Members of the National Guard stand in a line in Washington, D.C.
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Extremism in the US Military Is Not New

Veterans and experts have been sounding the alarm about the American military’s extremism problem for years, but it took a riot on Capitol Hill to make the Pentagon pay attention.
February 26, 2021, 3:30pm

Kyle Bibby was an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps when he saw a swastika carved into the dashboard of a military truck. Bibby, a Black veteran who spent seven years with the Marines and four years at the Naval Academy, remembers asking the Marine driving the vehicle what it was doing there. “He just looks at me, and his eyes get wide,” Bibby recalled. “It was not uncommon for me to, you know, find a swastika carved into this or that, here and there,” said Bibby. 

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At another point during his career, Bibby was called the n-word by a lower-ranking Marine. While there were some consequences for the Marine, Bibby said that the court martial gave him the equivalent of a “slap on the wrist.” Later, one of the officers who sat on the court martial implied to Bibby that he must have done something wrong to warrant that kind of response. 

“When you have members of the military who still view the flippancy of maybe throwing out a racial slur just because they drink a little too much or who think it's funny to carve a swastika, it's because the military hasn't made it clear to them that it's not,” said Bibby. “They know what things they can't do. They know damn well not to put their hands in their pocket on the quarter deck or on the parade deck, silly things like that. During my time in the military, the military was significantly more strict on people who put their hands in their pocket on uniform than people who were connected to white supremacist organizations.” 

“This wasn’t missed; it was ignored. For a long time, the military has been getting warnings about the infiltration of extremists, and extremist organizations, particularly white nationalist organizations.”

This lack of oversight, and a certain unwillingness to confront extremism, is why Bibby, other veterans, and military experts told VICE News they were unsurprised to see so many veterans present at the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. “The question for us was how many,” said Bibby, of watching the insurrection and wondering about the veterans involved in the attack. “This wasn’t missed; it was ignored. For a long time, the military has been getting warnings about the infiltration of extremists, and extremist organizations, particularly white nationalist organizations and such, and the coal has not been heated.” 

Veteran Kathryn Smith is, by her calculation, the tenth Black woman to graduate from the United States Air Force Academy. During her time there, “people whispered racist slurs in my ear,” she said, and told her that she had taken the place of a man. She is now an organizer with Bibby at Common Defense, and has continued working on behalf of veterans. 

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The insurrection, Smith said, while not surprising, “sort of crushed my whole spirit. It's embarrassing. It's painful, but it also reinforced what I think Black people, and Black veterans have known for a long time.”

Extremism is a pernicious and perennial problem in the U.S. military. It’s also a problem that the Pentagon has no idea how to handle. In January, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a rare statement condemning extremism in the military, and on February 3, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the first Black Pentagon chief, ordered a 60-day stand down of America’s armed forces while it addresses the issues. In his confirmation hearing, Austin swore “to rid our ranks of racists,” and in a video posted last week, Austin doubled down on his commitment, telling service members who encountered extremism to share those experiences with leaders. 

“The military tries to fancy itself as apolitical, but I think it's not so much apolitical, but that the military is more politically averse.”

Still, part of the military’s historical reticence to speak out, and what makes recent statements so unprecedented, veterans say, is the military’s commitment to maintaining an apolitical stance. To dismantle and confront white supremacy in the military would mean confronting that position. “The military tries to fancy itself as apolitical," said Bibby, "but I think it's not so much apolitical, but that the military is more politically averse."

While Bibby has been pleased to see these calls to action, he also thinks that there ultimately needs to be accountability in military leadership. “There needs to be a command culture change across the military,” he said. “The military has not made [stopping extremism] a priority, and people feel that they know that they don't need to ask the command structure in the military whether or not it's okay to be a white supremacist—they know it’s not—but they also know no one's checking, and if they keep it quiet, they'll be just fine.”

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Extremism in the military is not new, but the Capitol Hill insurrection  on January 6 highlighted the need for action. In January, NPR reported that one in five of those arrested in connection with the riots had a military record. As of this writing 230 people have been charged; only 31 of those have ties with extremists groups such as the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers, but of those 31, 11 are veterans. 

In 2020, a Military Times survey found that more than one third of active-duty troops said they witnessed “examples of white nationalism or ideological-driven racism in the ranks.” These numbers have recently jumped; in 2018, only 22 percent reported the same.

“It’s been this way for several decades now. I don’t want to give the impression that there is some huge influx of extremists into the military, or the military is rife with extremists. That's not the nature of the problem,” Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told VICE News. “There are a small number of extremists in the military relative to its size. But the thing is, there's no minimum number of extremists under which there are no problems.”

In 2020, a Military Times survey found that more than one third of active-duty troops said they witnessed “examples of white nationalism or ideological-driven racism in the ranks.” These numbers have recently jumped; in 2018, only 22 percent reported the same.

Pitacavage said that extremism in the military surges at the same time it surges in the general population. That leads to a cycle where the Pentagon reacts to the problem, passes regulation, and then relents as the problem dies off. “It’s something that has to be addressed and it hasn’t been well addressed by the military so far,” he said. “This is why it’s important that the military address this as a long-term issue and come to grips with what it will need to do to deal with this, not on an ad-hoc basis but on an institutional basis. And it can be done. It’s doable.” And Pitcavage has been sounding the alarm about these issues for years: In February 2020, he testified before a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee and stressed the need for action.

He also shared alarming statistics. “Of the 427 people killed by extremists in America between 2009 and 20018, 73% were killed by right-wing extremists—76% of them by white supremacists—making white supremacists the deadliest type of extremist movement in the United States in those 10 years, by far.”

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Pitcavage’s testimony included many details about specific incidents of white supremacist extremism in the military; it’s a long list. In 2019, he told Congress, an allegedly white supremacist soldier stationed at Fort Riley was charged with distributing information about manufacturing weapons of mass destruction. His stated aim was to kill journalists and Antifa members. In 2017, a former National Guardsman and founding member of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division was arrested after officers found explosives in his apartment following the death of his roommates.

In 2018, an AWOL soldier and a former Army specialist allegedly killed two people during a gun deal. Their plan was to fly to Ukraine and join a right-wing militia fighting in Donetsk. Also in 2018, the Marines court-martialed Lance Corporal Vasillios Pistolis after he was filmed at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. In 2017, an Army reserve major used a pistol to threaten people at a local mosque and was sentenced to eight months of home arrest.

“This is why it’s important that the military address this as a long-term issue and come to grips with what it will need to do to deal with this, not on an ad-hoc basis but on an institutional basis.”

While these are just the incidents that involved violence, Pitcavage’s testimony also contained numerous examples of ongoing investigations and stories of soldiers, Marines, airmen, and sailors who were caught distributing white supremacist literature, posting on white supreamacist message boards, and rallying with fellow white supremacists in public.

According to Pitcavage, most extremists join the military not to seek training for violent insurrection against the government but for the same reasons other people join: They come from a military family with a history of service or need a good job. It’s also a place where people are exposed to extremist ideas and become radicalized. 

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The military is insular and the bonds servicemembers form with their fellows are unique and strong. Service members tend to be young and receptive to new ideas. I’s the perfect time for extremists to spread their message—especially if they’re in a leadership position.

This has already happened: In 2019, Army Reserve lieutenant colonel Christopher Cummins distributed flyers for the extremist group Identity Evropa in Tennessee and Mississippi then bragged about it online. Army private Christpher Hodgman distributed Identity Evropa flyers in Brighton, New York. “To deal with this, the military not only has to do good screening, but also key types of personnel within the military have to look for indicators of extremism from the people currently serving,” Pitcavage said. 

“If you start screening out certain people, it's harder for you to make your quotas for recruiting.”

Pitcavage and Bibby both said that recruiters and officers need to be aware of the signs of extremism and know how to deal with them when they appear. “We bombed terrorist training camps in other countries, but then we trained domestic terrorists right here in our military because we failed to screen properly,”  said Bibby, who co-founded the Black Veterans Project and now works with Common Defense, an advocacy organization for veterans that organizes them to stand up against racism, hate, and violence in their communities.

While a heightened screening process is something that has been discussed for sometime, Bibby is not sanguine about a follow-through. “It hurts recruiting, and that's one of the bottom lines of this quote unquote business that is DoD. You’ve got to get people through the door,” he said. “If you start screening out certain people, it's harder for you to make your quotas for recruiting.” 

Smith agreed. “I think we need to look at people's social media before they get to sign on to be in the military. I think we can hold people accountable,” she said. “I think we have enough ability to do operation security and intel about people abroad, why are we not screening for those sorts of beliefs within our military?”

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Like Pitcavage, Kristofer Goldsmith has testified before Congress on the dangers of extremism in the military. Goldsmith joined the U.S. Army after 9/11 and served in Iraq. When he returned home, he started to worry about veterans and active duty service members being radicalized online. In 2019, he produced a 200-page report about extremism and radicalization in the military, and said he was largely ignored by House Republicans. If they did want to talk, they wanted to talk about how social media was unfair to conservatives.

The day after the Capitol Hill riots, Goldsmith called the legislators out on Twitter. “When I finally got to testify about the 191-page report that I wrote about @VVAmerica’s troll investigation before House Vet Affairs, all the Republicans wasted their time and mine complaining about how Facebook and Twitter were mean to conservatives,” he tweeted. “This death is on their hands.”

According to Goldsmith, the tweet finally got the GOP to contact him. A Republican staffer Goldsmith worked with called and asked him to take down the tweet, saying it was too cruel. “I’m infuriated that the first time Republicans want to engage with me on anything that had to do with my work it was to say that my tweet was too mean,” he told VICE News.

After returning home years prior, Goldsmith fell into a rabbit hole of fighting military extremism through his work as the “resident millennial veteran” for Vietnam Veterans of America—a non-profit that helps Vietnam vets. He was helping manage the charity’s social media accounts  when he noticed something strange. “There was an imposter account using our logo and our name,” he said. “And they were more successful at building an engaged audience than we were. Our Facebook page was 10 years old and had 70,000 followers. Their page was less than a year old and they had something like a quarter of a million followers.”

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At first, Goldsmith thought the account was an expat vet living in Europe who was just better at building an audience than he was. He wanted to offer whoever was running the page a job. Then he looked closer at the posts. “Veterans before illegals” and “veterans before refugees” were common refrains in the posts, and even made their way onto t-shirts. “There is not one single legitimate veterans organization that in any way endorses or promotes these messages,” Goldsmith’s report said. “We, in fact, categorically reject them and seek to underscore that this false dichotomy is both harmful to veterans and our democracy as a whole.”

A screenshot of a Facebook post from the imposter "Vietnam Veterans of America" that says "Veterans before refugees."

A 2016 Facebook post from the imposter "Vietnam Veterans of America."

When Goldsmith looked at the admins for the Facebook groups, he noticed they were all located in foreign countries such as Kosovo and Macedonia. When the House Intelligence Committee outlined Facebook ads and sites funded by Russia’s Internet Research Agency, it listed pages Goldsmith was investigating. “This was a very sophisticated and dedicated foreign entity,"  Goldsmith wrote in his report, where he documented the connections he found. “Who is seeking to use our credibility as a veteran’s organization to disseminate explicitly racist and extremely divisive messages into the military veterans community.”

Goldsmith—who founded High Ground Veterans Advocacy, an organization that aims to improve the lives of veterans through education and scientific research—said his biggest concern right now is that veterans wield outsized influence in their social circles. Americans will believe a lot of wild conspiracy theories if a veteran is the one peddling them. “Whenever a veteran, especially some douchebag who uses a picture of themselves in uniform on their social media profile, embraces a conspiracy theory, it lends credibility to it in the eyes of their personal social network.” Veterans are more likely to go on to become community leaders, business owners, and politicians than any other group of Americans. “Their military experience and their propensity towards service make them widely viewed as respectable members of their community. That’s just ingrained in the American psyche,” Goldsmith said. “Just because someone served in the military doesn’t make them an expert on foreign conflict, geopolitical affairs, or the democratic process.”

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To many Americans, it doesn’t matter what the nature of the military service was. Goldsmith pointed to veteran and political activist Jack Posobiec, who has spread conspiracy theories too numerous to catalog. “His job was literally to watch people take a piss for urinalysis. That was his job. But he’s wielding his veteran status to help build his brand to become a right-wing disinformation peddler.”

“These right-wing movements are not a new phenomenon. They’ve always known that military service can be valuable for pushing propaganda,” Goldsmith said, echoing Pitcavage. “Members in military service lend them credibility but also because they’re preparing for armed conflict against other Americans.”

Goldsmith puts a lot of the blame for January 6 on Republicans, and said he had tried to warn them for years. “The language of extremism has become mainstream in the GOP. You can go to Kevin McCarthy or Marco Rubio’s Twitter right now and you’ll find tweets about the radical left,” he said. “They’re putting labels on Americans to dehumanize them. While an educated guy like Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley may not actually buy into this shit, they're smart enough to know that if they keep pushing this kind of extremist messaging into the mainstream that the logical conclusion is cops and veterans dying in the capital.”

Now, while the military tries to crack down on extremism in its ranks, veterans are concerned that this  action could be yet another passing fad, and one that doesn’t have much sway due to the force’s proclivity to stay out of politics. 

Part of this gets back to training and military oversight. “We say we don't tolerate abuse, but we only talk about it when we're going to have a special training on sexual harassment assault and racism and all those negative things, all the isms. That's the only time we're discussing it,” said Dana Allmond, a retired lieutenant colonel from the Army with over 23 years of active duty service who is now a member of the Veterans Advisory Council for Senator Krysten Sinema and Common Defense. “If you're going to live that way, you have to do it every day, not a special month or day or week.”

The military avoids “political controversy, even if it's at the expense of part of the mission, which is to create a cohesive force to defend this country.”

In many ways, Bibby said, the military avoids “political controversy, even if it's at the expense of part of the mission, which is to create a cohesive force to defend this country.” Already, however, in light of Austin’s 60-day stand-down, it does look like certain military branches are making inroads. Earlier this week, the Navy announced that all personnel would be required to reaffirm their constitutional oath and discuss, through learning sessions, extremism in the armed forces. Relatedly, the Navy has now also said that while they do not know how many sailors have been let go due to extremism, they plan to record and track this information going forward. 

Chief of Navy Personnel, Vice Admiral John Nowell Jr., also said in Facebook video earlier this week that “Just by posting, retweeting, or liking an offensive post on social media — you could be participating in extremism.” These kinds of announcements are new, as servicemembers are rarely subject to this kind of scrutiny, and could indicate more than mere statements of intent. 

“None of this stuff has to do with politics,” said Allmond.  “That’s where we go wrong.”