WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. military’s recruitment efforts are suffering from criticism about extremism within the ranks, according to Republican Sen. Thom Tillis.
Tillis, who made the comments last week outside of a subcommittee hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, chastised both his Democrat and GOP colleagues for turning the issue of extremism in the military into political theater.
“Well, I think that the [Department of Defense] is already prepared to address it and that they are,” the North Carolina senator said. “I mean, you got one side of the aisle saying it's full of a bunch of woke administrators, and you got the other side of the aisle saying it's a bunch of extremists.
“Both views are wrong, and it's hurting recruiting and retention.”
In July, the same committee made headlines after it voted to call on the Pentagon to halt “spending additional time and resources to combat exceptionally rare instances of extremism in the military,” describing it as “an inappropriate use of taxpayer funds.” (The vote, though not enforceable legislation, was attached to the report accompanying the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act.)
But according to a University of Maryland study released in July, at least 151 of the individuals facing charges for their role in the Capitol riot on Jan. 6 had a military background, which includes active-duty servicemen and veterans. (Roughly 900 people have been charged in total.) As a result of the Jan. 6 attack, the Biden administration said it would put extra effort into rooting extremism out of the federal ranks, which includes the military.
Tillis, who was among the 13 Republicans on the committee (and Maine independent Sen. Angus King) who voted for the instruction to halt funding for countering extremism, said DOD already had enough resources to investigate the issue and anything more would damage its image to potential recruits.
Outside of the same hearing, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said Tillis and his GOP colleagues were shortsighted.
“I worry about the impact of extremism anywhere,” said Warren, a Democrat who voted for continued funding of counterextremism efforts at the Pentagon. “And if we have reason to believe there are problems, then we should investigate. It's that straightforward.”
The Pentagon has recently said that recruitment levels are at their worst since the end of the Vietnam War, while the Army (the largest branch) is set to miss its recruitment goals this year by 30,000 new soldiers.
Secretary of Defense Loyd Austin III, recognizing the problem in his ranks, issued a historic Stand Down order in February 2021, forcing all servicemen across every branch of the military to reflect on the issue of extremism. Months later, the Pentagon rolled out new guidelines on extremist activities while in uniform, among them policing the social media activities of soldiers and new recruitment requirements.
But since the new initiatives, there’s been no shortage of examples of servicemen or veterans engaging in extremist activities. This month an Army soldier was kicked out and faces a criminal charge for joining the service to allegedly learn how to kill Black people, a Navy veteran was arrested for shooting up an FBI field office in Cincinnati, while it was revealed one in five members of hate group Patriot Front has U.S. military affiliation.
“I don't believe that the leadership of the [Pentagon] is all of a sudden turning off a switch, and not looking at indicators,” said Tillis before partly blaming the recruitment shortfall on what he sees as undue criticism of Americans in uniform. “But I do think that when we talk about the military today and we talk about our recruiting challenges, the media, members of Congress and a number of other people are casting an image that just defies reality in my experience.”
Experts have been clear that the vast majority of U.S. servicemen and veterans never engage in extremism or join extremist groups, but when they do, they often play outsized roles in those political movements and organizations given their military tradecraft. But the links to extremism and soldiers have become so overt that the Pentagon even admitted in a March 2021 report to the Senate Armed Services Committee that it faced a “threat from domestic extremists (DE), particularly those who espouse white supremacy or white nationalist ideologies.”
The problem with extremism and the soldier class of Americans is an issue dating back to the Civil War. Following the end of the conflict, the Ku Klux Klan was born, which largely pooled its numbers from Confederate veterans. Historian Kathleen Belew, an associate professor of history at Northwestern University and a leading expert on extremism in the military, outlined in her book Bring the War Home how extremism booms in the U.S. after every major war.
“One thing that we notice when we start looking at the history of the Ku Klux Klan, which is the extremist group that gives us the longest and most complete archive of activity, is that the surges in group membership align more closely with the aftermath of combat than they do with poverty or immigration or civil rights gains,” she said in an interview with VICE News. “What that means is that there’s some kind of relationship between warfare abroad, usually abroad, and extremism at home.”
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