Ever since I returned from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, people will from time to time casually ask me what combat is like. Typically, I’ll direct them to films like “Full Metal Jacket” and “Black Hawk Down,” which, in my opinion, do a pretty good job of capturing something of the experience. Now I have another film I might recommend.
Not long after the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol, a video began circulating among veterans I know. It is a roughly 40-minute continuous shot that moves from the breach on the western staircase of the Capitol to the shooting of one of the rioters, Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran, outside the Speaker’s Lobby. When sending it, many of the veterans asked, “What does this remind you of?” I watched with my heart in my throat — the exhilaration of the participants, the chaos of a historic event playing out around you, the violence and latent presence of madness; it reminded me of combat.
I say this not to draw a political equivalency between insurrectionists and men and women in uniform — though some of the insurrectionists have turned out to be veterans — but rather to place a focus on the level of insanity we witnessed last Wednesday. Anyone who has been to war can tell you that no matter how honorably it is conducted, it is an exercise in collective insanity, where norms of civilized behavior melt away as you engage in the act of state-sanctioned killing.
The video I watched was made by a young man identifying himself as John Sullivan who goes by the moniker “Jayden X” online. His commentary runs throughout the video. After breaching the first line of barricades, he says breathlessly, “I can’t believe this is reality! We accomplished this …! We did this [expletive], together!” And then: “This is [expletive] history!” That sense of being part of history and the attendant thrill in Mr. Sullivan’s voice is certainly something that I experienced in combat.
I remember the first night of the battle in Falluja — thousands of Marines advancing into the city, jets swarming overhead and dropping their ground-shaking ordnance, and the knowledge that I was part of something that, for a moment, held the entire world in its thrall, surrounded by people who were also a part of it. We did this together. Yes, we certainly did, but we didn’t yet know the full implications of what we had done and how it would echo in our own lives and the lives of others, for years and decades to come. Violence has a long tail.
Within minutes of the first breach, the crowd pours into the Capitol. On entering an opulent conference room, Mr. Sullivan asks himself, “What reality is this?” Then, along with a crowd, he rushes into the Rotunda, and his advance is stalled as if he has hit an invisible wall. He and others are stupefied by what they see: the gilded dome above their heads, the statuary and paintings along the walls. While Trump supporters meander around him, he shouts, “What is this? What is life?” A woman, who has been filming him as he is recording her, stops and says, “I’ll give you your hug now.” They embrace and congratulate each other. Mr. Sullivan tells her to watch his YouTube channel, and she says, “You weren’t recording, were you?” and he assures her that he’ll delete their exchange.
Throughout the video, the elation of the insurrectionists is juxtaposed with the horror of the Capitol Police officers, who know they’re overwhelmed and continually seem to be falling back. This vacillation — between horror and ecstasy, not only within groups but also within individuals, attends the madness in every war, and it is the defining characteristic of this video.
Within minutes, Mr. Sullivan has pushed to the head of the crowd, which is closing in on the main legislative chambers. When they approach locked doors, he is quick to volunteer his knife to pry them open (though it is never used). Eventually, the crowd stalls at a bank of glass-paneled doors marked “Speaker’s Lobby.” Law enforcement has barricaded the corridor with office chairs and desks. Mr. Sullivan urges the police officers to step away, warning them that they’re only going to get hurt. As the crowd continues to break sections of the glass, Mr. Sullivan sees an officer aiming a pistol at the mob on the other side of the doors. He shouts, “There’s a gun!”
For 14 seconds, his camera holds steady on the gun aimed at the rioters. He doesn’t run away or push anyone else away. He simply repeats, “There’s a gun!” over and over. It’s as if the experience has left him unclear whether this is real or a dream, unable to imagine he might be the one about to get shot. Violence, up close, is surreal. Your mind struggles to comprehend its own fracturing, and so the response to the most threatening forms of danger often isn’t terror. It’s stupefaction, wonder, a sense of “Wow, look at that.”
Mr. Sullivan survives this altercation. But Ashli Babbitt does not. When a glass panel on one of the doors is completely broken, she climbs through and is shot in the neck, collapsing backward onto the floor. The video is graphic, and Mr. Sullivan is right there. His camera finally turns off as she lies dying at his feet.
After watching the video, I felt depleted. We have, each in our own way, tried to make sense of what happened politically, with impeachment proceedings underway and bipartisan condemnation of the siege on the People’s House. However, a solely political response to what occurred is insufficient. It requires an emotional understanding as well.
In a follow-up video, Mr. Sullivan, who describes himself as a supporter of Black Lives Matter, explains that he believes in “recording these situations and allowing people to see it for what it is.” Yet it is hard to square his professed politics with his actions in the video, in which he is clearly a participant, trying to help rioters penetrate more deeply into the Capitol. Right-wing conspiracy theories assert that radical left-wing elements incited the storming of the Capitol. I don’t bring up Mr. Sullivan’s stated group affiliation to lend credence to those theories, but rather to show that there is a political incoherence that characterizes events like this. It’s the same in war.
Mr. Sullivan’s political rationale for why he stormed the Capitol lasts 20 minutes and is opaque, at best. But his emotional rationale is crystal clear: “Who doesn’t want to be there for the action, right? Who doesn’t want to see a bunch of Trump supporters just [expletive] up the Capitol? … That’s why you watched it. You watched it as an action movie.”
This brand of nihilism — destruction for the sake of spectacle — is ubiquitous in war. We must avoid it. If Americans are to find any meaning in the storming of the Capitol, our leaders must salvage some good from this atrocity. And there is an opportunity to do so. The bonds of those who endure war last a lifetime, and perhaps that’s where we might move forward as a country.
A photograph from that day of Jason Crow, an Army Ranger-turned-U.S. representative, holding the hand of his colleague Susan Wild as they were trapped in the House chamber speaks to the intensity of what lawmakers of all parties endured. One can only hope that the emotion of that moment might now be harnessed into political action and a willingness for lawmakers to work together. Maybe out of this we could see Republican and Democratic collaboration on major legislation in the early days of the Biden administration — on infrastructure, stimulus, immigration — or any of the myriad issues about which petty posturing has fed our endemic political dysfunction. Perhaps it’s naïve to be hopeful, but war taught me about the importance of hope.
On my way home from my first combat deployment in Iraq, I spent the night in a transient barracks. Graffiti by those returning from combat littered the plywood walls. Scrawled in one corner in black Sharpie was a famous quote by Friedrich Nietzsche: “Anyone who fights with monsters should take care that he does not in the process become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes back into you.” I was 24 years old, and those words felt like a revelation. Reading them seemed like a first step in the process of understanding not only what I’d been through, but also this distinctly human practice: war.
Watching the storming of the Capitol felt similar to reading those words, not only in that I was understanding some new shade of human darkness, but also that I was gazing at something that, like war, had a certain inexplicable quality: It was gazing right back into me.
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