On Combatting Extremism in Our Army

By: Kathryn Eklund PhD, Sean Jordan, Christian Nattiel, Mark Cartagena-McGinnis, Hope Hack, Seth Bush
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Extremist organizations and activities are those that advocate racial, gender or ethnic hatred or intolerance. They include those that advocate, create, or engage in illegal discrimination based on race, color, gender, religion, or national origin. Extremist organizations are also those that advocate the use of or use force or violence or unlawful means to deprive individuals of their rights under the United States Constitution or the laws of the United States or any state, by unlawful means

-Army Regulation AR 600-20

            dtd 24 July 2020

Extremism in the Army is neither a new development nor a problem of which the Army has been unaware. Individuals who hold and espouse radical or extremist views have been present in formations for years. No better example illustrates this fact than Sergeant Timothy McVeigh.  McVeigh espoused racist and anti-government rhetoric throughout his time in the Army. Despite his vocalizing these views, he was never investigated or reprimanded for his behavior and eventually received an honorable discharge (Kifner, 1995; Frank, 2021). Timothy McVeigh continued his behavior and radicalization, and less than four years after his discharge from the Army, he committed the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.  

That same year, the National Alliance (NA; a white supremacist group) radicalized over twenty soldiers in the 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, NC (Anti-Defamation League, 2000; Frank, 2021). A soldier, Robert Hunt, started this radicalization by renting a billboard outside of Ft. Bragg, NC and used it as a tool to spread the extremist propaganda of the NA. As a result, in December 1995, three soldiers linked to the NA killed two Black civilians in a drive-by shooting near the base. Immediately following the arrest of the two murderers, the Army investigated and dishonorably discharged nineteen other soldiers for related extremist actions.  

These are but two examples in the Army’s not-so-distant past of extremism in the ranks and the disastrous outcomes that can result – outcomes that could have been mitigated if leaders had focused on the obvious indicators and taken a proactive approach in addressing the issue. The history of our Army has been marred by extremism and dishonorable actions by those who promote extremist views. Extremism – in all its forms – is unfortunately part of our organization’s history, and it is time the issue is addressed. We can no longer ignore extremism in our Army. The consequences are simply too great.

A Good Start

On February 3, 2021, Department of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called for a 60-day stand-down to examine extremism in the military, which is not the first time we’ve  scrutinized extremism in our ranks. In context, this edict came three weeks after rioters marched on and desecrated the US Capitol grounds. A number of these rioters were current or former members of the military. Because of the close association of many protesters with known extremist organizations, and not wanting to ignore indicators of a potentially larger issue, Secretary Austin directed prudent action. 

This examination of extremism in our ranks is vitally important because trust is critical to our Army’s success. Public trust in the Army helps ensure we can acquire and retain the diverse talent needed to fight and win our nations wars. Tolerance of extremism erodes that trust. Furthermore, tolerance of extremism within our ranks erodes trust between our men and women in uniform and suppresses our most powerful weapon – our people. Bottom line – extremism in our units renders our Army less capable in both peacetime and operational environments. 

While we acknowledge that the actions of a few do not necessarily speak for the majority, recent events, like those at the Capitol, demonstrate the existence of at least some extremist elements in the Army. We cannot ignore the signs. To dismiss the issue without a thorough investigation is to court potential disaster.  To assume the issue is limited to a few outliers is not a wise choice – for even if not pervasive, extremist views can spread. Furthermore, extremism, regardless of how widespread, erodes trust, suppresses diversity, squashes talent, and hinders performance.

So Now What? 

On February 10, 2021, Sergeant Major of the Army Michael A. Grinston posed this question on Twitter, “Have you talked to your teams about extremism? My goal is that everyone trusts their leaders and teammates enough to have these difficult conversations and confront these issues together.”  This is an admirable goal, but one that will take work. We know that many leaders do not know where to begin – they are not sure how to talk about extremism or how to facilitate other difficult conversations. With that in mind, we wanted to share some suggestions:

As you navigate these much-needed discussions of extremism with your military and civilian teammates, you must ensure that you have created a culture of trust through psychological safety (Kirk, 2020; Edmonson and Roloff, 2009).  Establishing psychological safety up front means that the dialogue you engage in later will tend to be more open and honest – and more productive.  Among several ways leaders can create a psychologically safe environment is to engage subordinates with empathy and approach controversy with curiosity instead of blame (Delizonna, 2017). We must invite our teammates to share their personal lived experiences and make them feel valued at the individual level.  You can also promote supportive resources for your Soldiers. You should be well-versed on the missions and points of contact for the Inspector General (IG), Equal Opportunity (EO), SHARP, Behavioral Health, and Chaplain. Make it clear that these services are not taboo and that you understand the value they bring to our Army. Together, these actions will build and instill confidence in our teammates. A leader who takes some of the actions mentioned above can help create a sense of psychological safety and those who prioritize and promote psychological safety not only lay the groundwork for much needed dialogue on extremism, but all embodies General McConville’s philosophy of “people first.”

After establishing a sense of psychological safety (which may take some time depending on a number of factors), as a leader of character, you must engage in a dialogue about extremism with your team. You must be prepared to lead and guide the conversation with your Soldiers addressing, and reiterating intolerance towards, extremism. Ask yourself: when teammates share concerns about potential extremist behavior, do you listen and validate, or correct and explain away? If you are told that something you said/did was offensive to Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), or that they felt unheard, do you offer a sincere apology and make an attempt to correct or were you defensive? When you hear disparaging comments or assumptions made about BIPOC individuals from other teammates, do you challenge your teammates or remain silent? Do you recognize and challenge stereotypes about BIPOC or do you perpetuate them? (Kirk, 2020). As you facilitate these conversations, ground your discussion in the Army Values. Loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage are central components of addressing the devastating outcomes of extremism with Soldiers. Ask your soldiers, “What does [insert Army Value] look like professionally? Personally? Why does [insert incident here; insert extremist view here] go against this Army value?” Be prepared to keep the discussion focused on values and inclusion. Be comfortable with the uncomfortable. Consider meeting your Soldiers where they are and talk with them one-on-one on terrain where they feel comfortable; do not expect your teammates to necessarily want to initiate difficult conversations. Ultimately, modeling these conversations and behaviors encourages respectful dialogue regarding cultural norms, values, and beliefs and will help build momentum toward stamping out extremism in our ranks (Inman & Krieder, 2013; Inman & Ladany, 2014).

Having a few tough conversations is not all that is required to combat extremism in our Army.  Moving forward, you need to formally establish and/or reiterate a zero-tolerance policy for corrosive behaviors. Make it clear that you will not tolerate corrosive behaviors.  Many leaders “praise in public and criticize in private.”  In this instance, making public corrections (respectfully), may be called for.  It will send a clear message about what is acceptable and will help create a culture that does not tolerate extremist behaviors.  Enforcing zero tolerance for extremist behaviors will help drive the culture change we need in our Army.

The most important element, however, is that you start taking action now

Model 1. Addressing Extremism with Your Team

Call to Action 

The Army needs to ensure it fosters a culture of inclusion that does not tolerate extremist views.  Changing hearts and minds to enact change and to root out extremist ideologies in our Army is essential and can be achieved through continued dialogue, education, and focused leader action. Junior leaders are uniquely positioned to lead this change. Front line leaders like junior officers are immediate role models to others in the ranks and have the power to implement, ignore, or undermine change efforts being directed from higher. With that in mind, we challenge junior leaders to use their power and position to lead conversations and to enact change in their formations. It is not enough to simply be “not racist,” “not sexist,” “not extremist,” etc. Leaders need to be actively anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-extremist.  In other words, we need to actively raise consciousness around extremism in all of its forms AND take action to change policies, behaviors, and beliefs that perpetuate these extremist ideas and actions. Leaders set the tone for their formations and need to start with exploring their own discomfort regarding extremist views of race, sex, gender, etc. Encourage your formation to explore what contributes to their discomfort or frustration with open dialogue regarding extremism. Monitor gut reactions to social injustices and examine interpersonal connections to people of other races, ethnicities, nationalities, sex, gender, etc., or lack therefore (College of the Holy Cross, 2021).

Junior leaders need to also engage in deep thinking and reflection regarding extremism. We need to seek out knowledge regarding racism, sexism, and extremism from multiple scholars (e.g., Mary Frances Berry, Patricia Hill Collins, Randall L. Kennedy, Ibram Kendi, Mitu Gulati) and we need to listen to – really listen to – the stories and insights from those who are experiencing the negative impact of extremist ideologies and actions. We need to be proactive in the examination of our own biases and actively challenge extremist behavior whenever and wherever it is seen or heard.

Until we have conversations that are needed, until we educate ourselves, until we engage in deep thinking and reflection, we will never develop the cultural humility and competence to understand one another and eradicate extremist views in our formations. A lack of cultural humility, cultural competence, and inaction regarding corrosive behaviors set the conditions for microaggressions, microinvalidations, and microassaults to fester and grow within our formations – which can ultimately lead to extremist views and actions.

We must take action now

What if action is not taken? 

Ultimately, inaction suggests no problem exists – yet we have indications that there IS a problem with extremism in the Army. Do we ignore these indicators like was done in the opening vignettes? If there is NOT a problem, that should become evident very quickly – but can we afford to take that risk given the huge potential downside – the erosion of trust, the loss of talent, the negative impact on our effectiveness as a force? Leaders lead. Leaders take action where action is needed. We know action is needed. A failure to take action now implies we are fine with the status quo – and we should NOT be!

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CPT Kathryn Eklund, PhD is a Licensed Clinical and Aeromedical Psychologist stationed at Joint-Base Lewis McChord, WA. She is a Center for Junior Officers Leadership Fellow.

 1LT Sean Jordan is an officer in the US Army Reserves where he currently serves as the Aide-de-Camp for the 81st Readiness Division. He is a Center for Junior Officers Leadership Fellow.

 1LT Christian Nattiel is a Rhodes Scholar and currently serves as a Rifle Platoon Leader in 1-21 IN, 2nd IBCT, 25th ID at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. He is a Center for Junior Officers Leadership Fellow.

 1LT Mark Cartagena-McGinnis is a Schwarzman scholar and currently serves as a platoon leader in Alpha Company, 2-10th Assault Helicopter Battalion at Fort Drum, NY. He is a Center for Junior Officers Leadership Fellow.

 2LT Hope Hack is assigned to USASD as a 2019 Truman Scholar attending Virginia Commonwealth University where she is pursuing a dual degree for both a Master of Social Work and a Certificate of Gender Violence Intervention. She is a Center for Junior Officers Leadership Fellow.

CPT Seth Bush is serves in the US Army Reserve where he is currently the Company Commander of the 303rd Water Purification Company in Lake Charles, Louisiana. As a civilian, he works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He is also a Center for Junior Officers Leadership Fellow.

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