Editor’s Note: Amy McGrath, a former F/A-18 pilot, served 20 years in the Marine Corps, including three combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. She has been a candidate for the US House and Senate races in Kentucky. Paul Rieckhoff is an Army infantry combat veteran, President of Righteous Media, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), and the author of “Chasing Ghosts: Failures and Facades in Iraq, A Soldier’s Perspective.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The military is still the most respected institution in America, but this respect is not a given. The politicizing of the military under the Trump administration and the growth of right-wing extremism among veterans are serious threats to that national admiration.
Veterans made up as much as 20% of the people arrested so far in relation to the violent insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, according to an NPR count. This is a much higher percentage than the 7% of veterans in the population as a whole. Additionally, most of them served since 9/11. These domestic terrorists who attacked our democracy included men and women, officers and enlisted, spanning almost all of the service branches. As a nation, we must face the hard fact that there may be a systemic problem here, the nature and depth of which is yet to be determined.
The threat is urgent, but it’s not new. There were signs of right-wing extremism in the military as far back as 2009. These real warnings were politicized and little was done. For the past decade, far-right extremist activities have surged, and the problem got worse under President Donald Trump. By consistently using racially coded language and other dog whistles, he encouraged and, arguably, grew extremism nationwide, including within the military and veterans community.
Among the many national security threats we face, this is now the most pressing.
Right-wing white supremacists and extremists were behind two-thirds of the terrorist plots in 2020, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Since 2016, they have executed more attacks than any other domestic or foreign. There are few higher-priority recruits for extremist groups than American men and women who have worn the uniform.
But over the past decade, even when these facts were revealed, many Republicans and some Democrats downplayed the threat. Some even suggested that identifying veterans’ involvement in often violent right-wing groups was unpatriotic. There’s nothing unpatriotic about defending our nation from enemies – foreign or domestic.
As veterans, we advocate for one another – to secure just benefits and to maintain public awareness of the sacrifices made by those who have served. But we are also the toughest on other veterans who defile our code of conduct through war crimes, putting other troops at risk and undermining our nation’s moral authority and security. Today, the subversion and desecration of that code exists here on the home front, too.
This is our house to clean up. The military and post-9/11 veteran community need to tackle this head-on. Devaluing the rights of fellow citizens and promoting hate and violence against our own is fundamentally against our oath and belittles the great sacrifices of all those who came before us. We believe Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s “stand down” among the active duty and reserve forces to address extremism in the ranks is a good start. More must be done, and can be done.
Military leaders need to lead the national discussion on this issue, not ignore it for fear of seeming too political. Trump’s politicizing of the military made it harder for troops to discuss extremism, because they didn’t want to be seen as too political, or as criticizing the commander in chief.
Leaders must remind military members of the core values we uphold and defend. It’s not political. It’s an issue of good order and discipline. The First Amendment doesn’t allow us to endanger our fellow Americans. Dangerous speech – toxic verbal friendly-fire – that violates the norms of our society or invites violence should not be tolerated in our country and it certainly cannot be allowed in our military.
We must implement a robust training surge for digital literacy across the Department of Defense. Like others in society, service members can be radicalized by targeted disinformation they see online. We can mitigate this with more education. Just as we surge troops in war zones, we can surge information here at home. We did it with cyber awareness training, to lessen security breaches within our military. Our military is more secure because members now know what sites are safe and can identify potential threats.
Similarly, we should aggressively address this new extremism in all its social media disguises. The 21st century warfare specialist, Peter Singer, talks of “inoculating” persons against disinformation. Like the coronavirus vaccines, this is part of the resiliency our forces need to respond to evolving threats. Digital literacy won’t stop all online lies and conspiracy theories any more than armor stops every bullet. But it does make troops more aware of and less susceptible to them.
The latest studies on extremism within the military were done over two decades ago, only within the Army and Air National Guard.
We need to study again extremism and other forms of intolerance, to clearly identify the scope of the problem and understand how deeply it has invaded our military and veteran community.
More than 18 million of US veterans nationwide swore an oath to defend our Constitution and volunteered to give our lives for this country. It’s time for us to answer the call again. We should lead the nation in combating those who are attacking the very democracy we swore to protect. That starts in our own communities, combating the enemy within.