patriotism” by showing images of Democratic Party politicians who served and claiming that “in times of crisis Democrats have answered the call and stood tall for their country” (setting aside the silliness of this line of attack at a time when Republicans have more than double the number of veterans serving in the current Congress, its attempt to recast military service as a partisan tool for sorting real and fake patriots is deeply unhealthy). But most disturbing to me is the obvious desire to leverage the military against the recent climate of protest. The decision to teargas peaceful protesters at Lafayette Square, as well as the decision to bring out General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to stroll through the cleared square in combat fatigues as if he was out touring a battlefield, was a particularly ugly example.

But there’s an institutional ethic within the military itself that resists getting drawn into those sorts of disputes, and one good thing in the aftermath of that particular incident was the rapid pushback we saw, as well as a renewed debate about the dangers of politicizing the military. Facing criticism, Milley apologized for being at Lafayette Square and creating a “perception of the military involved in domestic politics.“ Prominent retired generals spoke out, including retired general and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who excoriated the president for staging “a conflict—a false conflict—between the military and civilian society…[that] erodes the moral ground that ensures a trusted bond between men and women in uniform and the society they are sworn to protect, and of which they themselves are a part.” And the calls for a robust military response seemed to cool.

Which leads us to Portland, in which non-military federal forces have been deployed in response to protests instead. Unlike the military, federal forces seemed eager to engage, and eager to cast the dispute in extreme terms  (“When 9/11 occurred, our folks did not quibble about whether there was danger ahead for them,” wrote David L. Bowdich, the deputy director of the FBI). The move seems to have only inflamed opposition, rather than cooled it. But given the seeming excitement of some politicians at the prospect of the federal government supposedly finally doing battle with Antifa (or, if Antifa’s not around, a non-threatening Navy-veteran like Christopher David, who was attacked by federal officers), perhaps that’s the point.

Risa, you’ve written about the use of both military and paramilitary forces around the world in both democratic and non-democratic countries, and how that might guide our thinking on what’s occurring here. What do you think our concerns should be, and how should we be responding as citizens?

Risa Brooks: Matt and Phil, it has been eerie watching the events in the past two months—Trump’s threats to sick the military on protesters in Washington DC and then the brutal actions by DHS and other federal forces in Portland. As Phil mentions, I study armed forces in both democracies and non-democracies, which is unusual for an academic. I often have to do some convincing that there are commonalities, but not now. Trump’s tactics come straight from the autocrat’s playbook.

Let me start with what happened in June. Protests had been occurring across the country in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers. There were instances of looting and property destruction, especially early on. It was bad, but nothing close to the scale of what occurred in Los Angeles in 1992 after police officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King, which was the last time regular military forces participated in quelling civil disturbances.

No matter what the military does in the event of a messy election, part or all of it is going to end up on someone’s side, or at least be perceived that way. In an age of zero-sum politics, there is no neutral ground; no high road to take.

State governors sent the National Guard to DC to help with the protests; well, mostly Republican state governors sent forces to DC. Trump then starts trumpeting the Insurrection Act, suggesting he is going to invoke it and deploy the active-duty (regular) military to the streets. Troops from the 82nd Airborne Division arrive in the DC area—armed with bayonets. We get the infamous photo-op with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in Lafayette Square. Trump’s ally Senator Tom Cotton writes his absurdly offensive op-ed in the New York Times calling for Trump to send in the troops. Esper talks about “dominating the battlespace” on a call with Trump and a group of governors.

Unbelievable, right?

Behind the scenes, Esper along with Milley are scrambling to keep Trump from sending active-duty troops to the streets by ramping up the National Guard response. Two Guard helicopters demonstrate “presence” by hovering low over citizens in DC neighborhoods—tactics usually reserved for operations in war zones.

Esper then gives a presser in which he says it is not necessary for the 82nd Airborne to police Americans. I think, wow, he must have been feeling some serious push-back from the brass. He’s a political appointee, after all.

So, the military says no. Trump, we aren’t doing this. We aren’t going to use our weapons to abet your autocratic inclinations. We aren’t that kind of military.

None of this really surprises me, knowing what I do about the US military and militaries in general. No well institutionalized military, even in an autocracy, likes to take part in domestic policing. They leave that to the security forces (more on them below). Plus, protecting civilians is deeply ingrained in US military culture. Part of the response also reflects the oath taken by service members to safeguard the Constitution. Actually, we heard a lot about the Constitution in June, especially from the retired military leaders that Phil mentioned. I might be the only one of my colleagues rattled when I hear these invocations from generals that “we answer to the Constitution.” You see, that is how the Latin American militaries in the 1960s and 1970s justified intervening in politics—they needed to protect the state from venal politicians. I am not saying that the US military is thinking of such a thing. It just resonates badly.

That brings us to Portland. At the end of June Trump signed an executive order giving DHS the authority to protect monuments. Trump’s Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf seems almost giddy about his newly sanctioned repressive prerogatives. Members of US Customs and Border Protection and other federal forces are sent to Portland. They arrive wearing camouflage and looking like military wannabes, which by the way really perturbs the Pentagon leadership. In fact, it reminded me of something that happened in Tunisia during the 2011 uprising against the country’s dictator. The regime had been putting uniforms on the hated and very brutal police so they would look more like the popular military that refused to kill civilian protesters. I wondered if DHS leadership had selected the camo on purpose.

Again, Trump’s machinations with the coercive sector (as we sometimes call it) were not completely surprising. Aspiring autocrats often try and cultivate loyalist security forces—police forces, intelligence apparatuses, paramilitaries. These are usually housed in Interior Ministries and compete with the regular military, who disdain them. But here’s the thing. While the tactics are nothing novel, would I have ever expected to see this happening in the contemporary US—using federal forces as some kind of loyalist paramilitary or agent of domestic repression? I think no, no way (but then I also remember Fred Hampton’s murder and the 1960s-era federal surveillance program called COINTELPRO). Still, it was jarring and disturbing to see the completely unapologetic way that Trump and his allies embraced the show of force.

What is next according to the playbook? We might see Trump call out his civilian militia. Autocrats often have large groups of civilian informants and thugs that they call to the streets when needed. There’s a bunch out there ready and willing to fight for Trump. During the Covid pandemic some of them have made appearances in state capitols protesting the indignity of having to wear a mask, or the deprivations of not being able to go to the bar.

I suspect the military may in the end find itself on the streets. If Trump follows through on his threats to play dirty with the election, it is going to be a mess. We could see political violence, involving some combination of protesters, armed vigilante groups, self-described militia, state and local police, non-military federal forces, National Guard and yes, the regular military.

If I was in the Pentagon, I would be fretting and planning. Lessons from abroad suggest political violence of this kind could put a lot of pressure on the military’s cohesion. Partisanship is a powerful opiate, as we know. It exists in the military, and like it or not, some soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen are going to want to come to Trump’s defense—no matter how many times leadership tells them to stay “apolitical.” I saw today the head of some veteran’s organization with 300,000 Twitter followers calling for the election to be postponed. The next wall of vets that appears in an American city might not be on the side of protesters.

One thing I know from my studies: when the military becomes enmeshed in domestic politics, it rarely ends well.

Phil Klay: Risa, Matt… ok, that’s fascinating and disturbing. I want to see if I can separate out a few things you said and examine them a little more closely.

The first is about specifically who is responding to the protests. Most of those defending the president emphasize the sub-group of protesters who have committed unacceptable acts of vandalism and violence. In this telling, the federal response is “not ritual chest-beating… it’s the law.” Of course, this ignores how the president’s response has made the situation worse (apparently being president is about good intentions, not results). But that’s somewhat orthogonal to your concerns.

We’re told from day one of basic training we’re better than dirty, lazy, soft civilians.

In terms of democratic norms, having local law enforcement respond to violence is very different from having the military or federal law enforcement handle the same task, especially when it’s done in opposition to the desires of local government. When you add in that some of the particular units employed, like ICE agents, are increasingly thought of as the agents of our unpopular president’s most divisive policies, rather than as representatives of the public as a whole, you have a very dangerous situation brewing. In that sense, you could have sympathy for the individual federal agent charged with the task of protecting public property from the people throwing fireworks, flares and rocks, and still feel that the president’s tactics in this regard are a dangerous authoritarian precedent which ought to be condemned on behalf of our democracy. Forceful protest against out-of-town troops imposing themselves upon cities and municipalities against their will is, after all, a not-insignificant part of our American heritage.

I don’t see the future so starkly, though, especially when it comes to civilian militias. The majority of right-wing protesters have been peaceful as well, with the main drivers of violence being primarily disorganized opportunists. Ideologies are often attached to these folks, but the best explanation for their actions might be Auberon Waugh’s: “‘Senseless’ is a word usually applied to these acts, but when one grasps the simple proposition that vandals obviously enjoy breaking things, then vandalism is no more senseless than playing tennis.”

And that’s one of the dispiriting things about the current moment. As you point out, the stakes for our citizenry and our democracy are very high, but so many of those involved seem to be playacting. Trump’s stunt in Lafayatte Square was certainly authoritarian, but the master plan behind it was to stage a bizarre photo of Trump holding a Bible as naturally as my mother-in-law might carry a live lobster. This was no fire at the Reichstag, unless the original Nazi intent was to use the fire not to seize control of government, but to arrange a glamour shot of Hitler with Marlene Dietrich.

Meanwhile, in Portland, kids pretend they’re fighting fascism by aiming lasers at federal officers’ eyes while conservatives pretend the president is restoring “LAW AND ORDER” by carrying out the most ham-handed attempt to deal with a protest imaginable. In the near term, I’m not worried about authoritarian takeover, but these events have shown just how weakened our institutions have become, how damaged important agencies have been by partisan capture, and how much threat a more organized and competent authoritarian, who is playing for real and not just for the cameras, could be.

With so much spectacle, it’s hard to tell what’s a real threat and what’s not. Except, of course, when the state’s heavy hand, or knee, comes down on an American citizen’s neck, and stays there. That’s when we need the voices of those engaged in serious, thoughtful, organized pushes for widespread policy reform elevated so that we can respond productively to citizens’ demands. Instead, those voices all too often get drowned out by the spectacle. And that, as well, is a threat to our democracy.

MG: Good morning Risa and Phil. Since we began corresponding, the war come home continues to rage. Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf had to shut down an operation collecting intel on American journalists covering the Portland protests, thanks to a Washington Post story.  And our President, in between “LAW AND ORDER!!!” Tweets that read like bad remixes of Nixon’s Greatest Hits, threatened to keep federal agents in Portland as long as he desired, despite a previously agreed-upon phased withdrawal.

It doesn’t take an expert here to see the political strategy at work: images of chaotic cities (that are going to vote blue regardless, by the numbers) broadcast to suburban voters that are vital to Trump’s reelection bid. Fear and division, fear and division. Meanwhile, Wolf has gone full Generalissimo with quotes like, “Our men and women in uniform are patriots. We will never surrender to violent extremists on my watch.” This is language lifted straight from post-9/11 yellow ribbon America, when any whiff of antiwar dissent or consideration was shouted down in star-spangled banalities.

I’m really glad Risa brought up the civilian militias (many of which are filled by military veterans), because they’re such a strange, ubiquitous presence this summer. The Post recently ran a deep-dive into this phenomenon out west, and it’s a fascinating, nuanced look into the views that populate this world. It’s jarring in the expected ways but also a bit silly at points—can you imagine being a Homeland Security officer coming off a 12-hour shift walking the night streets of Portland, only to be handed a “homemade medal of valor” by some pretender with a gun and a sewing kit?

With so much spectacle, it’s hard to tell what’s a real threat and what’s not. Except, of course, when the state’s heavy hand, or knee, comes down on an American citizen’s neck, and stays there.

I mention this article because it touches upon something I think often gets lost in critiques of veterans and armed militias—it’s not really a unified push! As much as these various groups don’t like liberals and “woke vets” (a pejorative both Phil and I receive on Twitter, with some frequency), they also tend to not like one another. The story shares an anecdote of a right-wing, pro-Second Amendment libertarian being beaten up by white nationalists, and shows a picture of a fistfight in Ohio between a boogaloo boi and members of the Proud Boys—two fringe-right, extreme groups, no doubt, but ones with different agendas and goals. Some of these men and groups are indeed racist hate organizations. Others just consider themselves strict Constitutionalists, something I was exposed to a fair amount growing up in Nevada.

For example, I can’t have been the only one pleasantly baffled by infamous anti-government rancher Ammon Bundy expressing vociferous support for Black Lives Matter and the concepts underlying “Defund the Police.” He subsequently received a bunch of blowback from other fringe right-wingers and their associated groups, because well, grand divisions over small differences isn’t something only the left can claim.

Now, all these guns and egos and testosterone is a recipe for sudden violence, of course, as we saw in June in New Mexico. The New York Times just ran an editorial asking DHS to stop wearing camouflage, one reason being they look so much like the civilian militia members. But in lieu of a large, unifying event—like, say, a contested presidential election—I’m skeptical we’d see the militias unite en masse. They sort of tried that in Charlottesville in 2017, and that was a disaster in many ways, the stated goal to “Unite the Right” among them. Now, in my novel Empire City, which is set in an alternate America, there is a unified civilian militia and it functions in many of the same ways Risa outlines has occurred in other countries. It’s a legitimate, anti-democratic threat that Trump is not above tapping into, if he feels he can. So any and all thinking citizens should be on our guard for this. Until then, there will be more Walls of Veterans at these brouhahas, some with the protestors, some representing the government, and some walking the edges with the various militias—and even those in that last group may well find themselves there for opposing agendas and reasoning.

One tangential point but one near and dear to my stubborn Irish heart: how much is our all-volunteer force responsible for this Us vs. Them attitude pervasive in both the militias’ mentalities and some of the government force’s actions? We’re told from day one of basic training we’re better than dirty, lazy, soft civilians. Is it any wonder some veterans with hard ideologies held onto that and let it form part of the bedrock of their post-service identity? Many thinkers smarter than me tend to tsk-tsk a return to a military draft, for some very keen reasons. But that doesn’t mean that what we have now is working the way it was designed to, nor that we’re not seeing some unintended consequences playing out in American streets. Not all the rank-and-file are going to be open to the idea that they’re just a regular citizen again, like any other.

RB: Hello again Matt and Phil. I am going to begin where Matt ended—with his reflection on the all-volunteer force and its relationship with American society. Any conversation on that topic needs to start with the character of the military today. Prior to World War II, the country did not maintain a substantial standing army, consistent with what the country’s founders intended. This changed after the war. Even after demobilizing millions at the war’s end, the US military remained much bigger than in the past and from that time assumed an increasingly central role in American society and politics. As Kori Schake recently put it, the US military is enormously influential, whereas “militaries in other democracies tend to be more domesticated, less salient in policymaking and less popular.” Consequently, being a service member today means that one belongs to a large, powerful and socially respected institution.

In addition, in 1973 the draft was abolished and the military since has been comprised of self-selected volunteers. It has concomitantly become geographically, politically and demographically less representative of society—more Southern and Midwestern, more conservative (especially its officers), and more like a warrior caste as military service gets passed down through families. Civil-military relations scholars refer to this as a “civil-military gap.” But it is more than a gap; it’s also somewhat of a perversity. While Americans revere the military (despite knowing little about it), that respect is not always mutual. As Matt relates, soldiers are told from day one that they are better than their civilian counterparts. As political and military leaders often put it in their speeches to military audiences, if you serve, then you are the best and the brightest the country has to offer—or, as the US Army Reserve captures it, as a soldier, you are “Twice the Citizen.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly for these reasons, surveys since the 1990s have shown that a sizable percentage of military personnel disparage what they describe as their indolent and selfish civilian peers. Now, there are plenty who do not think this way (Matt and Phil, I count you among them), but it is a real problem—one that causes significant angst among civil-military relations scholars. I had not considered before Matt’s point about how that mindset might carry-over into civilian life and contribute to some veterans’ attraction to militia activity. What a simultaneously intriguing and disturbing thought.

I recently finished writing a review of a book by Paul Dickson called Rise of the G.I. Army, 1940-1941. It is about the building of the Army from basically nothing in the 18 months prior to World War II. There is a lot in the book about Gen. George C. Marshall, who was then Army chief of staff. Marshall had a great affection and faith in his citizen-army—an army that would be drawn from the citizenry in a time of war and would dissolve back into it afterwards. It was a capable army, contra the contemporary view of military professionalism that assumes only a military insulated from society can develop the expertise to excel in armed conflict. While I tend to be wary of all the mythologizing that occurs with respect to World War II’s greatest generation, I nonetheless have become a fan of their citizen-army. The military needs to find a path back to the culture and ethos of that kind of military, even if that entails making major changes in its character.

I suspect the relationship between the US military and American society is going to change, potentially soon. The catalyst may be the coming election, especially in the event of intense political contentiousness, or violence. I continue to worry about civilian militia groups making things worse—what they might do when unified by a shared cause, even if they sometimes squabble today. I also can’t imagine Trump counseling restraint when confronted with a subset of militia members eager to use their weapons to defend him.

Perhaps if Trump is unsure that the military will come to his aid, he will keep it out of things in November. Still, I doubt the military can avoid being implicated. No matter what the military does in the event of a messy election, part or all of it is going to end up on someone’s side, or at least be perceived that way. In an age of zero-sum politics, there is no neutral ground; no high road to take. Consequently, while not impossible, it is hard for me to see how the military sustains the remarkable, mostly bipartisan support it has enjoyed since the 1990s. That support seems likely to polarize in one way or another.

Finally, Phil, I appreciate the gentle reminder that while some federal agents have been recklessly violent, others have exercised self-control when faced with provocateurs amidst Portland’s protesters. I also appreciate the good-faith effort to consider whether the federal response might have been justified, given the vandalism and property destruction that has occurred. But I remain unconvinced. I don’t think Trump and his accomplices give a rat’s ass if Portland is destroyed. Trump’s response is not about differences in philosophy on how best to restore order in a turbulent city. It is about inciting calamities in blue states in order to win over voters in other states.

Also, I am not sure it matters whether Trump truly inhabits an authoritarian mindset, or is simply playacting to see what he can get away with. That distinction seems mostly irrelevant in a time of so much polarization and mistrust of institutions and when Trump has so many eager enablers. Regardless of whether Trump is an actual dictator, or is merely posing as one, the results have been devastating.

On that cheerful note, I will close our correspondence.

With respect and hope for a better future,



Risa Brooks is Allis Chalmers Associate Professor of Political Science at Marquette University, an adjunct scholar at West Point’s Modern War Institute (2017-2020), and a non-resident senior associate in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. Her research focuses on US and global/comparative civil-military relations and political violence. For more on US civil-military relations, you can view (ungated) her recent article in the journal International Security, “Paradoxes of Professionalism: Rethinking Civil-Military Relations in the United States.”

Matt Gallagher is the author of the novels Empire City and Youngblood, a finalist for the 2016 Dayton Literary Peace Prize. His work has appeared in Esquire, The Atlantic, The New York Times and Wired, among other places. He’s also the author of the Iraq war memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son.


Phil Klay is the author of the forthcoming novel Missionaries, out in October from Penguin Press. A veteran of the US Marine Corps, his short story collection Redeployment won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. He currently teaches fiction at Fairfield University.