Add Civics to Military Training

Terry H. Schwadron

Jan. 23, 2021

The more we look at the Jan. 6 Insurrection attack at the Capitol, the more we see participants with military experience.

A National Public Radio (NPR) analysis of the 140 arrested to date says that one in five were military veterans, who clearly had sworn in the past to protect the Constitution and democracy. By comparison, veterans represent about 7 percent of Americans altogether.

That there are strains of political extremism in the military, outward expressions of support for White supremacy and racism is hardly a new development, But participation in a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol raises questions anew.

Simply put, the military needs to teach some basics to our volunteer army to ensure that the troops know what they are defending.

It’s a situation serious enough that Defense Secretary-designate Lloyd Austen started his testimony in Senate confirmation hearings by committing to investigating and uprooting extremism, racism and sexism in the militarybefore he was asked a question.

Of course, others who should know better, including some Republican members of Congress and state officials, also now find themselves targets for re-education about basic civics. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., had to be told, for example, that the inauguration date could not be postponed, that it is in the Constitution.

In summary, NPR reporters reviewed military records, social media accounts, court documents and news reports of those arrested so far, and found that at least 27 of those charged, or nearly 20%, have served or are currently serving in the U.S. military. Several face charges of violent and disorderly conduct at the Capitol — charges that may be upgraded to felonies including domestic terrorism and sedition.

We all have seen the many videos showing those in military style helmets carrying zip-ties and make-shift weapons. Some rioters appear to have ties to groups like the Oath Keepers, a far-right paramilitary group that includes many retired military and law enforcement personnel.

These reports came as prosecutors filed their first serious conspiracy charges, accusing three members of the right-wing militia group the Oath Keepers, a group that targets recruitment of military and vets, of plotting the riot in advance.

It’s Not New

A year ago, The Military Times polled military members and determined that more than one-third of active-duty troops and more than half of minority service members said they had witnessed examples of white nationalism or ideological-driven racism within the ranks in recent months — a rise from the previous year. The military outlet said it was a “troubling snapshot of troops’ exposure to extremist views while serving despite efforts from military leaders to promote diversity and respect for all races.”

Troops said they had seen “swastikas being drawn on service members’ cars, tattoos affiliated with white supremacist groups, stickers supporting the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi-style salutes between individuals.”

By contrast, the military has imposed rules for joining our volunteer army with gang background. As far back as In 2008, according to the FBI, 1% to 2% of the U.S. military belonged to gangs, which is 50 to 100 times the rate in the general population. Upon joining, the military has insisted on removal of gang tattoos, for example.

The military, which over years has been a model for training and education efforts, is active in training officers to recognize foreign terrorism efforts, but readily acknowledges that it has lagged at looking within its own ranks for such disturbing trends. Indeed, the Pentagon had developed several educational programs aimed at increasing understanding the roots of Islamist terrorism, only to find itself surprised by the emergence of lone-wolf outbreaks at home, as in the killings by a rogue Army officer at Fort Hood in Texas in 2013.

Still, that is a long way from seeking to root out affinity within its ranks or among its veterans for the kind of anti-democratic riot that hit the Capitol over a basic desire to declare election fraud and demand that U.S. elections be nullified.

Disturbing Images

Air Force veteran Larry Rendall Brock Jr. was photographed in his tactical gear and flex cuffs in the Senate chambers. According to court documents, he posted on Facebook that he was preparing for a “Second Civil War,” and that “we are now under occupation by a hostile governing force.” Jacob Fracker, 29, was an infantry rifleman in the Marine Corps, deployed twice to Afghanistan twice, and is a member of the Virginia National Guard and a police officer, along with Thomas Robertson, 47, an Army veteran also facing charges.

Right-wing militias and anti-government groups are targeting the military and veterans, federal officials say.

General Austin, who would be the nation’s first Black defense secretary, said he would fight hard “to rid our ranks of racists,” adding that “The Defense Department’s job is to keep America safe from our enemies. But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks.”

Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told NPR that the military’s efforts largely “haphazard. . . It’s not like the military is just tolerating white supremacists,” but efforts to address the problem need to be more systematic. “Not only does there need to be training, but there also need to be clear expectations coming down from on high about what you should do when you encounter an extremist in your unit, at your base or whatever the circumstances are, and that here are the procedures that need to be followed.”

After Jan. 6, the Defense Department said there were 68 notifications of investigations by the FBI last year of former and current military members pertaining to domestic extremism.

In his inaugural address, Joe Biden pledged to combat” a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism.”

It sounds as if teaching the basics of democracy and civics for the military ought to be high on that list.

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