Lone Patriot: The Short Career of an American Militiaman
by Jane Kramer
Summary: Kramer takes a look at Washington State Militia leader John Pitner. The subject has potential, but Kramer’s elitism and chronic editorializing diminish what should have been a better book.
Review: The number of U.S. militias plunged from about 900 in the mid-1990s to under 200 by 2002. Moreover, concerns about domestic terrorism had declined after the 9/11 attacks. Author Jane Kramer’s nonfiction account Lone Patriot, therefore, appeared at an inopportune time.
John Pitner & The Washington State Militia
On the first page of text, Kramer tells the reader that John Pitner “lost his liberty before he had a chance to save America” (p. 3). Thus, she sets the tone for the rest of the book both by giving away the conclusion of the story and by establishing her contempt for Pitner and his fellow “Patriots.” At least the opening provides a realistic preview.
If Pitner’s political views are bizarre, he is also unlikeable in other ways. He refuses to work, and relies on his wife, Debbie, to support their family. (John met Debbie when he was twenty and she was thirteen). The reader also learns that John’s life has been a series of disappointments and disasters, not the least of which was a troubled tour in Panama as a member of the U.S. Army. However, John is the classic “big talker” who can explain away any fact, no matter how damning.
The Washington State Militia
Pitner is little more than a con man to Kramer. He is just marginally smarter than what an FBI agent describes as the “losers’ club” (p. 25) that he leads. Indeed, John’s “make-it-up-as-you-go” directives are unintentionally funny. For instance, during the Montana Freemen’s confrontation with the feds, Pitner says that the Washington State militia will have to try to help in Montana, but that it might not be possible as he has good intelligence that the feds will “pacify” them at the Montana border with “high-frequency sound and low-frequency microwave” (p. 82).
One wonders how John got anyone to follow him. But it becomes more believable when one learns about his followers; many of them are even more pathetic than is John. For instance, when the feds finally decide to arrest the militia members, one fed – who has infiltrated the group – says that he will teach them how to get out of handcuffs, but that they will have to allow him to handcuff them first. None of the militia members thinks that it is strange that the infiltrator would make the request – or that he happens to have several pairs of handcuffs with him. So they all allow the agent to handcuff them and he singlehandedly makes the arrest.
While Lone Patriot is compelling in places, Kramer comes close to ruining her own story. She comes across as a terrible elitist and she cannot stop commenting on her dislike both for John and for the Pitner clan. The description of John’s brother, Richard Pitner, Jr. provides some idea of Kramer’s attitude:
“…Richard, Jr. … was amiable, a little slow, and not what you’d call a terrifically useful person…” (p. 92).
Similarly, when discussing the Pitners’ attempts to find a lawyer to represent John, she quips that –
“It helped having such a large family, because the odds were that even one as visibly limited at the Pitners included somebody with the name of a lawyer whose Constitution didn’t start and stop at the second amendment” (p. 197).
There are dozens of similar passages, but I will stop with these two.
One passage that I found unintentionally revealing concerns a liberal, Washington state hippie whose views on the militia Kramer contrasts with her own views – “…he spent his life looking for terrible things – but he refused to give up on any of those people. He thought that I took a narrow, punishing, eastern view of John, whereas he took a generous western view…” (p. 150).
I think that Kramer’s decision to paint the militia members only as incompetent fools is misguided on two fronts. One, even if the Washington State Militia could not organize a trip to McDonald’s, we cannot overlook the fact that at least some of these zealots (e.g. Timothy McVeigh) are capable of committing horrific crimes. Second, I think that the reflexive scorn that Kramer and other liberals heap on ignorant, working class whites inadvertently reveals part of the appeal of extreme right-wing politics to these people; they realize that Kramer and her friends scorn them.
Summary – Two Strikes for Jane Kramer
This is the second Kramer book that I have read in the past few months. (The first was The Last Cowboy, which I review here – https://mobilemojoman.wordpress.com/2011/12/22/book-review-the-last-cowboy-by-jane-kramer/). Neither book was awful, both have interesting subject matter. Unfortunately, Kramer drags both books down with her contempt for her subjects.
For a more-insightful look at the right-wing fringe, I recommend The Silent Brotherhood by Kevin Flynn and Gary Gerhardt. This book focuses on The Order, a 1980s group that murdered Denver talk show host Alan Berg and robbed armored cars to support their racist agenda. As is true of Timothy McVeigh, The Order reminds us that – unfortunately – we ignore these people at our own peril.