It started off as low-stakes as revolutions get. Instead of taking over a busy federal building or seizing a seat of government, the Bundy brothers and their supporters squatted on one of the most remote federal outposts in the entire country. Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge—located 150 miles from the nearest interstate highway and near-abandoned in the dead of winter—was where Ammon and Ryan Bundy, LaVoy Finicum, Shawna Cox, Ryan Payne, and others made national headlines in January 2016 when they occupied the facility in protest against federal regulations regarding public lands.
It’s easy to dismiss their motivations as crackpot militia fantasies, but in his new book, Chosen Country: A Rebellion in the West, James Pogue explains how the standoff fits into a longer narrative of ranchers and miners throughout the Great Basin coming into continual conflict with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and, to a lesser degree, the US Forest Service. For decades, these ranchers and miners eked out tough livings on properties near or adjacent to federal land. They relied on those public spaces to run their cattle and access their mines. When pesky things like grazing permits encroached on their perceived freedoms, they took to their guns and roused a sympathetic, Libertarian-tinged rabble.
Pogue was embedded with the militia during the Malheur standoff, and his book is a critical, firsthand look at the attempted uprising. This was not the Bundys’ first rodeo—they also led an armed confrontation against the BLM near their ranch in southern Nevada in 2014. Through a selective (and fundamentally incorrect) reading of the Constitution, the Bundys came to believe the federal government did not have the right to own any land at all. With the charismatic Ammon Bundy leading the charge, the occupation soon evolved into a cult of personality, as he spouted god-and-country platitudes informed by his Mormonism.
Pogue provides plenty of necessary context, but there’s precious little about the standoff itself. What he does describe precisely illuminates how uninteresting most of the occupation was—a lot of waiting, a few desperate moments of panic, followed by more waiting. Pogue sees firsthand how Ammon manipulated his heavily armed followers into a can’t-win situation, one that resulted in the death of Finicum at the hands of federal agents. As low-stakes as the occupation began, it’s shocking more people weren’t hurt.
Chosen Country isn’t the definitive text on the Malheur fiasco—Pogue assumes readers closely followed the story on national news, and the book requires a fair amount of background knowledge to keep one’s bearings amid its time-jumping narrative. For better or worse, the figure we get to know best is Pogue himself, and his book is littered with asides about his drinking and drug use, along with longer passages about his upbringing. He writes in breathless, lengthy, circuitous sentences, but more often than not does so lucidly and arrestingly, discussing his own feelings of national displacement, which align him to certain viewpoints held by these self-identifying warriors of justice. Just as eloquently, he pokes holes in their righteousness: “They have a teenage boy’s conception of freedom, an idea that responsibility to the future and to the needs of the broad community is a mean infringement of their rights, not a way to ensure that all of us have the freedom to make a life as best we can.”
Pogue’s consideration of the Bundy militia’s mindset is as thoughtful and generous a depiction as you’re likely to stomach, but it’s a healthy-feeling one, like a plate of vegetables. Perhaps most crucially, Pogue draws connections between the shockwave of the standoff, the election of Donald Trump later that year, and the immense rift that’s currently splitting liberals and conservatives. Chosen Country is a smart and emotional read, and the book’s through-line—with Pogue coming to the pained, inevitable conclusion that all of this jingoistic, back-to-the-land flag-waving is basically self-centered horseshit—feels like the furthest thing from a cheap shot.
Chosen Country: A Rebellion in the West
by James Pogue