A one-day 'stand down' is not enough to address extremism in the military

A one-day 'stand down' is not enough to address extremism in the military
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On Feb. 5, Secretary of Defense Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOversight Republicans seek testimony from Afghanistan watchdog Carbon reduction tax credit: An investment we can't afford not to make The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - What do Manchin and Sinema want? MORE issued a memorandum that directed commanding officers and supervisors at all levels to “select a date within the next 60 days to conduct a one-day ‘stand down’” to address the challenge of right-wing extremism in the military. To that end, Austin’s office has issued a 13-page guide for commanders and senior civilians who would lead the stand down. It includes talking points, procedures for small-group training and facilitated discussion, sample questions and answers, a series of case studies, a reading guide, and instructions for reporting the completion of training.

All of the foregoing is to be welcomed. It has been widely reported that veterans were active participants in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, and that right-wing extremist groups have encouraged their younger followers to join the military in order to obtain proficiency in combat arms. But a one-day stand down simply is not enough to address a challenge that threatens to tear apart not only the military, but the very fabric of the American body politic.

There is certainly little to criticize in the details of the training program that Secretary Austin and his office have laid out for those leading the effort. It is important to emphasize, per the guide’s instructions, the meaning of the oath of office that both civilian and military personnel take upon joining the military and government service generally. Moreover, once in the military, personnel are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which the guide points out involves “the added appropriate accountability inherent in maintaining the good order and discipline essential for a fighting force.” Moreover, commanders and supervisors rightly are instructed to convey to their staffs the importance of reporting any extremist behaviors up the chain of command.

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The problem is not with the guide, its intent or its contents. The problem — and it is a serious one — is that one day’s training simply will not change people’s behavior or eliminate their prejudices. The guide requires commanders to certify that 100 percent of their staffs attended the stand down. But attendance is hardly a guarantee of a session’s effectiveness. Not everyone attending the sessions will take to heart what they hear; many will simply carry on as before. Some will mock the entire exercise. For example, in February, a State Department employee, having had his racist and anti-Semitic blogs outed by Politico, responded with a parody of  standard disclaimers that government officials offer when writing or speaking publicly: “If you have not already surmised, my ideas are my own and not a reflection of any employer, company, agency, country, etc.”

Clearly, the Department of Defense must take further steps to eradicate extremism from its ranks. To begin with, it should recognize and acknowledge that a one-day stand down simply is an insufficient response to a deeply rooted problem. It should mandate periodic briefings and stand downs, to take place not less than twice annually. It also should require mandatory testing; those taking the tests would have to earn a certificate of completion at the end of the training session.

Perhaps more important, the department should not only vet potential recruits for any indication of extremism, it also should vet the recruiters themselves. Recruiters who may not be as sensitive to concerns about extremism will be less inclined to probe the backgrounds of otherwise acceptable recruits. By setting high standards for both recruiters and candidates for the military, the department will make it far more difficult for extremist groups to penetrate the uniformed services.

For far too long, the military has tended to look the other way when confronted by the question of bigotry in its ranks. This is no longer the case. But if the Defense Department is truly to eradicate this enemy from within, it must do more than merely demand one-day stand downs and memoranda of attendance.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.