Is the US government ready to handle another January 6th? This is the thought-provoking question raised by a new documentary at the Sundance film festival, which suggests that government and military leaders need to be prepared for the potential of a political coup in a polarized America.
The film “War Game”, directed by Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber, documents a realistic scenario where a group of government officials simulate their response to an armed attack on the Capitol building, inspired by the events of January 6th, 2021. This exercise involved a bipartisan group of defense, intelligence, and elected policymakers from five previous presidential administrations, and focused on how they would handle a political coup initiated by rogue members of the US military following a disputed election.
The Vet Voice Foundation, an organization that supports military veterans in their civic leadership and policy efforts, created an exercise to assist US government officials in preparing for a threat to democracy like the one that occurred on January 6. This exercise also aims to educate officials about the potential of extremist behavior among members of the military. The accompanying film highlights the fact that one out of every five individuals arrested for their involvement in the Capitol attack were veterans.
According to Kristofer Goldsmith, a combat veteran from the Iraq war who created the “red cell” of insurgents in the game, the events of January 6 were not unexpected for those familiar with the far-right movement. The game, called War Game, begins with footage of Goldsmith and his colleague Chris Jones scouting out Washington DC to simulate how a potential attack fueled by social media and conspiracy theories could unfold. Drawing on their expertise on domestic extremist movements, Goldsmith and Jones based their mock insurgent group, the Order of Columbus, on groups like Q-Anon, Donald Trump’s Maga movement, and far-right groups involved in the Capitol attack such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers.
In January 2023, a war simulation was held at a hotel in Washington, DC. It depicted a fictional scenario on January 6, 2025, where the Order of Columbus launches an attack on Congress to prevent the certification of President Hotham (played by former Montana governor Steve Bullock) after a disputed election. As the president, Bullock is in a war room with advisors, intelligence officers, and military leaders. They must make decisions on how to handle a series of escalating threats, such as the storming of the Capitol with assistance from rogue national guard members, fake news on social media, and coordinated uprisings in state capitols. They also have to deal with a rival candidate similar to Trump inciting more violence and a video from a high-ranking general resembling Michael Flynn, a former Trump official and speaker at the Stop the Steal rally, urging the military to defy the commander in chief.
Benjamin Radd, a game producer who experienced Iran’s 1979 revolution as a child, explains that the purpose of this exercise is to consider improbable scenarios. In the midst of a collapse of stability and institutional authority, do you react with a display of strength? And if so, to what extent? Is it more effective to focus on messaging? At what point does the situation become dire enough to warrant invoking the Insurrection Act, a law that permits the president to deploy the US military against its own citizens, seen as the ultimate solution in the game.
Part of the reason for this is the potential for misuse by those with malicious intentions. The documentary highlights how Stewart Rhodes, the creator of the Oath Keepers, personally urged Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act in order to prevent the certification of Biden’s election. He also promised that the Oath Keepers would stand behind him if he took action. Rhodes, a Yale-educated ex-paratrooper who formed the extremist organization (which includes active and retired military members, law enforcement, and emergency responders) in 2009, was found guilty of seditious conspiracy for his involvement in the Capitol riot.
The 94-minute movie includes discussions with creators and players about their reasons for combating domestic extremism and their perception of the nation’s susceptibility to aggressive, anti-democratic groups. Goldsmith expresses concern over the potential danger posed by a small number of military members who subscribe to extremist beliefs and join far-right movements.
According to Linda L Singh, a retired major general of the Maryland army national guard, hoping that extremist beliefs within the armed forces will simply disappear is not a realistic expectation.
The movie emphasizes that although a political coup may not occur soon, it is crucial to acknowledge that the US is not immune to such an event. The recurring idea is that it could happen in our country. Heidi Heitkamp, a previous senator from North Dakota who portrays a senior advisor to President Bullock, states, “Is it likely? Probably not. Is it possible? Definitely.”
The movie “War Game” will be shown at the Sundance Film Festival and is looking for a distributor.