Extremism in the U.S. military

Americans were likely shocked and dismayed by the need to vet National Guard troops securing

Americans were likely shocked and dismayed by the need to vet National Guard troops securing the inauguration. 

The arrests of current and retired military members who participated in the Capitol insurrection drew attention to the potential threat posed by extremists in uniform. Although it involves relatively few of those who serve, extremism, especially white supremacy, in the ranks of active duty and retired military has long been a problem. 

Although President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, well ahead of the rest of American society, racial discrimination persisted. During the late 1960’s, frustration over inequality and harassment erupted into violence that mirrored racial disturbances in the civilian world. Major incidents occurred. A 1971 report by the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) documented systemic racism at U.S. bases in Europe.

The presence of white supremacists in uniform compounded the military’s problem with institutional racism. During an investigation into an incident at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in 1977, witnesses attested to harassment and assaults by members of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. These marines could openly display their affiliation because a 1971 Department of Defense (DOD) directive had stated that membership in the KKK by active duty military members was not illegal unless those members overtly violated military regulations.

Racism in the military spilled into civilian life. In “Bring the War Home,” Kathleen Belew demonstrates how disgruntled Vietnam veterans contributed to the growth of white power paramilitary groups in the 1980’s and 1990’s. They initially focused their anger on Vietnamese refugees on the Galveston Coast in Texas, but they also populated anti-government groups and the Posse Comitatus movement inspired by foreclosures during the farm crisis. Following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, law enforcement cracked down on extremism, leaving the militia movement in disarray but its ideology very much intact.

As the military continued to address racism in the ranks, it faced a new extremist threat. During the 1980’s and 1990’s gang members enlisted with the express purpose of gaining tactical expertise they could use on American streets. Recruiters had to screen candidates, not only for physical and mental fitness, but for affiliation. They checked for tattoos “depicting, or symbolizing extremist philosophies, organizations, or activities,” which covered criminal groups and white supremacist organizations.

The first two decades of the 21st century saw a revival of far-right extremism driven by a confluence of circumstances. The advent of social media enabled extremist groups to reach a much wider audience. They also reinvented themselves, replacing overtly racist terms with seemingly innocuous ones. White supremacy and white power became “white pride” and “celebrating European heritage.” Finally, the fear inspired by the election of the nation’s first African American president, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTom Brokaw retiring from NBC News after 55 years Obama remembers baseball legend Hank Aaron as ‘one of the strongest people I’ve ever met’ Baseball legend Hank Aaron dies at 86 MORE, caused an increase in the number of hate groups and their membership.

To make matters worse, extremists wrapped themselves in the American flag. Their embrace of patriotism created a problem for the military as these groups claimed to share the same values as America’s armed forces and sought to recruit retired and active duty personnel. Two worrisome extremist groups illustrate the problem. 

Founded in 2008, the Three Percenters are a broad umbrella movement of paramilitary militia groups sharing a common ideology. That ideology rests on the myth that only 3 percent of the colonists fought for independence from Britain during the Revolutionary War. Members insist that they exist to protect the Constitution and the country from government overreach. While they claim not to discriminate against anyone, they declare that they were founded “in response to the election of Barack Obama.” Three Percenter groups are overwhelmingly white and they broadly oppose the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. The Three Percenters flag was on display at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

The Oath Keepers are another far right extremist group that has infiltrated the U.S. military. Founded in 2009 by former Army paratrooper, the group purports to be nonpartisan and is composed of current and former members of the military, police and first responders. The association’s ideology is not overtly discriminatory but it is condemns BLM.

No one knows how many white supremacists and other extremists currently serve in the ranks of the armed services. A senior official said that extremism in the military has increased during the past year but provided no details. Twelve members of the National Guard were removed from the security operation to protect the inauguration; two of them for making extremist statements on social media. While the vast majority of men and women in uniform serve honorably, no matter what their personal political beliefs, the fact that even a small number belong to hate groups is deeply disconcerting. 

The military is clear — it no longer tolerates extremists in its ranks. A no-tolerance policy, however, is not enough. The U.S. military must make a concerted effort to root out extremism. That process has to begin at the recruiting station, not after enlistees have been trained and armed. 

Tom Mockaitis is a professor of history and DePaul University and author of “Violent Extremism: Understanding the Domestic and International Extremist Threat.”

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