Removing extremists from the military will take more than surveys

Getty Images

It’s been reported that as many as 20 percent of the defendants charged for the insurrection were either actively enlisted or were veterans. But the armed forces already knew that. 

Before the Jan 6. Capitol attack was a twinkle in some members of QAnon’s eye, Congress drafted instructions to root out people with these beliefs from the Armed Forces. Subtitle F of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, passed days before the insurrection, directs the Department of Defense to assess the level of extremist beliefs among its ranks using climate command surveys. 

It’s an urgent matter for Congress; Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has until March 1 to come up with the list of questions that will be used in these surveys, the inquiries that will hopefully cull out those service members who sympathize with the sentiments that led to a near overthrow of our federal government.

The problem is that these methods won’t work the ways Congress expects. The military is less than stellar at policing — or even understanding — itself. 

This method of measuring “climate” started under the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, which mandated they be completed annually by all units. They survey troops on sundry topics like racism, discrimination, sexual assault and or harassment and workplace safety and satisfaction. 

Climate command surveys seem like a pollster’s dream. They’re designed to take the pulse of the military relatively quickly and they’re often required; there’s no analog to hanging up the phone when someone calls.  

They’re anonymous, though they ask for rank and gender, which means if a respondent is a member of enough minority groups, their identity can be deduced. Moreover, the content of comments — there’s a section where people can free-write their responses — may end up inadvertently revealing the respondent’s identity. 

One particular limitation bears mentioning because it can foil this entire endeavor to expose extremists: if fewer than five people in a particular group don’t answer a question then none of the responses count. Defense Equal Employment Opportunity Institute uses the example of a unit with 17 members: three women and 14 men. Because there aren’t five women answering the survey, none of their answers will register.

That’s a problem when you’re trying to detect shades of white supremacy. White respondents may not be able to recognize microaggressions and other problematic behavior. The racial makeup of the military isn’t balanced; 69.9 percent of active-duty enlisted men and 53.76 percent of active duty enlisted women are white. Since there are groups as small as 10-11 people, it’s entirely possible that fewer than five minority responses will come in and their contributions and experiences will never appear in a final analysis. 

In addition to these internal constraints, it’s possible that Congress leans on them too much. In 2019, the Marine Corps reduced the number of climate command surveys from five per year to one due to survey fatigue. It isn’t clear whether the one Congress envisions for the extremist purge will be an added task or not.

Even without fatigue, the surveys aren’t failproof. No official statistics have been published on the number of people who don’t complete them — a problem with Department of Defense transparency — but posters to RallyPoint, an online bulletin board for military personnel, have indicated that there are some who simply fail to do it. 

What the Department of Defense is likely loath to admit is that there are several ways around the surveys. Indeed, even ones that are considered mandatory training have, at times, become a corner-cutting exercise, where one person completes the task for his entire group. It’s called “pencil-whipping” and as one might imagine, unit tasks are sometimes completed all by one person. 

Even if each individual completed the survey, it’s not clear that being frank is their highest priority. The hierarchical nature of the military, fear of reprisal at work and an instinct to protect the military institution conspire to prevent complete candor. That’s just when someone’s personal status isn’t jeopardized. It will be worse when answering questions might serve as cause for separation from the armed forces.

I’ve seen a certain amount of self-delusion in the military. The famed line from the military drama “A Few Good Men” —  “You Can’t Handle the Truth” — speaks to people who have served. Core loyalty isn’t just a concept; it’s part of combat effectiveness. Sometimes they ignore signs of what’s really happening to maintain focus on the mission. If one person is showing signs of extremist behavior, it isn’t impossible those around him have hidden that in their psyches. 

Moreover, Congress needs to manage its expectations if it hopes that enlisted men and women will tell on each other. Group loyalty in the military is fierce. General Douglas MacArthur’s mother taught him when he was at West Point: “Never lie, never tattle.” It was a lesson MacArthur imparted to troops and has since been reinforced.

Almost  quarter century ago, Marine Corps General Gerald Omerod wrote: “Every individual must balance the competing demands of various kinds of loyalty — to self, to family/friends, to one’s  unit, to the Corps, to country,  to God — and each of us will determine our priorities differently, based on our unique moral code.” 

The military has to start somewhere so climate surveys can serve as a jumping off point in the hunt for white supremacy and extremism, but they can’t be the final assessment. In post-Communist Europe, a process called lustration dug out police with political afflictions that threatened the administration of justice. It doesn’t rely on self-report and is much more involved than current processes, so it would require further authorization by Congress for the Department of Defense to try it. The progressively deeper background checks for active duty employees who need further clearance might find some evidence; perhaps those need to be more frequent.

Whatever the other steps are, we need to go beyond command climate surveys — and expecting the armed forces to accurately monitor themselves — to solve the problem of extremist beliefs infecting the military.  

Kelsey Baker is a former Marine and served as a uniformed victims’ advocate during her time in the service. 

Tags Far-right extremism Lloyd Austin Military NDAA United States Department of Defense

More White House News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video