Review- Belew, “Bring the War Home”

Kathleen Belew, “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America” (2018) – This is a very interesting and provocative book, both for the many qualities that have earned it much praise and for some issues it raises in my mind. It is, among other things, an important new sally in the historical profession’s march on the 1980s and 1990s. Belew traces the development and growth of what she calls the White Power movement, an umbrella term for racist groups both old (like the Klan) and new (paramilitaries like the Order), militias, anti-immigrant and anti-government radicals, etc.

“Bring the War Home” advances a few theses worth talking about, and the one that I think works the best is also the one most of the reviews I’ve read emphasize. Belew periodizes the White Power movement as having its origins with the end of the Vietnam War. The end of the war brought together a number of elements: anti-communism; fear and resentment of social movements (especially those led by women and people of color); a sense of shame, defeat, and betrayal, and a number of young men experienced in brutal guerilla war now at home and at loose ends; and angst over the defeat in Vietnam. Between them, a new variation on the old theme of white reactionary violence was born. So instead of mobs of whites burning down black neighborhoods, you had white paramilitaries forming (sometimes people like Louis Beam paramilitarizing preexisting groups like the Klan, sometimes new groups) to pursue a sort of guerrilla war against a wide variety of enemies. Sometimes this meant fighting leftists at home, sometimes this meant signing up to fight leftists abroad in Central America or Southern Africa, which brought the emerging white supremacist paramilitary culture into contact with the American intelligence establishment (not always for the first time).

Eventually, the main target for the White Power paramilitary culture became the US government itself. Belew argues that this was a transition- that the White Power movement before the early 1980s understood itself as helping the government against communism. She’s a little fuzzy as to why — mostly alluding to disappointment in Ronald Reagan — and I’m not sure I buy it. There was a lot of anti-fed sentiment coming out of the sixties, due to the genuine crimes of the FBI and, in the right, the federal governments role in ending formal segregation. I grant that the emphasis of the movements attentions might have changed… or maybe it’s better to say it congealed more into a movement during the eighties, though again, the why is a little unclear. We know what we saw, though- Klansmen and Neonazis burying the hatchet (the former used to regard the latter as unpatriotic) and both making common cause with skinheads, “race realists,” militia types etc.

Belew’s most debatable thesis, for me, is that the White Power movement acts as a body, much more so than most analysis lets on. I want to be careful here. I one hundred percent agree that the movement as a whole is responsible for the supposed “lone wolves” who commit much of its violence. And I agree that there is much more collusion among groups than is commonly understood. Belew does admirable pick and shovel work, especially with the early far-right internet (they were enthusiastic early adopters of BBS systems, etc) and the distribution of cash by the Order, a notorious neonazi gang who mounted a massive armored car robbery in the eighties and who spent years wandering around, giving stacks of greenbacks to every fascist asshole who promised to make trouble with it.

I still think she overstates her case. Not in terms of culpability- as far as I’m concerned, they can all hang together. But I think positing that people like McVeigh or the Order were soldiers acting as part of an army that links the whole white power movement misses important organizational aspects of what makes the far right what it is. It also leads Belew to stretch her reasoning more than she does in most of the book- not out of bounds, but some. But I think there is an altogether different organizational logic to far-right violence… the nongovernmental kind, anyway.

I think of it as milieux- overlapping social circles with varying degrees of institutionalization and porous boundaries with other in-milieu groups. It’s not uncommon to see someone in the klan and in a Nazi group, or a “Proud Boy” and a III percenter for that matter, at the same time. Action is more often motivated by dreams and fantasies — like the omnipresent Turner Diaries, which many of these people are literally trying to act out — than by a political program. When actions are based in concrete logic, they’re usually something local and grubby- terrorizing Vietnamese refugee fisherman for an easy win (didn’t turn out so easy once the SPLC got involved) or knocking over armored cars. Moving forward means walking a fine line between entertaining the fantasies and working with realities. This model works especially well for right-wing militants. Even if they want to destroy an established order (in the name of a better, older one), they don’t generally need to go all the way their own- they can destabilize the social order and let “natural” hierarchy reassert itself, something the left generally can’t do unless they’re going full Khemer Rouge.

I can’t really blame Belew for not getting into this organizational stuff, both because she has her own ideas around which she already wrote a very good book, and because I find it at the edge of my ability to articulate in any event. There’s also the risk of going to the culturalist extreme, analyzing the fantasies at the expense of the concrete realities. But I don’t think it should be insurmountable, and I hope later histories that tackle the same subject give some more thought to the way that political vision, circumstances, and practice inform each other to create many varieties of new forms. ****’

Review- Belew, “Bring the War Home”

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