“Our Backgrounds Are Not Monolithic”—a Look Inside the Military’s Conversation About Extremism in Uniform
The screen showed a noose left hanging inside a bathroom near the mirror. I asked a classroom full of soldiers what it meant to them. One soldier, white, said that it was probably a dark joke, maybe about suicide, or maybe even a coded message to leadership about unit morale. It made him feel uncomfortable. At the other side of the room, another soldier, Black, explained that it was clearly an overt symbol of racism. It made him feel unsafe. Another soldier said that it reminded him of an incident last summer when a noose was found in the team garage of Black NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace.
All three agreed the noose was extreme, but not everyone agreed that it could be tied to extremist behavior. An investigation into the bathroom noose proved inconclusive. Like the Wallace case, no perpetrator was found, so no motive could be identified. Skeptics of both cases believed the incident was staged.
While this exchange echoed a microcosmic vignette of an oft-repeated narrative, the soldiers in the classroom voiced different perspectives in widely varying degrees, regardless of race or gender. Even though we all wear the same uniform, our backgrounds are not monolithic, a characteristically beautiful trait of this organization but one that set the context of the stand-down and made it all the more important for me to be crystal clear, even with the most obvious examples of extremism.
In early March, these soldiers sat in a room filled with memorabilia meant to remind them of their unit heritage: photos of straight-backed soldiers posed next to war machines. Awards. Crests. Guidons. They grimaced against the brightness, and the steel and brass along the walls reflected flashes of orange as scenes of destruction emitted from the projector. I stood at the front of the classroom, the screen illuminating the audience. I reviewed the presentation for the hundredth time as the ticker on the video dropped in concert with my stomach. We were moments away from heading full tilt into a conversation about extremism.
I’d started the lesson with the example of an Army veteran who served in combat 30 years ago. He served in Desert Storm, where he earned a Bronze Star. His leadership reprimanded him for buying a “White Power” T-shirt. He washed out of Special Forces selection. And in 1995, nearly four years after he was honorably discharged from the Army, he detonated a bomb-laden rental truck in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. He hoped to inspire a revolution against the U.S. government.
As one of the noncommissioned officers near the door turned on the lights, I asked if anyone had heard of Timothy McVeigh and the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in the history of the United States.
Out of the 30 or so soldiers, five or six had heard the story. My straw poll would prove consistent in the following two classes I taught that day. And that makes sense: The average soldier was five years old when the attack occurred.
I am a typical junior leader in an ordinary line unit—one that mirrors the fiscal year 2020 demographic profile across the active Army—in that I am one of thousands of leaders charged with addressing extremism through classes and conversations throughout the defense secretary’s 60-day stand-down. He issued his memorandum a month after the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol.
NPR reported that 14.6% of the people charged for their involvement in the Capitol attack have a military or law enforcement background.
On day 30 of the stand-down, the hands of the few soldiers who knew about McVeigh slowly lowered and the group collectively took a breath as we attempted to address in one hour what the Army has been tackling for 30 years. The conversation highlighted a decades-long undercurrent that has surfaced periodically and violently, one that demands a more thorough examination.
The strength of addressing extremism lies in data—I wish I had more of it. In June 2020, the Army released a comprehensive report on extremism in the military. While this data narrows the conversation, the report’s examples are immaterial to the events on Jan. 6. The document states, in part, that “the greatest threat emanates from anti-government extremism,” but offers “militia extremism” only as a broad category with no specifics of whom that might include.
The final appendix is dedicated to extremist symbology but exclusively focuses on white nationalist groups like Atomwaffen—and doesn’t mention groups like QAnon, the Oath Keepers, or the Boogaloo movement, monikers for ideologies whose core tenets are anti-government, who actively recruit or have a military following, and who were participants in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Beyond the recent examples, the Army defines extremism thoroughly, to include harboring racist ideologies and “participating in activities advocating or teaching the overthrow of the U.S. Government by force or violence.”
So, we examined what that definition might look like and we didn’t have to search far: In the case below, a watchdog group identified a soldier from our unit as an extremist based on his online activity.
I redacted any identifying information, but the point was probably moot. Many soldiers in the classroom had worked with this individual up until his separation from the Army in 2019.
The Uniform Code of Military Justice does not have a specific article for separation that addresses extremism. While that may give commanders several options to criminally charge extremism, it also means the Army does not have data for how many service members have been separated for extremist activity.
We talked about our former soldier’s obvious regulatory violations, but went deeper: “What are some other problems with this case?” I asked.
One soldier was embarrassed that a third party had to identify the service member, rather than the unit identifying it internally, he said.
Others noted how this public document could compromise his future employment.
The next slides displayed infographics from the New York City Police Department’s intelligence bureau. They were presented at the Army’s John F. Kennedy’s Special Warfare Center and School to identify symbols co-opted by extremist organizations. I heard murmurs as the images hit the screen.
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The symbols listed included the QAnon “Q;” Three Percenters’ co-opted insignia, which is marked by three roman numerals and 13 stars; and the Oath Keepers “tab,” which looks suspiciously similar to the Army’s Ranger tab.
I could hear the hum of jittery boots on linoleum. Up to this point, we had covered uncomfortable, but trodden territory.
The second and third slides included overt Nazi symbolism like the swastika and “SS” lightning bolts.
We repeatedly read “far-right extremists,” “white supremacists,” “opposition to the federal government.” Until then, we had not talked about specific groups involved in the events on Jan 6. I found myself at the intersection of an unpaved road that was difficult but critical to walk.
One soldier asked why we weren’t talking about Black Lives Matter or Antifa. The question didn’t surprise me, and senior military leaders have shown concern over equating the two groups with the anti-government militias involved on Jan. 6.
BLM isn’t an extremist group, but Three Percenters are, a Black soldier said.
Three white soldiers on the other side of the room said Three Percenters were only concerned with upholding the Constitution—specifically the right to bear arms.
Presented with the same information, soldiers wearing the same uniform came to different conclusions—passionate, uncomfortable, by all accounts respectful but maybe not empathetic conclusions. And many of them felt uncomfortable in a room that showcased the heraldry of the community they all shared.
Despite the discomfort, this presents an opportunity for unity, or at least clarity. It is against the federal government’s interest to hire and retain employees who, in their free time, are part of groups that would organize, potentially violently, against the government based on their own interpretation of the Constitution. The Defense Department states this pretty simply. Yet groups like the Oath Keepers, which called many of their members to Washington under the guise of protecting the Constitution, consistently recruit servicemembers.
This was brought up during the discussion. Addressing extremism should not be equated to an attack on conservative views, a soldier said. Some of the core interests of these groups—gun ownership, constitutional loyalty, and general conservatism—overlap with those of service members.
On their own, those concepts are not extreme. Coupled with misinformation and violence, they are. It was clear that many conservative soldiers in the room did not want to be associated with the acts of extremism perpetrated on Jan. 6 but felt lumped into a mix of violence that they had no part in. For the few minority soldiers in the class, the ambiguity loomed over the unsettling motivations of these groups.
A soldier asked if he would get kicked out if he had a Three Percenters tattoo. That led to a conversation where many soldiers said the actions of a few violent members shouldn’t color the reputation of the entire organization. Apparently, the Three Percenters agreed: After the insurrection, they issued a statement saying that they had dissolved permanently.
“It’s like, you may not be a Nazi, but if you hang out with Nazis and do Nazi things, people are going to call you a Nazi,” one soldier said. Others balked at this, saying it was too hyperbolic.
Many pulled out their phones to fact-check each other, citing Wikipedia or the website of the organization in question. No fact was empirical.
We addressed these and more, but the misinformation was often too great to rebut real-time. I flipped to the last slide: the oath of office.
“Can you uphold this oath and be part of an extremist organization?” I asked. Some shrugged or muttered, “Maybe”—perhaps because groups like the Oath Keepers have co-opted the oath of office for their own purposes. Most said, “No.”
“I mean, it depends on your definition of extremism,” one soldier said, and we released the breath we had held from the top of the hour into an uncomfortable laugh.
I offered to talk to anyone after the official sessions were over. Some took me up and we dived back into the folds of these questions, but at the bottom of them, we found the cold absence of the recent empirical data I needed.
I knew the discussion had not been wrapped neatly in a way I had hoped it would. I hadn’t expected it to, but part of me hoped anyway. I worried that the hour in the classroom would be dwarfed by the day’s other 23—hours consumed by a political and media ecosystem that could undo the ground we had just covered.
“This is just one of many conversations like this aimed to level the understanding of respect across the force,” I told soldiers I met with after the class. “It’s meant to be uncomfortable.” That sentiment rattled around my brain during the following weeks, and it occurred to me that we were merely taking a step—not a first or a big step but one of many toward clearing away decades of debris.
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I am not inflated enough to believe an hour could unwind 30 years. Feedback on the class was positive; most appreciated the discomfort it brought. The conversation offered a quick dive into a deep, foreboding ocean: scary at first, cold second, refreshing at last, but best not to dwell too long for fear of getting sucked in forever.
We talked with those who left the room confused in places where questions could be whispered with less judgment. I felt that even though I may personally never see a consensus on these questions while in uniform, at least our boots are tied and we are marching in a better direction.
The military has a unique opportunity to spearhead unity for a country in need of it. It is a difficult conversation for any organization to tackle, especially one tasked with being the secular arm of foreign and domestic defense but bedeviled by a seemingly nonsecular issue. Given the conversations we had, and the ones we will have, I’m confident we are up to answering them, and I am hungry for the data to address it again and again and again.