During the 1960s and ’70s, those of us who fought in Vietnam became accustomed to having many of our fellow countrymen slander us as, at best, victims of a government that sent its poor to fight a criminal war and, at worst, war criminals ourselves, complicit in the routine commitment of atrocities. But the pendulum began to swing back the other way in the 1980s, and continued in the same direction through the Gulf War and 9/11 until, by the time of George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers had been elevated to the status of “secular saints.”
My fellow Vietnam veterans and I would no doubt have preferred such reverence to the chilly reception we received after the war, but secular sainthood has created its own set of problems — isolation from American society at large, unequal burden sharing, and a belief in the moral superiority of those who serve over those who haven’t — that threaten to undermine the bond between service members and veterans on the one hand and American society at large on the other. After all, healthy civil-military relations depend on mutual trust between soldiers and the society they serve.
Now, the pendulum seems to be swinging back to the bad old days of slandering the military, as part of broader claims that Donald Trump normalized “white supremacy” and other forms of right-wing extremism. The fact that there were veterans among the rioters who unlawfully entered the Capitol on January 6, the persistent claim that Trump appealed to extremist groups, and Trump’s popularity with the military form the basis for proliferating allegations that the military has become a friend to racism and extremism.
Indeed, some have even raised the specter of active duty and National Guard troops constituting an “insider threat.” For example, Representative Steve Cohen (D., Tenn.) told CNN that:
The [National] Guard is 90-some-odd percent, I believe, male. Only about 20 percent of white males voted for Biden. You gotta figure that in the Guard, which is predominantly more conservative, and I see that on my social media . . . they’re probably not more than 25 percent of the people that are there protecting us who voted for Biden. . . .
The other 75 percent are in the class that would be the large class of folks who might want to do something. And there were military people and police who took oaths to defend the Constitution and to protect and defend who didn’t do it who were in the insurrection. So, it does concern me.
Cohen added that people on social media had referenced and reminded him of the assassination of then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981.
Responding to a question about white supremacy during his CNN Town Hall on February 16, President Biden said:
I would make sure that my Justice Department and the Civil Rights Division is focused heavily on those very folks, and I would make sure that we, in fact, focus on how to deal with the rise of white supremacy.
And you see what’s happening, the studies that are beginning to be done, maybe at your university as well, about the impact of former military, former police officers, on — on the growth of white supremacy in some of these groups.
To address concerns about extremism in the ranks of the military, Biden’s secretary of defense, retired Army general Lloyd Austin, has called for a “stand down” across the force to address the issue. “I really and truly believe that 99.9 percent of our servicemen and -women believe in [their] oath. They believe, embrace the values that we are focused on, and they’re doing the right things,” Secretary Austin said on February 19. “I expect for the numbers [of extremists in the ranks] to be small, but quite frankly, they’ll probably be a little bit larger than most of us would guess. . . . But I would just say that, you know, small numbers, in this case, can have an outsized impact.”
But Kash Patel, the former chief of staff to Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller, argued that the problem has been overstated. “They have self-admitted that the problem doesn’t exist, to their knowledge, and that’s because it doesn’t,” Patel said on Fox News:
White supremacy is not rampant throughout the Department of Defense. That is outrageous and offensive to our men and women in uniform. . . . The Biden Pentagon is trading in politics instead of logic and fact. . . . Their own spokesperson and their own secretary of defense, they have said they do not know the problem and whether it exists. They don’t have a name for it. They don’t have a solution for it. But they’re going to label it anyway.
There is indeed a “real problem”; it’s just not the one people are talking about. It is instead that political and military leaders have failed to define their terms.
Racism vs. Racial Prejudice
Let me be clear: There have been serious racial incidents involving military service members in the past, and military leaders were quick to deal with the perpetrators appropriately. But the idea that racism is somehow pervasive in the military is nonsense.
The problem with this latest campaign is that most of the recent claims about racism in the military conflate true racism and white supremacy on the one hand and racial prejudice on the other.
The former has traditionally referred to membership in, or sympathy with, the KKK, neo-Nazis, skinheads, or other groups that preach violence. The U.S. military has long been vigilant about the possibility of extremist groups taking advantage of military training to advance their own goals. Background checks have always been a part of the recruitment and enlistment processes. And the services have been quick to separate individuals whose background checks raise red flags.
The latter is a manifestation of what both Plato and Aristotle called “love of one’s own,” a feature of human nature. The Greeks preferred their ways to those of the Persians. The Athenians preferred their own laws to those of the Spartans. All humans prefer their own families and communities to others’.
Racial prejudice arises from generalizations about other racial groups, and is not unique to any one group. It has been my own experience that military service undermines such prejudice. Because service members learn to work toward a common goal with others from different backgrounds, the service often teaches them to rise above their preexisting prejudices.
It is also the case that although the services reflect the racial attitudes of Americans at large, they have done well in overcoming racial problems. As the late military sociologist Charles Moskos observed a quarter-century ago, the United States Army is the only American institution in which black men routinely give orders to white men. The military is, by necessity, a meritocracy, which gives it a leg up on other institutions in grappling with the problem of prejudice.
Although extremism and racism overlap in many cases, they are different phenomena. In the current debate, “extremism” apparently does not include the groups that instigated mayhem across America in the summer of 2020, rioting, looting, and committing arson. The media has persisted in representing those groups as “peaceful protesters,” and since peaceful protesters can’t be extremists, the term is reserved for right-wing militia groups and the like.
But even when one confines the discussion to one side of the political aisle, where does one draw the line? Is supporting the Second Amendment or advocating smaller and less intrusive government “extremist”? Is a service member or veteran who supported President Trump an extremist? Is it extremist to be skeptical of the single-minded quest for “diversity”? Ironically, the military’s attempts to address an alleged lack of diversity in the ranks, like all identity politics, risks dividing people rather than unifying them by suggesting that justice is a function of attributes such as skin color rather than individual character. In the military, where institutional effectiveness depends on cohesion born of trust between and among service members, this is a serious problem.
Thus, the claim that extremism and white supremacy are widespread in the military undermines trust on two levels: First, between the American people and the military as an institution; and second, between the military rank-and-file on the one hand and their leaders on the other.
Americans hold the military in high regard, perhaps too high. But if civilians have tended to place members of the military on a pedestal, implying that extremism and white supremacy are rampant in the military can only engender civilian disrespect for the armed forces and lead to unjust condemnation. This, needless to say, does not bode well for healthy civil-military relations.
Regarding trust within the force, what is the rank-and-file soldier to think when both politicians and especially senior officers seem to suggest that supporting President Trump or traditionally conservative ideas such as gun rights and smaller, less intrusive government might make him or her a threat to the country? What will be the consequences for morale and discipline if the ranks believe that senior leaders have sold them out by their apparent willingness to go along with such accusations?
I am personally aware of increasing disillusionment on the part of service members who feel betrayed by their senior leadership. Individuals join the military for a variety of reasons, but a dominant one is a sense of patriotism, which is undermined if service members believe that senior officers are willing to sacrifice them to trendy political ideas.
It is disheartening to note that no senior officer to my knowledge has stepped forward to denounce this latest slander against the American soldier. While real instances of extremism and white supremacy must be identified and perpetrators separated from the service, as has been the practice in the past, suggesting that white supremacy and extremism are rampant in the military is a disservice to the force. Both political leaders and senior officers owe it to the country in general and the military in particular to define extremism, identify actual cases, and provide data supporting their claim that a real problem does in fact exist. To do otherwise is to contribute to a calumny against those they claim to lead.