Amid the Rising Tide of Hate, What Happened to Countering Extremism in the US Military?

Chief Legalman recites the oath of enlistment.
A Chief Legalman assigned to USS Gerald R. Ford's legal department recites the oath of enlistment during an extremism standdown training, March 19, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Angel Thuy Jaskuloski)

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While the American public was still reeling from the scenes of the Jan. 6 riot two years ago, a policy sea change kicked into gear to combat the rise of hate and extremism nationwide. That included efforts to address extremism in the military. Some initiatives were long overdue, some innovative and pioneering, and many quickly dwindled.

Since then, more than 130 Americans with a military background have been charged after storming the U.S. Capitol (including several on active duty). Multiple service members have been charged with plots to kill people who are racial minorities. A military veteran and neo-Nazi group founder was arrested (again) for allegedly trying to destroy an electrical substation in Maryland. Reported extremism-related cases across the armed services skyrocketed in 2021 to 10 times the number of all cases from 2013 to 2018 combined. And more generally, extremist-related crimes perpetrated by those with a military background surged in the 2010s compared to the 2000s and 1990s.

Despite the rise in hate and extremism, the fate of sustainable efforts to counter extremism across the entire military community is uncertain. Those in positions to cause change inside the military and out must embrace the long road ahead to fully address extremism in the ranks. Related initiatives can and should complement broader reforms to reinvigorate one of the nation's largest and most critical institutions.

On Feb. 5, 2021, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a stand-down, a short interlude from regular military activity, to address extremism in the ranks. It was a moment in which the military services would be forced to address a problem that has been brewing in the ranks for decades. Commanders were instructed to take one of the following 60 days and work with their units to educate their troops about the dangers of extremism.

The stand-down was a worthwhile start, as noted in the report by the Countering Extremist Activity Working Group (CEAWG), the advisory group within the Defense Department designed to help develop ideas consistent with its name, published in December 2021. The DoD updated rules on protest, extremist and criminal gang activities, including information about engagement on social media. It also introduced an audit in January 2022 that would address the military's ability to screen for extremist behavior.

While the report offered additional recommendations, political stagnation has rendered toothless or completely halted many proposed counter-extremism programs, leaving the DoD in a state of limbo. These recommendations still require authorization, funding and implementation across the service life-cycle and full force, as well as monitoring and evaluation of their efficacy in addressing extremist behaviors.

Unfortunately, a report published by the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 2022 called for an immediate halt in counter extremism programs in the military. According to that report, the proposed resources to address extremism in the military were overcompensating for a problem that is being over-dramatized. The cumulative effect of "counter counter-extremism" efforts was a National Defense Authorization Act stripped of many meaningful new initiatives, including those recommended by the DoD Working Group itself.

As momentum stalls and broader bipartisan acknowledgment of the problem remains elusive, the military will fall back on existing prevention practices aimed at intervening in and reducing the impact of extremist behaviors once they have occurred. Intermittent PowerPoint presentations, discussions and good intentions in the military's upper echelons will not be enough to tackle extremism in the ranks. Nonetheless, it appears as though a promising counter-extremism overhaul has devolved into what the Army calls "hip pocket training," or training that soldiers accomplish when there is nothing more important to be done.

What is more, efforts that focus only on the visible "symptoms" of extremist behavior in service members -- internet posts, protests, recruitment and other activities outlined in a DoD instruction -- will not only be playing an eternal game of whack-a-mole, they will miss the glaring warnings from available research that the vast majority of extremists with military background were veterans when they perpetrated extremist-related crimes.

At a time when right-wing extremist organizations are increasingly targeting both current service members and veterans -- often by entangling narratives of saviorism, patriotism and others with unique meaning to individuals with military background -- a more effective response is needed. That response cannot stop with PowerPoints and support to service members during vulnerable periods of transition.

At the same time, many in the nation have become fatigued with preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) policies and practice. With the constant culture wars and the politicization of extremism itself, it remains difficult to break into a useful dialogue about extremism in the military, whether in the halls of Congress or at the platoon level, without devolving into whataboutism and dis/misinformation derailing the conversation.

While this is an ongoing challenge, programs and leaders in the military community and without are working hard to find ways forward. Initiatives like Military Veterans in Journalism (MVJ), We The Veterans (WTV), and others are working to combat the spread of disinformation and extremism among veteran and current service communities, and strengthening veterans' roles in competing for American democracy once they leave uniformed service.

Lasting change will not happen overnight. What lies ahead is a long-term campaign to shape behavior and outcompete extremists for the hearts of our service members.

In the long run, increasing resilience to extremist ideologies, narratives and recruitment efforts inherently bolsters counter-extremism efforts as a whole.

If Congress cannot empower and adequately fund the DoD and other entities to pursue those efforts, veterans service organizations and other partners in civil society will need to take the reins.

-- Carlin Keally is a transitioning Army officer and graduate student with the Harvard Extension School.

-- Andrew Mines is a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

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