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OPINION

The military doesn't even know how bad its extremism problem is

By DANIEL MILTON, ANDREW MINES AND ANGELINA MALESKA | Special to The Washington Post | Published: March 29, 2021

The Jan. 6 siege on the Capitol rattled the nation. Among the alleged perpetrators were a number of individuals with U.S. military experience, many of whom played leading roles in the riot. Their involvement points to long-standing concerns over the prevalence of extremism in the military.
In the wake of the attack, it seemed to some that the military community was stumped for solutions and unable to size the problem of extremism among its own. While the military-wide stand-down issued by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was undoubtedly a step in the right direction, it will take more time, effort and ingenuity to develop both a deeper understanding and a coherent strategy toward combating extremism in the largest workforce in the world.
The problem of extremism in the military community, which we define as including both current and former military personnel, has been around for decades, but the events of Jan. 6 provide a useful snapshot of what it looks like today. Our review of the almost 330 Capitol Hill cases being prosecuted in federal jurisdiction turned up 40 alleged perpetrators with military experience -- about 12%. This is a higher proportion than the 7% share of people in the general population with military experience, although not as high as some early estimates suggested.
While many of the arrestees with military experience had affiliations with domestic extremist organizations, most of them arrived in D.C. either as part of organized clusters or alone. We found that the proportion of arrestees with military experience who had affiliations with domestic extremist organizations - 36 percent - was around four times as high as participants without military expertise, at 8 percent. A number of arrestees with military experience held leadership roles within these organizations. Previous research has similarly highlighted the outsize representation and leadership roles of military service members in domestic extremist organizations, which seek out service members for their operational experience and specialized training.
Importantly, 95% of the arrestees were veterans. Length of service, where known, varied significantly. Many served for less than five years (some as little as two), but several others served for more than a decade. Among the data were veterans who joined after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, but we also found some who joined the military in the 1980s and 1990s and deployed across multiple decades and conflict zones. Around two-fifths of those in our data left the service more than 10 years ago. There's much more to the picture of extremism in the military, but these data alone show just how deep and varied the problem runs.
Since the failed insurrection, multiple military and congressional bodies have begun investigations and/or inquiries into the role of individuals with military experience in the siege. More recently, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks announced she was establishing a new council to tackle a range of challenges that include extremism, diversity and sexual assault. However, between active-duty service members, contractors, reserves and veterans, the U.S. military is a massive community, and each of the problems it faces (extremism being only one) is equally massive. This is not a problem that can be solved in-house and by one body, and the complexity of the problem at hand demands a coordinated approach. The fact that, in the Capitol attacks, the vast majority of arrestees who had military experience were veterans underscores the importance of a holistic approach.
As a result, a combined task force to combat extremism in the military community, with joint Veterans Affairs and Defense department leadership, would help. This task force should have representation from Congress, as well as from both military and federal justice and investigative agencies. Its first goal should be to review current approaches, best practices, and gaps in identifying and responding to extremism in the military community. The task force should seek out expertise from a number of civil society partners to bring in a diversity of perspectives. It could also examine how to improve disparate and decentralized screening, rules and disciplinary systems across the various branches. This would help bring coherence to the government's approach to combat extremism, as well as needed buy-in across the military community and outside it.
Our data suggested that this problem is not unique to any branch of the military. Yet the military has no centralized, internal documentation system for extremism-related incidents. Such a system would benefit from uniform reporting requirements and from gathering data on more than just criminal probes compiled by the military and the FBI into active-duty service members and veterans. That means tracking matters that fall below the criminal threshold, since many cases are ultimately resolved before they raise larger flags. The task force could also publish a report including data and progress from implementation efforts. Tracking and publishing data in this manner serves at least three purposes: It helps those tasked with confronting extremism in the military size and understand the problem they face, it increases coordination and cooperation among the relevant agencies, and it provides much-needed public transparency.
Finally, the task force should consider refining and expanding current trainings and briefings to be more comprehensive and include insights from nonmilitary providers. These trainings should emphasize identifying and responding to active and passive participation in extremist networks, organizations and ideologies. Other initiatives should aim to build resilience to extremism and assemble collaborative teams of commanding officers, recruiters, trainers, military psychologists, researchers and others inside and outside the military with a range of experiences and expertise. New trainings and resilience-building programs will help the military confront a new era of challenges posed by extremist movements and ideologies, fill in gaps in current approaches, and develop initiatives that meet the dynamic nature of the problem. If our data is any indicator, these initiatives need to reach not just active-duty personnel, but veterans as well.
Of course, it is also important to remember that even though the number of individuals with military experience among the Jan. 6 perpetrators is concerning, they do not represent the vast majority of Defense Department personnel or veterans. Figuring out how to build resilience and encourage ownership of this problem by the larger community will be a critical factor to long-term success. That will be hard to do if broad brushstrokes are used to paint the picture of what is a nuanced problem.
The siege on Capitol Hill was a stark reminder that extremism in and around the military is an issue that demands attention. To combat it, we need a longitudinal, preemptive approach that takes ownership for those who fail to honor the highest values for which the military stands, past and present. Institutional change is necessary, and it needs to happen smartly and quickly.
Daniel Milton is an associate professor in the department of social sciences at the United States Military Academy and the director of research at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Views expressed in this article are his own and not those of the U.S. Army or any branch of the U.S. government. Andrew Mines is a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.