The Pentagon Could Use a Course in Basic Citizenship
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The Pentagon Could Use a Course in Basic Citizenship

20% of the Arrested Capitol Insurrectionists Have Military Backgrounds; Top Brass Need to Teach Enlistees What They Are Defending

Terry H. Schwadron

Terry H. Schwadron

The more we look at the Jan. 6 Insurrection at the Capitol, the more we see attackers with military experience.

A National Public Radio (NPR) analysis of the 140 arrested to date says one in five was a military veteran who clearly had sworn in the past to protect the Constitution and democracy. By comparison, veterans represent about 7% of Americans altogether.

That there are strains of political extremism in the military, outward expressions of support for white supremacy and racism is hardly new. But participation in a violent attack on our Capitol raises questions anew.

Participation in a violent attack on our Capitol raises questions anew.

Simply put, the military needs to teach basics to our volunteer army to ensure that the troops know what they are defending.

It’s a situation serious enough to prompt Defense Secretary-designate Lloyd Austen to start his testimony in Senate confirmation hearings by committing to investigating and uprooting extremism, racism and sexism in the military before he was asked a question.

Of course, others who should know better, including some Republican members of Congress and state officials, also find themselves targets for re-education about basic civics. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) had to be told, for example, that the inauguration date could not be postponed; it is mandated in the Constitution.

NPR reporters reviewed military records, social media accounts, court documents and news reports of those arrested so far. They found that at least 27 of those charged, or nearly 20%, served or are serving in the U.S. military. Several face charges of violent and disorderly conduct at the Capitol. The charges may be upgraded to felonies, including domestic terrorism and sedition.

We’ve seen the many videos showing people in military-style helmets carrying zip-tie restraints and makeshift weapons. Some rioters appear to have links to groups like the Oath Keepers, a far-right paramilitary group that includes many retired military and law enforcement personnel.

These reports came as prosecutors filed their first serious conspiracy charges, accusing three members of the Oath Keepers with plotting the riot in advance.

It’s Not New

A year ago, The Military Times polled military members. It said more than a third of active-duty troops and more than half of minority service members said they witnessed examples of white nationalism or ideological-driven racism within the ranks in recent months. Those numbers were higher than in the previous year.

The military outlet said it was a “troubling snapshot of troops’ exposure to extremist views while serving despite efforts from military leaders to promote diversity and respect for all races.”

Troops said they saw “swastikas being drawn on service members’ cars, tattoos affiliated with white supremacist groups, stickers supporting the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi-style salutes between individuals.”

By contrast, the military has imposed rules for gang members joining our volunteer army. As far back as 2008, according to the FBI, 1% to 2% of the U.S. military belonged to gangs, which is 50 to 100 times the rate in the general population. Upon joining, the military insists on removal of gang tattoos, for example.

The military, which over years has been a model for training and education efforts, is active in training officers to recognize foreign terrorism efforts. However,, it readily acknowledges lagging behind at examining its own ranks for such disturbing trends.

Indeed, the Pentagon had developed programs aimed at increasing understanding the roots of Islamist terrorism, only to find itself surprised by the emergence of lone-wolf outbreaks at home, as in the killings by a rogue Army officer at Fort Hood in Texas in 2013.

Still, that is a long way from seeking to root out affinity within its ranks or among its veterans for the kind of anti-democratic riot that hit the Capitol over a basic desire to declare election fraud and nullification.

Disturbing Images

Air Force veteran Larry Rendall Brock Jr. was photographed in his tactical gear in Senate chambers. According to court documents, he said on Facebook that he was preparing for a “Second Civil War,” and that “we are now under occupation by a hostile governing force.”

Jacob Fracker, 29, was an infantry rifleman in the Marine Corps, deployed twice to Afghanistan and is a member of the Virginia National Guard and a police officer. He and Thomas Robertson, 47, an Army veteran, also face charges.

Right-wing militias and anti-government groups are targeting the military and veterans, federal officials say.

General Austin, who would be the nation’s first Black defense secretary, said he would fight hard “to rid our ranks of racists.” He added, “The Defense Department’s job is to keep America safe from our enemies. But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks.”

Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told NPR that the military’s efforts are largely “haphazard” and “it’s not like the military is just tolerating white supremacists.”

But efforts to address the problem need to be more systematic. “Not only does there need to be training,” Pitcavage said. “But there also need to be clear expectations coming down from on high about what you should do when you encounter an extremist in your unit, at your base or whatever the circumstances are, and that here are the procedures that need to be followed.”

After Jan. 6, the Defense Department said there were 68 notifications of investigations by the FBI last year of former and current military members pertaining to domestic extremism.

In his inaugural address, Joe Biden pledged to combat “a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism.”

It sounds as if teaching the basics of democracy and civics for the military ought to be high on that list.

Featured image: Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Larry Rendall Brock Jr., 53, was photographed in the Senate chamber on Jan. 6. Brock was wearing a combat helmet and carrying zip-tie restraints. (Federal criminal complaint)


January 23, 2021