'Wake-up call': How the military can course-correct its decades-old path to extremism

A group of pro-Trump protesters raise a giant America Flag on the West grounds of the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. A pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol earlier, breaking windows and clashing with police officers. Trump supporters gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
A group of pro-Trump protesters raise a giant America Flag on the West grounds of the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. A pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol earlier, breaking windows and clashing with police officers. Trump supporters gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. Photo credit (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

“This is an alarm. This is a wake-up. We have an opportunity to course-correct.”

Lecia Brooks, chief of staff of the Southern Poverty Law Center, can identify ties between the military and acts of extremism that date back decades. In the early 1980s, SPLC was aware that military personnel were recruiting and being recruited by extremist groups. Those groups were also sending members to the military to obtain specialized training.

SPLC tried to communicate these patterns to the Department of Defense as early as 1986.

Those warnings went largely unheeded and a string of extremist attacks perpetrated in part or wholly by individuals with military ties followed. The 1992 siege of Ruby Ridge in Idaho, the Waco massacre of 1993, and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 all demonstrated a link that identified military personnel as actors in incidents of extremism.

“It's not a new problem,” Brooks told Connecting Vets. “Back in the 80s, it was really about military personnel being affiliated with Klan groups. And it wasn't talked about in the same way it is today in terms of talking more broadly about white supremacist groups.”

“It seemed to the military to be more of an aberration than a growing pattern, but we began to identify patterns in people who became involved in violent events leading up to and including Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing. We saw clear patterns,” Brooks added.

Many of those patterns remain today. Extremist groups offer a “fetishization of weaponry” similar to mindsets popular among military personnel, she said. There’s an opportunity to engage in “play” and “training” that service members experienced in the military. There’s a sense of fraternity within extremist groups that is very similar to the sense of purpose, teamwork, and brotherhood that service members often feel the loss of after leaving the military. That drive for brotherhood was on clear display at the Jan. 6 insurrection as individuals wore patches and symbols that connected them to certain groups without realizing those same markings would later be used by law enforcement to charge those who participated in the riot.

In 1986, SPLC sent a letter to then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger regarding these patterns, and while the response was not what Brooks would describe as an “unwelcome” one, no changes were made, no regulations were implemented.

“They were encouraged not to participate but there wasn't a strong regulation that would allow the military to kick these people out if it was found that they were connected,” Brooks said.

In 1994, SPLC tried again with a letter to then-Attorney General Janet Reno. The letter was again largely ignored and six months later, Army veteran Timothy McVeigh killed 168 in the Oklahoma City bombing. McVeigh was discharged from the Army in 1991 as part of a military downsizing following the collapse of the Soviet Union. McVeigh’s ideologies and hatred for foreign communist governments, honed and reinforced during his military service, shifted to his own government.

Again, in 2006 SPLC contacted the then-Undersecretary of Defense David Chu and encouraged the department to implement a zero-tolerance policy on white supremacists in the military. It was a different administration, and Brooks said SPLC was told they were being “alarmists.” SPLC wrote again in 2008 and 2009, still to no avail.

“We have been ringing the alarm for some time now,” Brooks said.

At the beginning of 2020, it finally seemed that the issue of extremism in the military was no longer falling on deaf ears. Brooks was one of several panelists that testified in front of the House Armed Services Committee specifically about white supremacy within the military’s ranks and how it was being eradicated.

"I don’t think the military takes this threat seriously enough, has the tools it needs or dedicates sufficient resources to the threat. Our accessions and vetting enterprise lumps white supremacist activity in with gang affiliation, rather than treat it as a national security issue on par with foreign terror," Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said during the hearing.

At the time, Brooks said it seemed like the congressional representatives were “very interested in the information and seemed quite alarmed and took it very seriously.”

But the military leadership that testified after Brooks’s panel argued there was a significant difference between active participation in extremist groups and mere association with them.

“We offered a number of recommendations that they tighten up the regulations, they engage in a robust screening of recruits, that they train recruiting officers to recognize the tell-tale signs and be able to pick up on vulnerable service members ... all of that. And then it really didn't go anywhere,” Brooks said.

Until now, that is, as criminal charges reinforce over and over that military personnel were disproportionately involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

'Wake-up call'

The DoD is calling Jan. 6 a “wake-up call” -- but SPLC’s alarm has been ringing for decades and the DoD heard it. But the department took little substantive action to address it. And the military, perhaps more so than any other entity, could be highly impactful in changing the country’s course on extremism and white supremacy.

“The military in the Southern Poverty Law Center's mind -- they hold our highest ideals,” Brooks said. “They're the ones that integrated on their own before Brown v. Board of Education, integrated before the courts demanded that in the schools. They've always been seen as this beacon and we know that because of how the military is structured, if it came from the highest command, that it could be carried out.”

The DoD demonstrated just last year that sweeping policies, efforts and change could at least be attempted when the highest echelons of leadership truly dedicated the time and effort to do so -- when the murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillen sparked what has been called a "reckoning" within the military against the issue of sexual assault and harassment.

From the highest levels of Army leadership, reviews were ordered, commanders were relieved, and soldiers felt they were able to voice concerns that had long been kept silent.

Similarly, the murder of George Floyd sparked outrage over racism and discrimination in the military as it did throughout the civilian population. The DoD's most senior leaders visited installations, spoke with service members about issues of racism, and released their own seemingly heartfelt messages about injustices within the ranks.

Here again, the DoD demonstrated that it could begin to work toward meaningful change in the face of these social issues when it moved forward with efforts to change the names of DoD properties that carried Confederate namesakes and ban symbols of the Confederacy, despite vocal pushback from then-President Donald Trump.

Now, an order from the highest command has been mandated to address the military's next widespread issue -- extremism.

“Today, I met with senior leaders to discuss extremism in the military,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced this week. “As a first step, I'm ordering a stand down to occur over the next 60 days so each service, each command and each unit can have a deeper conversation about this issue. It comes down to leadership. Everyone’s.”

The details of the stand-down are still being developed, according to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, but the specifics of the training that will go along with the stand-down and what the secretary and all in the military want to accomplish, will be communicated.

“It's got to be a leadership issue down to the lowest levels, small unit leadership all the way up to him," Kirby said. "So if you consider it a leadership issue, then maybe there will be some potential solutions there to allow us greater visibility."

The move is “huge,” Brooks said, and -- while still vague -- already represents the type of top-down change that SPLC believes could be effective.

“It's something that can be done and should be done -- and we believe that it will,” Brooks said “It stains not only active-duty personnel but veterans as well. People sacrifice their lives for this country and don't want to be painted with the broad brush of being co-conspirators with white supremacists."

The Pentagon is also wary of its forces being painted with broad strokes

"The vast majority of men and women who serve in uniform and the military are doing so with honor, integrity and character, and do not espouse the sorts of beliefs that lead to the kind of conduct that can be so detrimental to good order and discipline and in fact is criminal,” Kirby said.

While further details of the stand-down have not been released, Brooks explained that conversations could be enough to begin the course-correction process.

“At the unit level, so much can be done. If they just engage in a conversation about extremism it will reveal extremist beliefs and ideology ... I think that is going to reveal a lot of people right there. And if they get the impression that they can no longer hide in plain sight, they'll leave. They'll separate themselves from the military if they know that there are consequences. Because there haven't been. None,” Brooks explained.

Once those individuals are identified, however, the process is not complete. Eradicating extremists by merely removing them from the military could have significant adverse effects -- creating a force of radicalized individuals with military experience who have been forced out of the services. The results of such a force have already been seen, decades ago with McVeigh and weeks ago at the Capitol. Rather than sending these radicalized service members back into a society that is just as radical, the military must make efforts at deradicalization and provide service members the opportunity to remain in the military.

'We're not going to turn a blind eye'

“Not everyone is that far along on the radicalization spectrum that they can't be pulled back,” Brooks said. “So it should not be that they are immediately separated from service. They should be given an opportunity. There has been so much misinformation that's been going at people and certain segments of the population are vulnerable to that -- that's just a fact. Some people have been radicalized by no fault of their own. It's so easy for some people to get down the rabbit hole and there they are.

“We have to remember, the military is just a microcosm or reflection of larger society,” Brooks added. “So they'll leave the military and rejoin that society and it will further radicalize them if the separation is not done sensitively.”

As the new administration and Austin make moves to finally address this decades-old issue, Brooks emphasized that it is far from too late to change the course of not only the military but the country.

“This is an alarm. This is a wake-up. We have an opportunity to course-correct,” Brooks said. “I don't want to paint the military as this bastion of white supremacy. It could become that way. It could well happen here. We need to make it clear that we are not going to abide by it. We're not going to turn a blind eye. We're going to act on it.

“And the military could again be a leader in cutting this off,” Brooks added. “This could really strike a blow to the more traditional, long-standing white supremacists groups. If that avenue to specialized training, to recruiting is cut off -- what are they going to do now?”

Reach Elizabeth Howe on Twitter @ECBHowe.