The US military’s extremism problem isn’t going away

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Early in his tenure, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered a military-wide “stand-down” to determine the extent of extremism in the ranks and what to do about it. The order was motivated, in part, by the involvement of a concerning number of former and current military members in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. But signs of dangerous radicalization had preceded that event. Just months before, an Army private admitted to linking up with a neo-Nazi group to “cause the deaths of as many of his fellow service members as possible.”

A 2020 survey disclosed that more than one-third of all active-duty troops had witnessed first-hand examples of white nationalism in the ranks. One expert attributed the rise in extremism to “a higher percentage of extremists attempting to join the military.” Social media access to extremist content also played a significant role.

As the Defense Department worked throughout the year to carry out Austin’s order, additional troubling events added urgency to the mission. A group of 124 former high-ranking military officers, calling themselves “Flag Officers 4 America,” penned a letter on May 10 buying into the “Big Lie” of a stolen 2020 election and claiming that President Biden was running a “Marxist form of tyrannical government.” It brought to mind the movie “Seven Days in May,” where a bunch of John-Birch-type military officers plan a coup because a fictitious president negotiated a nuclear arms treaty with the Soviet Union.

Earlier this month, three retired generals wrote a Washington Post opinion piece citing the retired officers’ letter as a reason why the active military needed to take steps to safeguard against another insurrection in 2024. If 124 gullible flag officers could be hoodwinked into believing the 2020 election was stolen, it is clearly grounds for alarm.

The unquestionable honesty of one of the three generals, retired Major General Antonio Taguba, provides immense credibility to their op-ed. Taguba, a 1972 graduate of Idaho State University and only the second Filipino-American to attain general officer rank in the Army, fearlessly and truthfully investigated and reported upon the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq.

Taguba was aware that speaking truth to power would end his Army career, which it did, but he nevertheless honored his oath of service to his country. The lives of many American service personnel could have been saved in the Iraq War had the Rumsfeld Defense Department (DOD) publicly accepted his report and taken appropriate corrective action. The DOD’s denial and cover-up provided the insurgents a remarkably effective recruitment tool to increase their ranks and kill more Americans. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the notorious founder of the Islamic State, did time at the infamous Abu Ghraib Prison. 

The three generals also pointed to the facts that 10 percent of those charged with attacking the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 were veterans or active-duty military and that the Oklahoma National Guard refused an order from the secretary of Defense to vaccinate its members. They say this demonstrates the potential for a “breakdown of the chain of command along partisan lines — from the top of the chain to squad level.” 

Nothing is more essential to discipline in the military than the requirement to follow lawful orders. Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice makes it a punishable offense to fail or refuse to follow orders. I defended a number of courts martial in Vietnam in which soldiers had failed to obey standing orders. They were much less than ideal soldiers. Without Article 92, soldiers could do as they wished, endangering the attainment of military objectives.

There is no question that requiring troops to get vaccinations against a wide range of illnesses is the lawful subject of military orders. I got about a dozen shots to protect against a wide range of exotic diseases when I joined the Army. Refusing – and possibly getting sick, infecting others and endangering the mission – was not an option.

The military is now discharging many of those who have refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Learning the identity of those military personnel who are inclined to disobey orders may prove to be a blessing for the future stability of our country. If the lawbreakers will disobey one lawful order, why might they not disobey another important order — their solemn oath to defend the U.S. Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic”? All of those who think they are above following orders should be discharged before they are put to the test of whether or not to support our democracy.

Getting back to Sec. Austin’s order, on Dec. 20 he released his department’s extremism report. It correctly recognizes that “the overwhelming majority of the men and women of the Department of Defense serve this country with honor and integrity” and then outlines several recommendations to counter extremism in the ranks. It may work if commanders are pressed to follow through in an expeditious manner. If not, we are in for real trouble and turmoil in the coming years. 

Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho attorney general (1983-1991) and 12 years as justice of the Idaho Supreme Court (2005-2017). He is a regular contributor to The Hill.

Tags Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse Antonio Taguba Capitol attack Capitol insurrection Donald Rumsfeld Joe Biden Lloyd Austin military extremism U.S. Army

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