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Extremism, racism in the military: ‘Here’ no evil?

The Pentagon doesn’t have comprehensive data on the issue in the ranks, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem

Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander, U.S. Africa Command, greets Massachusetts National Guardsmen as he arrives for a House Armed Services Committee hearing April 20.
Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander, U.S. Africa Command, greets Massachusetts National Guardsmen as he arrives for a House Armed Services Committee hearing April 20. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — Earlier this month, Professor Charlice Hurst published a thought-provoking article entitled “The ‘Not Here’ Syndrome” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

In it, Hurst, who is Black, explores the phenomenon of white people who, while intellectually recognizing the existence of racism and inequality, are “blind” to it within their own circles.

One reason, Hurst suggests, is white Americans tend to overestimate how far along the country has progressed toward racial economic parity.

“They do so even after reading about the persistence of racism. Rather than attending to facts, white people often base their estimates on examples of high-status Black people, taking the success of a few as evidence of mass progress,” observed Hurst, who specializes in management and organization at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.

Hurst’s article put into words something I have watched unfold in recent Senate Armed Services hearings.

Concerned by the overrepresentation of veterans and current servicemembers among those charged in the Jan. 6 insurrection by a mob of former President Donald Trump’s supporters, senators have been asking Pentagon nominees and defense officials about the prevalence of extremism in the military.

Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan acknowledges extremism and racism have no place in the military. But he has had a burr under his saddle ever since Colin Kahl, now confirmed as the Pentagon’s policy chief, pledged to stamp out systemic racism in the military at his March 4 confirmation hearing.

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Unlike Kahl, who has never served in the military, Sullivan has spent 26 years in the Marines and Marine Corps Reserve, a fact he pointed out to Kahl at the hearing. Then he demanded Kahl cite data to support his claim that racism exists in the ranks.

Sullivan’s point, he said, was that it’s “really important to get data on this before you paint with such a broad brush.”

At another hearing, Sullivan bristled at Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal’s characterization of the potential number of military personnel who espouse white supremacist or extremist ideas as “a small percentage, under 10 percent, but that’s a large percentage in terms of its potential impact.”

Sullivan keeps asking witnesses if they have any data that would support this claim.

They don’t. The Pentagon doesn’t have any comprehensive data on extremists in the ranks. I know because since Jan. 6 reporters have repeatedly asked the Pentagon for data and have come away empty-handed.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem, and quibbling about the scope of it doesn’t help.

“We have to acknowledge that there is some level of extremism. There are some members of the military that hold extremist views that, if unchecked, will undermine the good order and discipline of the military,” Maryland Democratic Rep. Anthony G. Brown, a retired Army colonel, told me recently. “If you deny that, or even if you allow your sense of pride in the organization to suggest that it’s so de minimus that we need not spend a lot of attention on it, then we’ll never get to the root cause of the problem.”

It’s important not to conflate extremism with racism, although there is likely overlap. I like Brown’s framing of extremism, which he said can be motivated by racial or religious animus or by a general lack of belief, faith or commitment to our form of government.

A ‘false sense of security’

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, who spent 41 years in the Army before becoming the first Black person to lead the Defense Department, recently ordered the entire military to conduct one day of training to discuss extremism.

Brown, who is Black, has heard anecdotally that some commanders and supervisors began that discussion with remarks like this: We have to do this training, but this is a great unit that has always worked well together and so it’s not really an issue here.

“This is a subconscious thing that sets the wrong tone,” Brown said.

It makes it especially hard, for instance, for a junior person of color who has experienced extremism firsthand to disagree with their boss.

“It goes to this sense of pride in organization, this faithful service to an organization that you love, and you’re unwilling to see its imperfections, and unwilling to accept it when it’s raised by people you work with or work for you,” Brown said. “That’s a challenge, but it is not insurmountable.”

Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego, who deployed with the Marine Corps to Iraq in 2005, points to why this problem — no matter the scope — is especially concerning within the military.

“You can’t have people who are trained by the military — and some of them very well-trained — turn around and then use that against the government they’re sworn to protect,” said Gallego, who chairs the Armed Services Intelligence and Special Operations Subcommittee.

During his time in the Marine Corps, he heard the n-word tossed around “a lot.” Other Marines, he said, mocked Blacks and Latinos around him because they thought he was Italian.

Working together toward a common goal can sometimes serve to shield extremist views from sight, especially from senior officers.

“There’s a false sense of security in that I’ve always seen my Black and white and Latino Marines working well together, so this must not be an issue,” Gallego said.

And getting after the institutional racism in the military will also help combat the extremism issue.

“Good diversity and inclusion programs also help [reduce] extremism in the long run,” Gallego said. “If you have more people that are in positions of power that are of color, it changes the dynamic.”

Officers of color make up a small fraction of the military, and the higher up you go, the whiter the officer corps becomes.

Using the military’s most recent data, 8.3 percent of junior officers are Black, 9.2 percent are Hispanic or Latino and 6.2 percent are Asian. But for generals and admirals, only 7.3 percent are Black, 1.8 percent Hispanic or Latino and 1.2 percent Asian.

In the 70-plus year history of the Joint Chiefs, there has been exactly one chairman who was not a white man: Colin Powell.

There has never been a non-white as the Navy chief or Marine Corps commandant, and the Army and the Air Force only have one non-white top officer each.

There has never been a four-star general in the Marine Corps who wasn’t white.

So, in the storied history of the Marine Corps, there has never been a single member of an ethnic or racial minority who merited a fourth star? Sounds like an institutional issue to me.

Still, Sullivan persists in demanding proof of what’s obvious to anyone who’s walked past the portraits in the Pentagon’s E-ring.

“Trust me, the average soldier is watching,” Sullivan said during a hearing this month. “And they want someone to try to defend them, not besmirch them.”

That may be what they want, senator, but that’s not what they need. Just because we love something, it doesn’t mean we can’t hold it to a higher standard and demand that it does better.

Andrew Clevenger covers defense for CQ Roll Call.

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