On Monday, Jordan Neely, an unarmed 30-year-old homeless man with a long history of mental illness, yelled at subway riders on the northbound F train in New York City. A 24-year-old United States Marine Corps veteran intervened, placing Neely in a chokehold for several minutes. By the time the train pulled into the Broadway-Lafayette station beneath Manhattan’s hip NoHo neighborhood, Neely was unconscious. He was transported to Lenox Hill Hospital where he was pronounced dead. The incident was ruled a homicide.
The details are still coming out, and it is impossible to comment substantively on what happened, though that isn’t stopping hordes of pundits from trying. The story has dominated headlines this week, animating arguments from those horrified by the callous killing of an unarmed man, those who see racial motivations at play (Neely was Black, the veteran who choked him is white), and those who see a justified attempt to respond to a city in the midst of a perceived crisis brought on by soaring crime (though the city’s actual crime picture is more complicated), homelessness, and mental illness in the wake of the pandemic.
But what troubles me is that the veteran status of the assailant who choked Neely is front and center in some of the most disturbing commentary from those on the political right, ranging from professional provocateur Mike Cernovich to less colorful yet relatively popular conservative pundits like writer Scott Greer, the Daily Wire’s Megan Basham, and podcaster/Federalist writer Inez Stepman. The man who fought Neely could be identified as “a man,” “a bystander,” or, charitably, “a concerned citizen.” He is not.
In many tweets and news headlines, he is identified as “the Marine” who “recognized this guy as a dangerous menace” or “A former Marine” who “intervened vs a subway psycho” or “a brave Marine who acted in his & others’ defense.”
It is this man’s “Marineness,” his status as a military veteran, that is being singled out for relevance, as if he could have acted no other way, and as if it is the training and culture of service members to choke unarmed men into unconsciousness.
This is not true.
In fact, the use of force possibly out of proportion to a threat, creating a media firestorm that casts discredit on the person applying that force, is the polar opposite of how I was trained and antithetical to the culture in which I served as a military member, as a private military contractor, and as an armed intelligence officer serving with the Defense Intelligence Agency in Iraq.
I can’t speak to why this man intervened and choked Neely. But I do know this: Neither the military nor any of the vast network of PMC firms or paramilitary federal agencies that conduct operations side-by-side with it taught this man to choke an unarmed civilian into unconsciousness, unless the military I served in has radically transformed since my discharge in 2020.
The Rules of Engagement I was taught and was made to memorize rigidly emphasized the importance of due care when using force, even in a war zone. I was endlessly reminded that my actions had to be “proportional to the provocation” and “designed to limit the scope and intensity of the conflict.” Both at private training at “the Crucible” and on government military bases, when I qualified to use any small arms, we repeated the same exercise: Paper targets were run out before us, bladed sideways. Suddenly, they would pivot, showing images of either combatants or civilians. “Look at their hands,” our instructors warned us again and again; “don’t look at their faces.” Because it was their hands that would be holding a gun or a detonator … or a camera, a newspaper, or a bottle of water—not a threat, even when the image showed that the civilian was cocking an arm to throw it at us.
We had just seconds to a make a decision to pull the trigger or hold fire, and if we put a single bullet through the chest or head of a journalist with a microphone that at a glance certainly looked like a weapon, we failed the course and were sent home. Ditto for the Firearms Training Simulator, a video-based system that had us firing air-pressure-loaded cartridges at video screens, where even a single hit on a civilian would be the end of the line.
Just after my first spin in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus co-authored the new manual for the counterinsurgency age, wherein military members would routinely find themselves in situations much like that on the F train on Monday afternoon. In this new world, someone trained to use professional violence would find themselves having to make a split-second decision when encountering a civilian in obvious crisis. The COIN manual is widely criticized, but it set the tone for proportionality in the post–War on Terror period, and it is unambiguous in its instruction:
The principle of proportionality requires that the anticipated loss of life and damage to property incidental to attacks must not be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage expected to be gained. Proportionality and discrimination require combatants not only to minimize the harm to noncombatants but also to make positive commitments to
· Preserve noncombatant lives by limiting the damage they do.
· Assume additional risk to minimize potential harm.
The abuses of American military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan are well documented. And indeed, manuals and formal doctrine do not always match institutional culture. But I can tell you from my personal experience that these horrible incidents are exceptions. When it comes to proportionality and the strict forbidding of excessive force against civilians, the vast majority of people in the military follow the rules.
Perhaps the best example of this was the outpouring of testimony by fellow U.S. Navy SEALs of Alpha Platoon, SEAL Team 7, against their rogue colleague, Special Operations Chief Eddie Gallagher, who was convicted of posing for a photograph with a corpse in 2019. But despite the details of that conviction, Gallagher’s brother SEALs at times tearfully described him shooting civilians and stabbing a captive to death. The bond between special operators cannot be overstated; to bear witness against one of your own speaks volumes about the immensity of Gallagher’s violation of military cultural norms. When Trump pardoned Gallagher, the Navy made an effort to remove him from the SEALs anyway (though the effort was eventually abandoned), further underscoring the seriousness of what Gallagher had done from a military cultural perspective.
Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th-century strategist whose thinking underpins much of American and global military culture, famously wrote that “war is a continuation of politics by other means.” It is in part a nod to the military’s pivotal noncombat role, and indicates that warfighters are often unintended diplomats and ambassadors for their nation’s policy. At DIA (where American military attachés are trained), we were constantly reminded that every time we put on a uniform or spoke of our veteran status, we represented the country, whether we liked it or not. The saying went, “We are all attachés.”
In all my training, I was never taught to use a chokehold on an unarmed opponent. But the military is vast and combative training varies between services and even units. It is possible that the man who killed Jordan Neely used skills he acquired in the military.
But where he acquired the capacity doesn’t matter. The way he acted is not the way armed service members are trained to act, and anyone claiming that his status as a Marine indicates a kind of professionalism either doesn’t know what they’re talking about or is deliberately obfuscating what it means to have military training in interacting with civilians under duress. The public discourse implying that his actions were in any way in accord with the doctrine and culture of the military—and the legion of institutions, public and private, whose armed members support its mission at home and around the world—is absolutely false.