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The Pentagon Wants To Root Out Extremism In the Military, But Nobody Knows How Common It Is

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin talks with Army Maj. Gen. William J. Walker of District of Columbia National Guard outside the U.S. Capitol Jan. 29.
Erica Jaros
U.S. Army National Guard
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin talks with Army Maj. Gen. William J. Walker of District of Columbia National Guard outside the U.S. Capitol Jan. 29.

Pentagon leaders were concerned about extremism in the military even before the Jan. 6 insurrection. But new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he wants everyone in the ranks to understand it's a priority.

In December, then-acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller directed a review of military policies related to "extremist or hate group activity."

Then came the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C.

A mid-February NPR analysis found that about 14 percent of the people charged in connection with storming the U.S. Capitol have military ties. Veterans make up about 7 percent of the population at large.

President Biden's Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, promised action at his Senate confirmation.

"This is not something we can be passive on," the retired Army general told senators. "This is something I think we have to be active on, and we can lean into it and make sure that we're doing the right things to create the right climate."

Austin soon ordered a military-wide stand down. By mid-April, commanders must spend one day discussing the issue of extremism with soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.

Concerns about extremism in the military stretch back decades, but it's not clear how significant the problem is.

A Military Times survey found more 36 percent of active-duty troops say they have personally witnessed examples of white nationalism or ideological-driven racism in recent months. That's up from 22 percent in 2018.

But the survey isn't scientific, nor conducted by the Defense Department.

David Chrisinger, an author and writing instructor at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy, said nobody knows how big of a problem it is.

"It's one of those classic policy problems," he said. "If you don't measure it, then you don't manage it.

"It seems like the root causes of some of the inaction was the failure to even admit that there was a problem."

Writing for the military news website The War Horse, Chrisinger logged all the incidents he could find where a service member was charged or investigated in connection with white nationalist or ideologically-driven racism dating back to 2005. There are dozens of entries.

"Clearly something's going on," he said. "It doesn't matter necessarily if it's this huge, prevalent problem. Even at a small scale, it can be really damaging."

Retired Navy Vice Admiral Mike Franken said one reason so many military veterans participated in the insurrection might come down to personality. If the Commander-In-Chief says the election is stolen, people who servied in the military might be more inclined to listen.

"We are servers," he said. "We want to run to the sound of trouble. And consequently when the body of people are preached a particular thought pattern - that others are trying to overturn the regular order of things - we have a tendency to jet out the jaw and step forward."

Franken, who last year ran as a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Iowa, said he became concerned about ideological messaging long before his retirement in 2017.

When he took command of a large contingent of troops across Africa and the Indian Ocean, Franken said Fox News was broadcast during meal time in the chow halls, and he noticed a "constant diatribe" against then-President Barack Obama.

"He wasn't supportive of the troops, the troops shouldn't be in Africa, Africa was causing us problems, we needed to do more to go after Muslims" Franken said. "It was this constant, all day long, talk radio TV."

So Franken pulled the plug on the televisions.

"I said, okay, I'll either turn them off, or I'll turn them on something else," he said. "We'll watch The Beverly Hillbillies or Petticoat Junction or Al Jazeera English or soccer matches, but we're not going to listen to that tripe."

Defense Secretary Austin said the stand down is the "first initiative" in rooting out extremism. He's giving branch leaders discretion on how to organize the day, but said he wants commanders to solicit feedback from the troops about their own "concerns, experiences and possible solutions" to the problem.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Reporter, KCUR and American Homefront
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