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U.S. military takes a hard look in the mirror to combat domestic extremism

“We will not tolerate actions that go against the fundamental principles of the oath we share,” says Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin when ordering the military to take a knee to discuss extremism in its ranks.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks to Department of Defense personnel alongside President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at the Pentagon on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in Washington.
Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

The United States military is taking a knee to discuss the domestic extremism rising in its ranks, something that military leaders say won’t be tolerated.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has ordered every military commander and supervisor in the Defense Department to take one day off during the next two months month to discuss the problem of extremism in the nation’s military.

“We will not tolerate actions that go against the fundamental principles of the oath we share, including actions associated with extremist or dissident ideologies,” the defense secretary said.

The order is meant to address a blind spot the military has when it comes to spotting domestic extremists with its ranks, and it’s one that senior military leaders hope can be fixed with a honest look into the mirror.

In a memo to the Defense Department, Austin — the former commander of U.S. Central Command and first Black man to lead the Pentagon — told military and civilian leaders that during the “stand-downs,” they should discuss “the importance of our oath of office; a description of impermissible behaviors; and procedures for reporting suspected, or actual, extremist behaviors.” The Defense Department has 60 days to complete the stand-down.

Austin’s order also comes in the wake of the Jan 6 riot in Washington, D.C., where military veterans played an outsized roll in the storming of the U.S. Capitol building. Recent investigations and studies show that military members are being recruited or drawn to domestic extremist organizations.

An NPR investigation found that about 15% of those criminally charged in the attempted insurrection were military veterans — about twice the percentage of veterans in America’s adult population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

And in the past 18 months, more than a dozen military veterans who are now members, or sympathizers, of the “Boogaloo Bois” — an armed far-right anti-government movement — have been arrested for a range of changes “from the possession of illegal automatic weapons to the manufacture of explosives to murder,” a joint Frontline/ProPublica investigation found.

“In its short existence, the Boogaloo movement has proven to be a magnet for current or former military service members who have used their combat skills and firearms expertise to advance the Boogaloo cause,” the news outlets wrote of their findings.

Boogaloo Bois stand on the sidewalk on 9th Street in support of lobby day on Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, in Richmond, Va. The day is a chance for citizens to use a day off work to meet with their legislators.
John C. Clark, Associated Press

The Federal Bureau of Investigations is also digging into the issue.

In 2020, the Defense Department was notified by the FBI that the bureau had “opened criminal investigations involving 143 current or former service members” and that 68 of those investigations were related to “domestic extremism cases,” The New York Times reported. A senior Pentagon official told the Times that a “vast majority” were retired military members and many had “unfavorable discharge records.”

According to Military Times’ surveys of active-duty service members, there has been a steep rise in military personnel who’ve seen racism in their own formations.

A “2019 survey found that 36% of troops who responded have seen evidence of white supremacist and racist ideologies in the military, a significant rise from the year before, when only 22% — about 1 in 5 — reported the same in the 2018 poll,” Military Times reported.

Active-duty members who responded to the poll said “white nationalism” was a greater national security threat than “both domestic terrorism with a connection to Islam” and “immigration,” combined, Military Times reported.

In January, the Defense Department said it was investigating the “effectiveness of existing Pentagon policies and procedures that prohibit service members from advocacy of, or participation in, supremacist or extremist groups,” according to The New York Times. “Pentagon officials acknowledge that they are struggling with such basic issues as how to define what level of extremist activity is prohibited, as well as shortcomings in how the military identifies and quantifies violators.”

“It’s hard and it’s also very challenging,” U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mark C. Quander told NPR’s Michael Martin about confronting extremism in the military. “Because I think if it was easy, we would have fixed it a long time ago. But I do think that everyone is committed to addressing it.”

The Army announced in late January that Quander — who’s had several combat deployments to the global war on terror — will be the next commandant of cadets to the U.S. Military Academy.

“It’s my responsibility to ensure we are developing and mentoring our Army’s future leaders of character while preparing our graduates to lead in an increasingly complex and uncertain world,” Quander said in a statement announcing his new role.