War Stories

The Military Is Finally Getting Serious About Its Extremism Problem

A Space Force commander’s rants about “Marxism” and “critical race theory” are just the tip of the iceberg.

A member of the Air Force holding a Space Force flag walks along the inaugural platform at the Capitol on a cloudy day
An honor guard at an inauguration dress rehearsal in D.C. on Jan. 18. Greg Nash/Pool/Getty Images

Last week, 124 retired generals and admirals signed an open letter denouncing the “hard left turn toward Socialism and a Marxist form of tyrannical government” taken by “a Democrat Congress and the Current Administration,” and urging citizens to reverse what they claim to be—adopting the right wing’s most prominent conspiracy theory—the fraudulent election of 2020.

Was this, as some have argued, a disturbing sign of extremism in the armed forces—the kind of act of insubordination, bordering on coup-plotting, that many more moderate or apolitical officers feared during the weeks leading up to President Joe Biden’s inauguration, a concern heightened in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection?

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In one sense, probably not. Most of the officers who signed the statement have been out of the military for many years, some for decades. A few of them—notably Lt. Gen. William Boykin, well known for his overt Islamophobia, and Maj. Gen. Richard Secord, who colluded with Oliver North in the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra scandal—are long-known members of the radical right. Most of the others are unknowns. (I asked a few retired officers whether they knew any of the signatories. None knew more than a handful.)

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One retired general, who dismisses the letter’s significance, emphasized that officers are trained to obey civilian authority, and the vast majority—active-duty and retired—do. (For instance, he said, look at the absence of public protest to Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, even though most officers disagree with that decision.) In other words, nothing to see here, folks, move along.

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In another sense, however, there is plenty to worry about. A retired four-star admiral, while noting that those who signed the letter do not constitute “a significant group,” still said he was concerned about its highly politicized content, detecting, in its language and aspirations, “echoes of the juntas in Latin America of the ’60s and ’70s.”

Extremism within the U.S. military is a longtime phenomenon, and a letter such as this one could vindicate and encourage those who lean in that direction.

And there are plenty of leaners. Lt. Col. Matthew Lohmeier, an active-duty squadron commander in the Space Force, was relieved of duty just this week (though not booted out of the military) for spouting extremist views in a book and on a podcast. Lohmeier saw the military’s recent diversity and inclusion initiatives as evidence of a drift toward “Marxism,” which he sees as the roots of “critical race theory.”

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Several military personnel have posted messages, on Twitter or on popular Facebook pages, which tout conspiracy theories about the election and pledges of outright insubordination. “Beijing Biden is not my president… End of god damned story,” posted Airman 1st Class Sean Brinson, who is assigned to a cyberspace operations squadron. He added, referring to the Jan. 6 rioters, “I do not condemn the people at Capitol Hill.” (Both posts, reprinted in Military.com, have since been deleted from Facebook.)

Lt. Col. Joseph Cannon, an infantry regiment commander in the Michigan National Guard, posted several conspiracy theories, including one that claimed the Sandy Hook shooting was concocted by the media.

According to a study by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center and George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, 12 percent of those arrested for the Jan. 6 insurrection—43 out of 357—had experience in the military, ranging from three to 25 years. A quarter of those veterans were officers; nearly half had been deployed overseas.

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These may be isolated incidents, but they reflect a larger reality. In a poll of 1,630 active-duty personnel, published in Military Times last fall, over one-third said they’d personally witnessed incidents of white nationalism or ideologically driven racism. This was up from just under a quarter in a similar poll the previous year. More than half of minority service members said they’d experienced ideological forms of racism, up a few percentage points from the year before.

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The Biden administration is taking some steps to quell this trend. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently established a Countering Extremism Working Group and has said he regards its work as one of his top priorities. Lecia Brooks, chief of staff of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has been writing reports on racism within the military since the mid-1980s, calls Austin’s effort “a great first step.”* Brooks told me that she and members of more than a dozen civil rights organizations were invited to one of the group’s meetings a couple of weeks ago—it was “very open, very transparent,” she told me—and will be invited to future meetings as well.

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The group’s task is to devise standards and policies for rooting out extremism within all the military services. But the first step is simply to compile reliable data on how widespread extremism is—something that has never been done systematically.

In another significant effort, an eight-member commission has been formed to rename the 10 Army bases currently named after Confederate generals. This is a separate project, mandated last summer in a bill sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, in the wake of the George Floyd murder. But Austin has appointed some of its members as well, including retired Adm. Michelle Howard, the first female admiral in American history and the third African American to reach that rank, and retired Brig. Gen. Ty Seidule, the author of a recent book, Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning With the Myth of the Lost Cause.

The entire military is reckoning with that myth—a bit late in the day, but better now than never.

Correction, May 18, 2021: This piece originally misspelled Lecia Brooks’ first name.

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