By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
On April 18, MSNBC commentator Malcolm Nance announced he had left his media jobs to help Ukraine in its desperate defense against Russia’s brutal invasion.
“I’m DONE talking,” Nance tweeted, confirming he had joined the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine, a force of 20,000 volunteer fighters from 52 countries. His tweet included a photo of him wearing a helmet, camouflage and a flak jacket while holding an assault rifle, though he is mainly serving as an advisor in the field.
“Despite the fact that Russian television put my name, face and everything I say on television (except the part about mass murdering civilians) and called me a “soldier of fortune”, this ain’t about money,” Nance told The Guardian in a recent interview. “We get paid $600 a month. But I believe in the defense of democracy. Even though my right-wing critics don’t believe me or the lies they tell, I actually believe in the things that I espouse on television.”
Has another notable news media personality ever done anything like this? Usually we get an endless parade of retired generals and armchair warriors offering their opinions on armed conflicts, especially those involving the U.S. I can’t think of one pundit in recent memory who has actually taken up arms and gotten involved, especially at Nance’s age (61).
Nance is a former Senior Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy. He served from 1981 to 2001 and specialized in cryptology. In recent years he’s made his name as an expert in counterterrorism, intelligence and foreign policy. He frequently appears on MSNBC, but I know of him as a guest panelist on the daily talk show “Roundtable” on NPR’s WAMC-FM out of Albany, N..Y. His insights are fascinating and often terrifying.
The author of 10 books on such subjects as Russian hacking operations, ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and the Trump GOP’s betrayal of America, Nance has been monitoring extreme right-wing groups that took part in the January 6 insurrection. He says those extremists pose a dire threat to our democracy and anyone who opposes them. Hence the title of his latest book, They Want to Kill Americans: The Militias, Terrorists, and Deranged Ideology of the Trump Insurgency.
In 2014, Nance founded the Hudson, N.Y.-based think tank Terror Asymmetrics Project on Strategy, Tactics and Radical Ideology. He’s also trained law enforcement and intelligence personnel and special forces soldiers in survival techniques. Most recently, he’d been in Ukraine closely observing the buildup to the Russian invasion and its immediate effects.
“The more I saw of the war going on, the more I thought, I’m done talking, It’s time to take action,” Nance told MSNBC’s Joy Reid during the interview on April 18. “This is an existential war, and Russia has brought it to these people and they are mass-murdering civilians. And there are people here like me who are here to do something about it.”
Reports about Nance and his activities have since been few and sketchy. His colleagues on WAMC’s Roundtable have expressed their concern for his safety. But this isn’t the first time Nance has been in a war zone. He’s seen combat in the Middle East, Africa and Southwest Asia.
“I had no idea” Nance had gone to fight, writer Michael Harriot stated in the introduction to his interview of his “personal and professional acquaintance” for The Guardian. “But it sounds exactly like something Nance would do. It’s the most Malcolm thing ever.”
Outspoken about human rights, ethics and racial/cultural integration in intelligence agencies, Nance testified before Congress in 2007 that the C.I.A.’s use of torture on terrorism suspects does not yield reliable intelligence information. He spoke from experience, having witnessed and even supervised waterboarding. His testimony helped spark a public outcry.
On April 19, Nance engaged in a Twitter skirmish with retired U.S. Army lieutenant general Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s disgraced former national security adviser who pled guilty to charges of lying to the F.B.I. about conversations he’d had with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. during the 2016 presidential campaign. (Flynn was later pardoned by Trump.)
During an interview with notorious Trump supporter and conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell (best known as the CEO of My Pillow), Flynn predictably questioned Nance’s cause and credibility by echoing Russian talking points about the invasion.
"Is he fighting for a fascist dictator, or is he fighting for communism? Whose side is he on here?" Flynn asked. "Is he supposed to be a journalist that's reporting the news, or is he out there trying to make the news? What kind of ploy is that?"
Nance’s response was a fiery and profane tweet that referenced a dinner Flynn attended with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2015:
"PSA: Tell Mike Flynn that I fight for DEMOCRACY. Flynn LITERALLY ate Putin's bread SEATED AT HIS RIGHT HAND. He LOVED Moscow's cash & spent years nestled deeply in Vlad's cold, white KGB a**. Now he supports Russia's murder of a free people!? F**k you, Mike Flynn. F**k. You!"
Malcolm Nance is a rare individual in a media world dominated by pampered, ignorant loudmouths who exhibit what musician Roger Waters caustically condemned in his song “The Bravery of Being Out of Range.”
Nance is successful and well-off with a comfortable life in New York’s Hudson Valley. He didn’t have to do what he is now doing at this stage of his career though people as old as their 80s have reportedly joined Ukraine’s armed forces.
“The war that’s being waged here is being waged against everybody,” Nance told MSNBC’s Joy Reid in their interview. “The International Legion is a multinational force, there are men and women, there are thousands here who are here to protect this country. So I decided to come here to assist them with the skills I have myself.”
And as he told The Guardian, “Plus, I’m a widower, which means I understand grief, which is a powerful motivator in this instance. It was the thought of all of the grief this country was taking in that invasion. And I just thought, this is, this was completely uncalled for, this is insanity.”
Condemning insanity is easy, actually doing something to stop it is hard, but Malcolm Nance is about a lot more than words.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.