The US Military’s Extremism Problem

The US Military’s Extremism Problem

Asia Perri
The US Military’s Extremism Problem
The US Army outside of the Lincoln Memorial (Source: Unsplash)

The recent storming of the Capitol – an attempt by Trump supporters to disrupt the confirmation of the electoral college vote on the 6th of January 2021 – has highlighted a systemic problem within the US military. Those charged with protecting the USA’s interests instead turned their weapons on their own government, with 21 of the first 150 protesters arrested being active or former military personnel. Beyond mere Trumpian ideals, these servicemen and women have been linked to anarchist, racist, and fundamentalist groups, some wishing to topple the government to establish “an all-White paradise”.

There have long been tell-tale signs of deeply rooted racism in the US military, with the Oklahoma City bombing and the Burmeister murder case some of the most poignant examples of the 1990s. This can be traced back to the establishment of the White Patriot Party by Glenn Miller, who hoarded ammunition and explosives, enticing military personnel fresh from the Vietnam War to join him in his mission to topple the government and start a race war. Despite his arrest and subsequent sentencing, his legacy has lived on amongst military personnel, with many blatantly voicing similar extremist beliefs.

Amongst the Capitol Hill protesters, there were many high-profile names such as veteran Joseph Randall Biggs and would-be Republican candidate Captain Gabriel Garcia. Both are professed members of the far-right and neo-fascist group Proud Boys, with the former leading the extremists in their attacks against the Capitol building. The Proud Boys were named by Canada as a terrorist organization this year for violence and planned attacks, as well as their pivotal role in the Capitol riots. This group has been notorious for its violence against supporters of the left, as well as their demands to close the border with Mexico, scrap all gun regulations, and place restrictions on working women. They have been banned from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.

Ex-marines Ryan Nichols and Alex Hardrider also made themselves known during the protests by calling for the crowds to arm themselves. Veteran Joshua Lollar live-streamed himself breaking into the capitol building and confessed to attacking police officers. Furthermore, three members of the far-right Oath Keepers, Jessica Watkins, Donovan Crowl, and Thomas Caldwell have been accused of orchestrating insurrection. The Oath Keepers are an anti-government organization made up of current and former military and police that has approximately 5,000 members, making them one of the largest militias in the USA. Their leader, ex-paratrooper Stewart Rhodes, has denied his involvement in the forced entry and attack of the Capitol building, saying that he and his comrades were only at the riots to protect Trump supporters from Antifa.

In the past, efforts made by the US Department of Defense have been largely ineffective, with many extremist tendencies being overlooked. For example, Burmeister is said to have hung a swastika in his barracks and read white supremacist newspapers, but a lack of active participation in extremist activities meant that Department of Defense policy fell short and could not condemn him. While this policy was updated following the murders that he carried out – meaning that personnel could not participate in “organizations that espouse supremacist causes” – it did not forbid membership and it left it up to other personnel to decide whether the serviceman or woman was truly at fault.

Following the riots of January 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III has sought to tackle this problem by creating a new working group to counter extremism and implementing new transition instructions to army veterans regarding the dangers of radicalization by extremist anti-government groups. This working group will be active across departments within the military to ensure that extremists do not infiltrate their ranks and radicalize other servicemen and women. The Biden administration has been very supportive of these policy changes and has also pushed for the implementation of screening upon recruitment and behavior monitoring while recruits are still in active service.

One of the reasons that progress has been slow, however, is the lack of a clear-cut definition for extremism. While the aforementioned policy changes have been effectuated to minimize the chances for radicalization while serving, the policy does not provide a definition for extremism, nor does it describe its causes. This hampers the ability of leaders within the military to effectively carry out and implement changes to the policy, despite UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres labeling U.S. extremism a threat to international social cohesion. Indeed, the US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas sees “domestic violent extremism as the ‘greatest threat’ to the United States”.

  1. Will the Biden Administration be able to tackle these far-right organizations?
  2. Why would veterans turn against their own country?
  3. In absence of a Republican President, is it likely that these groups will attack again?

Suggested Readings

Brian Duignan (2021) “United States Capitol attack of 2021”, Britannica

FBI (n.d.) “Oklahoma City Bombing”, FBI

Keith S. Gibel (2021) “Why Defining ‘Extremism’ Matters to the U.S. Military”, Lawfare

Michael A. Fletcher (1997) “Ex-paratrooper Found Guilty in Black Couple’s Slaying”, The Washington Post

Nan Levinson (2021) “The US Military Is an Extremism Incubator”, The Nation

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The US Military’s Extre…

by Asia Perri time to read: 3 min