A study published on Monday presents alarming new evidence about something that has, so far, been anecdotally reported: the U.S. military has a white nationalist problem, and it’s getting worse.
For more than a decade, reports have linked high-profile racist extremists to veterans organizations and the military. This latest study suggests there’s a problem more far-ranging than the occasional “bad apple” or enlisted figurehead.
In September, about a month after white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, VA, for the “Unite the Right” rally, Army Times conducted a confidential online survey of more than 1,000 active-duty troops. The publication released the results of that poll late Monday afternoon.
The Times found that nearly one in four survey respondents had witnessed concrete instances of white nationalism among fellow troops. Unsurprisingly, the number of “non-white” troops who witnessed such behavior was much higher, at around 42%. Among active-duty troops at large, however, homegrown white nationalism was ranked as a more pressing national security threat than Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, “U.S. protest movements,” and “civil disobedience.”
Perhaps more troublingly, while the majority of service members did recognize the threat of white nationalism in the service and the nation at large, a fringe faction (around 5%) wrote comments disparaging the methodology of the poll and complaining that groups like Black Lives Matter weren’t included as an example of an encroaching extremist threat. (To its credit, the Times refers to BLM’s goal as being to raise “awareness of violence and discrimination towards black people.”)
In these written responses to the survey, anonymous members of the command reflected opinions of white nationalism typically only held by, well, white nationalists:
“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.
The oddly pervasive belief among white people that they’re being actively discriminated against aside, the military’s white nationalist problem has troubling consequences for nearly every other major fissure in America today. For example: While some military commanders went on the record to counter Trump’s “nice-people-on-all-sides” apologist whimper in Charlottesville’s wake, it has become clear over the last year’s violent protests how much white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups rely on former service members for protection, tactical advice, and recruiting. This has been the result of a long-term, intentional campaign.
As far back as 2009, the Department of Homeland Security warned of right wing extremists targeting “disgruntled” former service members. These people “will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat,” DHS wrote. So we shouldn’t have been surprised when leaders of white supremacist groups in Charlottesville were later identified as former Marines—and one, even, as a Corps recruiter.
Nor, as these trends intensify, should we be surprised when Charlottesville cops stand and watch a white supremacist shoot a gun into a crowd. Those same 1-in-20 Military Times respondents who espouse white nationalist thought are very likely, once they leave the service, to find themselves as members of the increasingly unregulated, militarized power structure in this country.
As ICE and Border Patrol struggle to keep pace with their Trump-era hiring mandates, the agencies will continue to aggressively recruit military veterans, waiving some requirements in order to fast-track them; the American Law Enforcement Heroes Act, signed by the president in June, incentivizes local police forces to hire even more veterans, though by some estimates one in five officers are already coming into the force from Afghanistan, Iraq, or another military assignment.
White nationalist groups, neo-Nazis, and the so-called “alt-right” have recently bragged of infiltrating academia, politics, the media, even the tech industry. But in infiltrating the military, they’ve acquired much more terrifying means.