It's time for the US military to track white nationalism within its ranks by The War Horse

White Supremacy in the Military “Like a Drop of Cyanide in Your Drink”

Prosecutors said the lieutenant was a self-proclaimed white nationalist. They said he was obsessed with neo-fascist and neo-Nazi views and that he spent untold hours online not only reading the manifesto of Anders Behring Breivik—a white supremacist who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011—but also meticulously researching how best to carry out a series of attacks against liberal politicians and hosts of cable news programs. They said he had been dreaming of a way, in his own words, “to kill almost every last person on earth.” They claimed, and intended to prove, that had law enforcement not arrested him when they did, he would have murdered innocent civilians “on a scale rarely seen in this country.” 

In his defense, his lawyers said that despite having stockpiled a cache of weapons and ammunition, and even though he had called for “focused violence” to “establish a white homeland,” he never would have actually attacked anyone. “This case,” one of his lawyers said, “has been mischaracterized and sensationalized from the start.” He was not a potential domestic terrorist, they said; instead, he was a “once-stellar and respected career military man unhinged in recent years by opioid abuse,” which “poisoned his tolerance for racial and religious diversity and caused him to fantasize about atrocities he did not intend to commit.”

Prosecutors requested that the 50-year-old U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant, Christopher Hasson, receive 25 years in federal prison. “The eyes of many await this court’s sentence,” one of the prosecutors, Thomas Windom, noted. “The law-abiders await. The potential victims await. And white supremacists intending to perpetrate violent acts await to see exactly how much federal time they may be looking at in assessing whether and how to act on their violent beliefs.”

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The U.S. military has a problem it doesn’t want to acknowledge: Despite increased efforts to bar them from enlisting, white nationalists have continued to infiltrate all branches of the U.S. military. According to a recent poll conducted by, 36% of the 1,630 active-duty troops it surveyed reported they had personally witnessed examples of “white nationalism or ideological-driven racism within the ranks in recent months.” If this same percentage is extrapolated to the whole population of active-duty troops (about 1.3 million in December 2019), that would mean nearly half a million troops have witnessed examples of white nationalism in the ranks in recent months. 

A couple of months before published the results of its poll, a few West Point cadets and Naval Academy midshipmen were seen flashing what was viewed as a white power hand signal behind ESPN’s Rece Davis, while he was broadcasting live before the annual Army-Navy football game. Two days later, Defense Secretary Mark Esper was asked by a reporter whether he had heard anything about the incident and if he thought white supremacy in the military was an issue.

“I don’t believe it’s an issue in the military,” he said. 

When he was the secretary of the Army, Esper continued, “We screened very closely and diligently the new recruits coming into the service,” and in cases where someone with white-nationalist beliefs slipped through the cracks, the Uniformed Code of Military Justice would be used to root them out.

A search of incidents of white nationalism in the U.S. military since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, reveals dozens of cases of white nationalists in the military—and these are just the examples of troops who have been caught, written about in the media, and punished. If we are to believe that up to 36% of troops today have recently witnessed white nationalism or ideological-driven racism in the ranks, we must also conclude that the vast majority of white nationalists in the military not only slip through the cracks during the recruitment process, but that they also remain undetected, unaccounted for, and unpunished.  

Marine Corps machine gunner, wearing confederate flag bandana, checking gun barrel

Marine Corps machine gunner, wearing Confederate flag bandana, checking gun barrel. (Adobe Stock)

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The truth is that no one knows how prevalent white nationalism is in the U.S. military. During a hearing of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel in February 2020, representatives of Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division testified they had no reliable data on how many troops have been administratively discharged for promoting white supremacist ideologies. The Marine Corps, which has seen its fair share of white nationalism among its ranks, does not track the number of Marines it discharges for ties to white nationalist groups.  

The Newest Military Branch—the Space Force

Troops who are caught with ties to white nationalism are typically punished by their commanders for violating Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. This rule prohibits military personnel from promoting or participating in groups that advocate “illegal discrimination based on race, creed, color, sex, religion, ethnicity, or national origin” as well as groups that advocate “the use of force, violence, or criminal activity or otherwise advance efforts to deprive individuals of their civil rights.” Troops who violate this prohibition can be reprimanded, have their security clearances revoked, or be discharged from the military. Troops may also be punished under Article 134 for engaging in conduct that is discrediting and prejudicial to good order and discipline. The severity of the punishment a white nationalist receives—and whether they’re punished at all—depends entirely on their commanders, who have almost complete discretion over how any violations are investigated, prosecuted, and adjudicated. 

For the Department of Defense to know for certain how many troops are punished for their white nationalist activities, it would need to tally the number of troops punished under Articles 92 and 134, but even that number would only count those who were caught and punished. That number would also leave out all troops who were caught engaging in white nationalist activities but whose commanders did not feel the alleged behavior warranted further investigation or punishment.

Military officials always say the numbers of white nationalists in the ranks are small, “and because of that, it is not a priority,” Carter F. Smith told The New York Times in 2019. Smith now teaches criminal justice at Middle Tennessee State University, but before that he served for 30 years as an Army criminal investigator. “Well, the numbers might be small,” Carter continued, “but they are like a drop of cyanide in your drink. They can do a lot of damage.”

To help prevent such damage, the Obama administration allocated $10 million in 2016 to 31 different organizations that combat domestic extremism at the local level around the country. The next year, however, President Trump froze the funding while his administration reconsidered the grantees’ applications. When the Trump administration released a revised list of organizations that would be receiving the funding, 12 of the 31 original organizations learned that their funding had been pulled. One of the organizations—Life After Hate—was one of the only original 31 that focuses on combating far-right extremism. Another organization that had its funding cut was the Chicago-based Hope Not Hate, which works to deradicalize neo-Nazis. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also had funding cut that would have gone toward combating jihadist and white supremacist recruiting.

Under President Trump, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Community Partnerships also saw its budget slashed. During Obama’s administration, the office led efforts to combat extremism in the United States with a budget of $21 million and a staff of 16 full-time employees and 25 contractors. The Trump administration slashed its budget to less than $3 million, cut the number of staff to eight full-time employees, and rebranded the office as The Office of Terrorism Prevention Partnerships. The office’s former director, George Selim, resigned in June 2017. He told NPR that the environment in the office had become “too polarized,” and he believed he could no longer do his job effectively.

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After the Christchurch mosque terrorist attacks in New Zealand back in March 2019, President Trump was asked whether he believed white nationalism was a growing threat. “I don’t, really,” he said. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.” 

For years, there’s been a visceral response from politicians that if white nationalist groups are “being labeled as ‘right wing,’ then it’s Republicans who are responsible for those groups’ activities,” Jason Blazakis told Time. Blazakis is the former director of the Counterterrorism Finance and Designations Office at the State Department, and is now a professor at the Middlebury Institute. “It’s unfortunate,” Blazakis continued, “but I think in many ways this has resulted and served this reluctance in the Republican side to take as strong of action as they could.”

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The Department of Defense has taken some positive steps to keep white nationalists out of the military. Recruiters are required to check the criminal records of all recruits, though only recruits who had been charged with a crime related to white nationalism would be found out. All military recruits are also subjected to a psychological examination that could uncover aberrant or extremist beliefs and are required to fill out a lengthy questionnaire—called an SF-86—that asks them: “Are you now or have you EVER been a member of an organization dedicated to terrorism, either with an awareness of the organization’s dedication to that end, or with the specific intent to further such activities?”

(Adobe Stock)

It’s unclear, however, how this self-reported information is corroborated, if at all. Moreover, according to Heidi L. Beirich of the non-profit Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, “members of white supremacist groups may not view their activity as related to terrorism,” which could undermine the intent of the questions in the first place. 

Military recruiters are also trained to be on the lookout for tattoos associated with white nationalism, including lightning bolts, skulls, and swastikas, though there is no tattoo database for them to consult. 

Perhaps the biggest blind spot the military has when evaluating the ideological fitness of a recruit or current soldier pertains to social media use. Instead of using rallies, white-power concerts, and militarized compounds, the current generation of white nationalists needs only their smartphones, an anonymous screenname, a forum like 8chan or 4chan, and an endless appetite for offensive behavior to recruit and mobilize its members. 

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After three white soldiers stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina were convicted of committing two racially motivated murders in December 1995, the Department of Defense created a task force to investigate neo-Nazis in the military. What they found were persisting “indications of extremist and racist attitudes among soldiers.” In response, the department gave commanders more discretion to report suspected extremist beliefs or racist behaviors among their troops. In 2000, the Department of the Army released updated guidance on a range of issues related to extremism, including information on tattoos that were no longer acceptable and how commanders should handle instances of their troops engaging in extremist activity.

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But before any steps to quell the spread of white nationalism in the military can be taken, the Department of Defense first needs to measure the problem. Until the military knows approximately how many white nationalists it has in its ranks, the threat will continue to have a destructive effect not only on the morale, unit cohesion, and combat readiness of the military, but also on relations between troops and the rest of the country. 

“Today’s white supremacists in the military,” one Department of Defense investigator told the Southern Poverty Law Center, “become tomorrow’s domestic terrorists once they’re out.”

White Nationalism & the U.S. Military: A Timeline Since 9/11

Date Instances of White Nationalism Among Active Duty, Reserve, National Guard, or Military Veterans
Feb 2020 During a hearing of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, a ranking member, Rep. Trent Kelly, said that over the last five years, there have been 21 criminal cases involving white supremacy in the military.  
Feb  2020 Over one-third of active-duty troops and more than half of minority troops reported that they have personally witnessed examples of white nationalism or ideological-driven racism within the ranks in recent months.
Feb  2020 An Army veteran who joined a neo-Nazi group known as The Base was charged with allegedly trying to illegally transport weapons into Virginia for a gun rights rally.
Dec 2019 Two Georgia men were kicked out of the Army National Guard after a months-long investigation into their membership in a neo-pagan sect called the Ásatrú Folk Assembly, which has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. 
Dec  2019 The Air Force began discharge proceedings against an airman stationed in Colorado after he was identified as an active participant in a white nationalist organization known as American Identity Movement (formerly known as Identity Evropa). 
Nov 2019 Three members of the U.S. military were identified as registered users on the influential neo-Nazi forum Iron March. One of the men, a Marine, was using Iron March to recruit people to join a fascist paramilitary group he wanted to form. Dozens of other users on the site claimed to have military experience. Iron March had more than 1,000 members who were found to be active military servicemembers or veterans.
Sept 2019 A self-described Satanic neo-Nazi who served as a private in the Army was arrested and charged in federal court for allegedly distributing information related to explosives, after he discussed plans to bomb a major American news network with an undercover FBI agent. The soldier pleaded guilty to two counts of unlawfully distributing explosives information on Feb. 10, 2020.
Apr 2019 The U.S. Army opened an investigation into a soldier stationed at Fort Bliss in Texas who allegedly holds a leadership position in the Atomwaffen Division, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center identified as a violent, cell-based white supremacist terror group. 
Mar  2019 Leaked chat logs revealed two Marines, two Army ROTC cadets, an Army physician, a member of the Texas National Guard, and one member of the Air Force belong to the extremist group Identity Evropa. The Anti-Defamation League says Identity Evropa “is a white supremacist group that is focused on the preservation of white American identity and promoting white European culture.” The ADL also claims the group was founded by a Marine veteran.
Feb  2019 The U.S. Marine Corps reported that it was investigating a Marine for allegedly sharing anti-Semitic and racist memes online. 
Feb 2019 The U.S. Marine Corps reported that it was investigating a viral video that seems to show two Marines wearing blackface and expressing a racial slur—”Hello, monkey,”— while in uniform. 
Feb  2019 A Coast Guard lieutenant, who also served in the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard, was arrested for and charged with allegedly stockpiling weapons and drugs. Federal prosecutors described him as a “domestic terrorist” who was planning “to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country,” according to court documents filed in U.S. District Court.
Sept  2018 After allegedly flashing the “OK” hand signal while his team’s captain was being interviewed on MSNBC, a Coast Guardsman was removed from an emergency response team that was leading hurricane response efforts in South Carolina. The “OK” hand signal is associated with white supremacy. 
Aug  2018 In a letter to former Rep. Keith Ellison, the Pentagon said that there had been 27 reports of military servicemembers engaging in extremist activity over the previous five years. Eighteen of those servicemembers were “ultimately disciplined and/or separated” from the military.
Jun  2018 The Marine Corps reported that it would be discharging a lance corporal following an investigation into Nazi propaganda he posted on Twitter. 
May 2018 The Marine Corps administratively separated a lance corporal because of his ties to the hate group Identify Evropa. 
Jan  2018 A Florida National Guard soldier and leader of a neo-Nazi organization pleaded guilty to one count of possessing an unregistered destructive device and one count of unlawfully storing explosive materials. He was sentenced to five years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release.
Oct  2017 Nearly 25% of active-duty troops reported they had seen examples of white nationalism among their fellow servicemembers. Close to half of all minority troops said they had personally experienced examples of white nationalism in the military. In written responses to the survey, anonymous members of the command expressed opinions that call into question how seriously the threat of white nationalism in the military is being taken: “White nationalism is not a terrorist organization,” wrote one Navy commander, who declined to give his name. “You do realize white nationalists and racists are two totally different types of people?” wrote another anonymous Air Force staff sergeant.
Aug 2017 At least three active-duty troops and three military veterans took part in the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, representing a terroristic national socialist organization known as the Atomwaffen Division. The leader of a white supremacist group known as Vanguard America that also participated in the rally was identified as a Marine staff sergeant who spent two years working as a Marine recruiter. It was also a veteran of the U.S. Army who plowed his car through a crowd of people, killing one and injuring 19 others.
May 2017 Two Marines stationed in North Carolina were arrested for trespassing at a pro-Confederate rally and for allegedly unfurling a banner with a slogan used by white nationalists. One of the men was later selected to be promoted by a staff sergeant promotion board. The other man was recommended to be administratively separated from the Marine Corps.
Oct  2015 The Atomwaffen Division was created by a Florida National Guardsman. It went offline in September 2017. The National Guardsman, who was eventually sentenced to five years in prison for having a cache of explosive materials, had joined to receive training for a future race war. The Atomwaffen Division specifically targeted its recruitment efforts at military service members, and existing members without a military background were encouraged to enlist. 
Apr  2014 A Vietnam veteran who served as a Green Beret and spent 20 years in the U.S. Army before being discharged for distributing racist literature in 1979 shot and killed three people at a Jewish center and retirement home in Overland Park, Kansas.
Sep 2012 In his book, Irregular Army: How the US Military Recruited Neo-Nazis, Gang Members, and Criminals to Fight the War on Terror, British journalist Matt Kennard interviewed a U.S. Army veteran who founded the neo-Nazi group White Aryan Resistance. About “10 percent of the army and Marines … are racist extremists of some variety,” the leader told Kennard. Another neo-Nazi Kennard interviewed revealed that his group, White Revolution, was composed of about a dozen military servicemembers. “Some of them have tattoos” of racist symbols, the leader told Kennard, “because anyone can walk in and get in the military now.” 
Aug  2012 Army veteran Wade Michael Page attacked a Sikh temple near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was killed by police after killing six people and wounding four others, including a police officer. 
Oct  2011 A private in the U.S. Army joined an extremist organization known as the 20th Infantry and was later caught by law enforcement officers in Texas. The organization, which was composed of about 14 members—both military and civilian—claimed “to protect the US-Mexico border against drug cartel members and drug traffickers through the use of lethal force, surveil Muslims, and prepare for a breakdown in US government functions.” At least one of the organization’s military members was later dishonorably discharged and sentenced to confinement.
Mar  2011 A former U.S. Army soldier linked to the neo-Nazi National Alliance was arrested by the FBI for planting a roadside bomb in Spokane, Washington, along the route of the city’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Parade two months prior. Local police redirected the parade and located the bomb, which was “loaded with shrapnel coated with a substance meant to keep blood from clotting in wounds.”
Sept  2010 A Marine sniper team in Afghanistan posed for a photograph in front of a flag with a logo resembling that of the Nazi SS.
Mar 2009 A former Army paratrooper helped form the Oath Keepers, a radical anti-government group claiming a membership of tens of thousands of active-duty servicemembers, veterans, and current and former police, firefighters, and medics. The Anti-Defamation League describes the group as “heavily armed extremists with a conspiratorial and anti-government mindset looking for potential showdowns with the government.” 
Dec 2008 A journal containing white supremacist material and a plan to kill then-President Obama was found in the barracks room of a Marine lance corporal who had been arrested on an unrelated armed robbery charge. 
Jul  2008 The FBI released an intelligence assessment on the recruitment of current and former military personnel by white supremacist extremist groups since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. During a review of case files from October 2001-May 2008, the FBI found 203 individuals with confirmed or claimed military service who were active in the extremist movement. 
Jul  2008 An Army veteran killed two and injured seven other people when he opened fire in a Tennessee church. In his truck, police found a letter blaming his act of violence on liberals, black people, and the LGBT community. 
May 2008 The U.S. Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the findings and sentence of an airman first class who was given a bad-conduct discharge, confined for eight months, forced to forfeit $849.00 per month for nine months, and reduced in rank to E-1 for posting comments on his personal web page that promoted a white supremacist organization. 
Jun  2007 Two Army privates stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina received prison sentences after trying to sell stolen ballistic vests, a combat helmet, and other government property to an undercover FBI agent they believed was involved with the white supremacist movement.
Feb  2007 The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a lower court’s ruling that a former soldier be released from jail under the condition that he not affiliate himself with white supremacy groups. The former soldier was administratively separated from the U.S. Army after he was caught trying to mail a submachine gun from Iraq to his father’s home in Washington. He was a known member of The National Alliance, an organization that advocates race hatred, anti-Semitism, and the overthrow of the U.S. government.
Jan  2007 The National Gang Intelligence Center, which operates under the U.S. Department of Justice, noted in a report, on gang-activity in the U.S. military that “various white supremacist groups have been documented on military installations both domestically and internationally. These members are present in most branches and across all ranks of the military, but are most common among the junior enlisted ranks.” The report also noted that major street gangs, including the Bloods, Crips, Black Disciples, Gangster Disciples, Hells Angels, Latin Kings, The 18th Street Gang, Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), Mexican Mafia, Nortenos, Surenos, and Vice Lords were also documented.
Oct  2006 The National Socialist Movement received a number of queries from active duty Army and Marine personnel stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan who expressed interest in joining, according to the FBI.
Sep  2006 Leaders in the Aryan Nations offered to train North Carolina chapter members of Blood and Honour Combat 18—which included at least two members with confirmed military backgrounds—as a “special operations enforcement branch” of the Aryan Nations. 
Aug  2006 According to a Defense Department investigator, there were thousands of soldiers at the time in the Army who were involved in extremist or gang activity, largely due to relaxed recruiting standards. The same investigator also claimed to have uncovered an online network of 57 neo-Nazis who were spread across five military installations. 
Jul  2006 The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) published a report on white supremacists in the military. One former U.S. Army engineer later became a member of the National Alliance, one of the most dangerous and best organized neo-Nazi organizations in America. The Montana state leader of the National Socialist Movement, another neo-Nazi group, served two combat tours in Iraq as a Marine. None of the men, including a Navy SEAL, were ever disciplined for their activities, and all were honorably discharged. Then-Undersecretary of Defense David S. C. Chu dismissed the SPLC’s reporting.
Jan  2006 The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces reversed a judgment that a U.S. Army Soldier violated Articles 92 and 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for attending a Ku Klux Klan rally, recruiting and training members in extremist activity, and distributing extremist literature.
Jan  2006 A man who claimed to have served in Iraq before being discharged in 2005 formed a National Socialist Movement chapter in Butte, Montana, before becoming the group’s state leader. The man said he joined while still a Marine in 2004.
Nov  2005 A federal court convicted a former Army intelligence analyst on a weapons violation after the soldier helped a convicted felon buy a firearm. After the soldier was arrested, military police at Fort Bragg discovered white supremacist materials and several weapons hidden behind ceiling tiles in the soldier’s quarters. 
May 2003 The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division contacted the FBI after suspecting that six active-duty soldiers stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas were affiliated with Aryan Nations. 


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David Chrisinger

David Chrisinger is the executive director of the Public Policy Writing Workshop at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and the director of writing seminars for The War Horse. He is the author of several books, including The Soldier’s Truth: Ernie Pyle and the Story of World War II and Stories Are What Save Us: A Survivor’s Guide to Writing about Trauma. In 2022, he was the recipient of the 2022 George Orwell Award.

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