The shooter who perpetrated America’s latest mass murder by gun—in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday—wasn’t a right-wing domestic extremist or white supremacist, like the 18-year-old killer in Buffalo just 10 days ago. He wasn’t a terrorist-inspired jihadist, like the two killers in San Bernardino seven years ago. He wasn’t somewhere in the middle, like the killer in Orlando six years ago. He was, by early accounts, a severely bullied kid who took his revenge by doing what many of these killers do: dressing up in the toughest, meanest costume that he knew: that of an American special operator.
In fact, many of these murderers act and dress like they’re going on a high-value target assault mission, from the signature AR-15 rifle (civilian counterpart to the military’s M16) to the hat, vest, gloves, and cargo pants of full tactical battle rattle. Too many American males fetishize the SOF-warrior aesthetic, and so perhaps it could help–and bear with me–if leaders in the special operations community do more to call out these pretenders for the stolen valor that this is, and tell the public: stop acting like us, stop dressing like us, and stop trying to shoot like us.
You see the costume particularly among the violence-oriented right-wing white nationalists whose numbers exploded during the Trump years, some of whom have actually served in the military but the vast majority of whom are not. Just look at the Kevlar-and-helmet-wearing rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Or check out the openly armed idiots who storm-walked into the Michigan capitol over COVID mask mandates. It only gets worse with those Boogaloo boys whose Hawaiian shirts peep from under their PPE to signal that they’re not really going to kill anyone with the military-style weapons they tote.
But you also see SOF-chic among harmless everyday fellas who say they just like to shoot guns and love America. You see it on paid Instagram hotties, posing in bikinis and American flag tank tops with semi-automatic weapons. The warrior fetish has even gone so mainstream that a version of it—“warcore”—is now embraced by alternative kids, like the new goth, apparently:
Influenced by techno clubs, military-esque looks, video games and Japanese street style; techcore, darkcore and warcore focus on dressing for imminent doom. Think: cargo pants with pockets you can actually use, layered utility belts, bomber jackets with secret compartments, combat boots and surgical masks. If the end of the world is going to happen on the way to the shops, these kids will be prepared.
Whatever the origin, being dressed to kill is now a style choice. And you see it on these lost boys who turn into mass murderers. Modern schoolyard killers like the Columbine shooters in 1999 first were described as “kids who sometimes wore trench coats,” looking more like Neo in The Matrix, but with an arsenal of guns and bombs for what the Denver Post called their “twisted commando mission.” Their style was invoked in 2007 by the mentally disturbed 23-year-old who sent photos of himself to NBC News dressed in black and tan, with handguns, a holster, and a tactical-looking ammo vest. Then he murdered 33 people at Virginia Tech. In 2018, the Parkland shooter donned a black Kevlar vest to match his baseball cap as he stalked children floor by floor, like an operator clearing rooms in Fallujah. (Disclosure: a close relative of mine was on the campus that day.)
Clothes don’t make a murder, obviously, but in the public arena, images matter. Often in the aftermath of American shootings, those who glorify guns are attacked by those who hate guns and gun violence. It can quickly get messy. Civilians who love their guns too much for others are called “gun nuts” and those who display military fandom a bit too much are derided as irrational fanboys of war. The generic machismo of the American male who fetishizes the Seal Team Six-look and embraces military-chic, critics argue, are part of the problem. To the wannabes and pretenders, dressing up like a U.S. special operator is cool. To the real world, they are dangerous man-children playing with lethality that is designed for two things: self-protection for U.S. troops and law enforcement officers, and killing.
Americans should know the difference between professional soldiering and mass murdering. But this nation desensitized to gun violence needs resensitizing. Special operations community leaders could speak up more loudly and publicly to deride the weekend warriors, partisan demonstrators, and yes, mass murderers, who try to be like them. We should hear more about the responsibility of being an actual warrior who is trained and disciplined to kill. Speak about the seriousness in that legally-sanctioned mission. Tell Americans about the earned privilege of wearing the uniform, donning the gear, and, yes, holding the weapons of a special operator.
To me, anyone who dresses like an operator, acts like an operator, posts selfies emulating operators, is guilty of fraud akin to stolen valor. This isn’t comicon. Some will laugh at them, but imagine if these fools were shamed with the same intensity aimed at someone wearing dress blues and medals they did not earn. You want to dress like an elite warrior? Great, go earn it.
In December 2020, I asked two leading moderate conservatives in the national security community about the special ops warrior aesthetic seen so often among American right-wing extremists and President Donald Trump’s embrace of them. It was about one month after Trump lost his re-election, just weeks before the Jan. 6 insurrection.
“Those are both big problems for mild, moderate, middle-of-the-road Republicans,” said AEI’s Kori Schake, in an interview for the virtual Defense One Summit. “But it’s veterans and the defense establishment that are the counter to that,” she said, and “to confront those tendencies.”
“The difference is whether the leaders of the party or our elected leaders embrace them, ignore them, or repudiate them,” said Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for a New American Security and former advisor to the late Sen. John McCain. Trump “has embraced that view,” he said. Fontaine was less worried about such groups existing than that they have “political salience.” It’s up to political leaders to marginalize such groups, he said.
Three months later, after the Jan. 6 insurrection, Schake and Michael Robinson, a West Point professor, criticized tactical-geared extremists, saying, “Appropriating military iconography, equipment and cultural symbols, they attempt to benefit from the military’s credibility while posing as inheritors of a proud American military tradition.”
One of the legacies of the post-9/11 era is the indelible image of the U.S. special operator, with history and valor worth protecting. Reclaiming that image as their own may not stop the next mass murder by a gunman. But it may lessen the chance the next angry young man thinks he will receive anything but shame if puts on the costume of a warrior–or a killer.