Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America is an unquestionably powerful, well-researched and must-read addition to the post-2016 upsurge in analysis and investigation of the foundations of modern fascism. Anyone seeking to understand the origins of the modern far right in the US should include this work at the top of their reading list.
The backbone of Belew’s argument is that the roots of the modern white power movement, as it is understood today, can be found in a myth that emerged in the US right in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. This story claims the US lost the war because of betrayal at home by incompetent, unpatriotic politicians, as well as the “traitorous” antiwar movement which was widely claimed to be riddled with communist agents. This narrative eerily parallels the claims made by German fascists to explain defeat in the First World War, which adherents to this myth used to scapegoat Jews and leftist Germans, and recruit disaffected veterans to their cause. This argument is not new, having been previously suggested in Alexander Reid Ross’s Against the Fascist Creep and other anti-fascist works.
But what sets Belew’s work apart from previous discussions of this theory is how she marshals impressive evidence for how central this myth was for the far right during the 1970s and 1980s. She goes beyond drawing parallels between the embittered veterans and militia participants with post-World War I German Freikorps soldiers by showing how the experiences of white power Vietnam veterans defined the movement they built.
What puts the meat on Bring the War Home is Belew’s in-depth, original research. As she describes in the introductory chapter, her information was drawn from a wide variety of difficult-to-access and, at times, unreliable sources. She uses everything from the fragmented, scattered archives of white power groups to law enforcement records and press publications. Moreover, she freely admits that some of these sources, particularly those drawn from white power groups, are unreliable, and goes to great lengths to illustrate the flaws in their claims. It’s this combination of multiple perspectives that make Belew’s argument a thorough, persuasive analysis of an often poorly understood movement.
Belew organizes Bring the War Home into three main parts. These sections are arranged chronologically, while the chapters in each discuss specific themes, developments and changes in the white power movement.
“Part I: Formation” covers the Vietnam War origins of the modern white power movement’s leaders in the wake of the downfall of the civil rights era KKK [Ku Klux Klan]. Here, she clearly illustrates how the military experiences of reactionary veterans, both from Vietnam and mercenary work in Central America and Rhodesia, formed the core of their organizing and rhetoric. This is the period when The Turner Diaries, a work with enduring influence on the white power movement to the present day, was written and around which veteran-trained white power paramilitaries were organized on a platform of anti-communist action. The Turner Diaries is critical as it both is used as a tract for dispensing ideology and serving as a stealth how-to manual for waging race war. As Belew notes, it is one of the most popular texts for the American far right.
“Part II: The War Comes Home” is when Belew demonstrates a sharp break that has shaped the US far right to the present day. In this segment, which covers actions throughout the 1980s, she shows how the white power movement shifted from being agents of the conservative status quo to declaring war on the US government in the name of the white race. Belew shows how this period inspired influential KKK paramilitary organizer Louis Beam to develop his system of “leaderless resistance.” This approach was modelled on The Turner Diaries. Under leaderless resistance, above-ground groups engaged in open political work while below-ground cells of paramilitaries engaged in acts of terrorism. Organizers could freely incite hate crimes while retaining a degree of plausible deniability, allowing them to escape legal consequences and remain active. This model was meant to preserve the movement while carrying out their goals by other means. Belew also shows how white power advocates actively recruited soldiers, stole military equipment and worked to infiltrate the armed forces.
“Part III: Apocalypse” is the climax of the work, culminating in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. Here, Belew shows how the previous work of the white power movement led to this moment, along with how it began branching out into other elements of the US right through the militia movement and evangelical Christianity. She also shows how the shift to these subcultures was part of a strategy to remain relevant in a post-Cold War world, reinforcing the white power movement’s opportunism and their close ties to the broader US right. In Belew’s analysis, the shift from anti-communism to anti-government activity was made possible by the broader rhetoric of US conservatism.
Bring the War Home provides clear examples of how the far right has adapted and developed, and the relevance of the events of the ’70s and ’80s to understanding the present day “alt-right.” Belew shows the strategies of the white right of the ’70s and ’80s are at work in the present day. The combination of above-ground agitators and recruiters, referred to as “legals” in The Turner Diaries, and underground militants engaging in violent action remains true today. Current examples of above-ground agitators include Joey Gibson and Patriot Prayer, Counter Currents Publishing, Gavin McInnes, Richard Spencer and Augustus Invictus. Underground elements, ranging from lone actors like Dylann Roof to violent groups like the Atomwaffen Division, the Proud Boys and the Rise Above Movement, are increasingly active, focusing on implementing white power through bloody violence.
The white right also laid the groundwork for using “code-switching,” appropriating elements of conservative and left-wing discourse and developing dog-whistle tactics during this period. Belew points to examples during the ’80s and ’90s in which the white right actively infiltrated the militia movement and grassroots conservatism through co-opting the language of smaller government, anti-immigration, gun rights and defending “traditional values.” Similar inroads were also made to co-opt elements of the left, including the antiwar movement, environmentalism through overpopulation, globalization and weaving veiled anti-Semitic language into critiques of international capitalism. All of these acts of discursive infiltration were achieved using coded language which, on its surface, did not appear bigoted while opening space for white power politics.
All of these methods are widely used in the present day by the modern far right. Belew’s analysis further illustrates the need to confront deeper root causes, build radical alternatives to the status quo and confront elements of the US right that continue to enable the white power movement to thrive. Though Bring the War Home doesn’t engage in full-throated systemic critique, it provides more than enough concrete examples and evidence for those seeking to make such a case.