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