Extremism In The Military And How To Root It Out

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National Guard troops carry riot shields as they assume positions in the vicinity of the U.S. Capitol as the Inauguration of Joe Biden begins. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)
National Guard troops carry riot shields as they assume positions in the vicinity of the U.S. Capitol as the Inauguration of Joe Biden begins. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

Nearly 20% of people charged in connection with the Capitol attack have some sort of military background. How far-reaching is extremism in the United States military?


Col. Jeff McCausland, retired U.S. Army colonel. National security consultant for CBS Radio. Founder and CEO of Diamond6 Leadership and Strategy, LLC. Visiting professor of international security at Dickinson College. (@mccauslj)

Heidi Beirich, co-founder and chief strategy officer  of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. She testified before the House Armed Services Committee in February 2020 on white supremacy in the military. (@heidibeirich)

Also Featured

George Reed, retired Army colonel and military policeman.

Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

Jerry Green, Army veteran and director of outreach and politics for Vote Vets.

Episode Highlights

On January 6, Larry Rendall Brock Jr. stood on the floor of the United States Senate. He and thousands of others had attacked Congress and sacked the Capitol building. Rendall was clad in a helmet and tactical gear. He held white zip tie handcuffs in his right hand.

Brock is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. He graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1989. And in a recently deleted LinkedIn profile, first reported by The New Yorker, Brock described himself as having served as a flight commander with the 706th Fighter Squadron. He retired in 2014 and on Facebook, he once posted that he was preparing for "a second civil war." According to NPR, in the weeks after President Biden's election victory, Brock posted: "We are now under occupation by a hostile governing force."

Brock was arrested and charged several days after the attack. Of the more than 140 people charged so far, almost 20% have some current or former service connection to the military, according to an NPR analysis.

In 2019, the Military Times polled active duty service members and found that more than 30% of white service members said they'd personally witnessed examples of white nationalism, such as white supremacist tattoos and Nazi-style salutes within the ranks. According to the same report, more than 50% of minority service members said "they have personally witnessed examples of white nationalism or ideological-driven racism," and "Overall, troops who responded to the poll cited white nationalists as a greater national security threat than both domestic terrorism with a connection to Islam, as well as immigration." These numbers are up significantly from similar polls the Military Times fielded in 2017 and 2018.

The perspective of U.S. Army veteran Jerry Green

Jerry Green is a military veteran. He says he was appalled when he saw men and women with military connections attacking the Capitol.

"The Constitution of the United States is what guides us, it's what guides the military," Green said. "And to do something like that — as an ex-military person, a veteran, or as an active duty person — it's hard for me, again, to understand how you could convince yourself that this is the right thing to do."

Green spent 20 years in Army special operations. He's now director of outreach with Vote Vets, a progressive political organization.

An African American, Green was stationed in Germany in the 1980s. He remembers how a fellow service member warned that his close friend, a man named Andy who he spoke to every day, was a racist.

"He said, 'He receives the magazine from a hate group.' I said, 'Really?' I said, 'How often does he get this magazine?' He said, 'Well, you know, every two weeks or every month, I'm not sure ... but he has a stack of them in his wall locker, in his room.'"

Green didn't believe it, so he confronted Andy.

"He said, 'Yeah, you know, I do get that magazine,' he said. 'But, you know, it's not — it's not about Black people. It's about Jews.' He said, 'You know, the Jews are taking over. They're doing all this stuff in America and people don't know it. And we need to be aware of all the stuff they're doing it...' So I stayed another two or three minutes after that and then I left."

Decades later, Green recalled stories like that as he watched the attack on the Capitol in horror.

"It makes me wonder if there were more — and I know there were more — but it makes me wonder if there were more close associates of mine who I still associate with to this day — if they had that same feeling."

That "feeling" is something that some of the Capitol insurrectionist claimed falls in line with their military service. Larry Rendall Brock Jr., the Air Force veteran with the zip ties on the Senate floor, ended a Facebook post denying the legitimacy of the Biden administration with, "Against all enemies, foreign and domestic." That's language from the U.S. military's oath of enlistment.

Green says that since January, six active duty members have reached out to him with concerns about some of their fellow service members.

"And, you know some of them tell me, 'Yeah, you know, I don't know what I'm looking at now. I don't know who I'm talking to now. I don't know if — if I have a problem about race or something — ... I don't know if I can take it to him or her because I don't really know how they feel."

Speaking with retired U.S. Army Col. Jeff McCausland

Meghna Chakrabarti: "The United States military is vast. Its ranks are full of extremely hard-working Americans who are giving their lives in service. So how would you describe the depth of the problem of right wing extremism in the military?"

Col. McCausland: "Well as you said at the top we have these disturbing surveys done by the Military Times that not only show about a third of all people serving have encountered some evidence of white supremacism or right wing nationalism within the ranks. But at the same time that is growing — it's a significant jump over the last couple of years. And frankly, what worries me the most in all this, I don't think we've got our arms around yet how deep the problem is.

"And the problem varies. You know, you mentioned at the top that about one out of five of the people so far arrested had some kind of military connection. But they really kind of fall out into four groups. One of those who just served in enlistment and got out and went back to their communities and joined one of these groups or perhaps were in the group prior to that. There are those, like Mr. Brock you talked about, who are worrisome because they're a career officer like me, retired and now involved in this.

"He could, in fact, under the law, be brought back into uniform and court-martialed under the UCMJ. There were a couple people who were actually active duty people: there was a captain from Fort Bragg and that disturbs me as a retired officer a great deal because she happens to be a lady in the ranks. She will be court martialed. And then there are folks who are in the National Guard and Reserves that participated. And in terms of how they're dealt with, that's a bit more complicated.

"We have to look at that kaleidoscope of who these people were and I think getting to the problem of how we deal with it. But so far, I don't think we've got our arms around how big the problem is across the military. Because for the last several years, the Trump administration has focused its attention and everything it talked about in terms of terrorism strategy, about left wing nationalism, about the threat by so-called Islamic terrorists or groups like Antifa or Black Lives Matter. And that's ... where the money to monitor these things has gone."

Chakrabarti: "There are many folks who say that the U.S. military is a reflection of the of the country that it serves, the country that it represents. And if there's a growing problem of right wing extremism in the military, it's because there's a growing problem across the country.

"For example, not that long ago we spoke with former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel about extreme ideologies in the military ranks."

"Our military, these great men and women who dedicate their lives to our country, the security of our country are no different in one way than all Americans. They look to their leaders for direction. And when you have leaders trying to politicize every element of our government ... including dismantling our civil service process and our civil service system. ... the military will not be untouched by that." — former Sec. Hagel

Col. McCausland: "I totally agree with Sec. Hagel. There's no two ways about it. And across the history of the military, for the last couple of hundred years, we've seen that ebb and flow in American society and an ebb and flow in the military, probably harkening back to right after the American Civil War with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. And you know, in the 1990s we saw a resurrection of this in the aftermath of events in society like Ruby Ridge, the attack on Ruby Ridge, the Waco incident down in Texas. And that manifested itself in the most terrible domestic terrorism attack in the 20th century, which was by Timothy McVeigh, a disgruntled soldier, a loner in the bombing of the Murrah building, which killed about 160 people.

"We saw that drop off after 9/11 as the nation focused attention on the threats from abroad. But in 2008, 2009, you know, Homeland Security published a report that said, you know, the election of the first African-American president, a severe economic downturn in the United States and more and more soldiers returning — particularly from service in Iraq and Afghanistan — and finding it difficult to reintegrate into society, was a breeding ground for right-wing nationalism within the force as well as society more broadly. That particular study raised a firestorm on Capitol Hill among conservatives, so in fact the Obama administration actually quashed it. And in the last decade, of course, we've seen these groups grow and then reflected again in those in the ranks."

Chakrabarti: "Well we heard from current and former members of the military on this issue. Here's O.J., who left us a message recommending that military leaders look for signs of extremism early, particularly during the recruitment process."

"I'm a 20 year vet of the U.S. Navy, and it ran rampant when I was 18. I was talking about the subject of nationalism and radicalization. I think the one thing they could do is just ask them right from the start, when they're joining. 'Do you have these views?' Because a lot of them, they don't seem ashamed of it, and proud to say it." — O.J.

Col. McCausland: "Well, certainly there can [be more done in the enlistment process to root out potential extremism], but this becomes a logistical problem and an economic problem. On the one hand, the U.S. military competes for the best and the brightest in American society ... and because we're an enlisted force, it competes with industry. So when the economy of the United States is doing well, we find enlistment becomes very tough. And at the onset of the Trump administration, the military was finding it tough to meet its goals. So you've got that to consider.

"And if you lined up ten 18-year-olds right now, only three of them would qualify to join the military, based on their physical fitness, their education levels, brushes with the law. So it's a very competitive environment for youngsters to join. And then secondly, logistically, it's done by recruiters out in our villages, towns and communities all across the United States. And their primary measure of success is do they meet a certain quota, a number of enlistments across a period of time.

"So inserting one additional disqualifying factor, participation in a group like this, just makes their job a little bit harder. And you're going to also have to, I think, devote more resources to screening recruits. Do we look at their social media? Do we do more than the simple background check that is done now to screen them prior to advance. And also realize it's going to make recruiting just that much harder on the front end as we screen folks coming in, but we also have to screen folks while they're in the military because some pick up these particular affiliations after they've joined."

Chakrabarti: "On the enlistment front here, I did want to just refer back to something I said at the top of the show — that Brock, the retired Army Air Force veteran who was photographed on the floor of the Senate with those zip ties in his hand — that in one of his social media posts he included a phrase from the Oath of Enlistment: "Against all enemies, foreign and domestic." ... I wonder about whether there's something about the thrust of military service — in terms of protecting the country — that these very extreme right wing and radical groups have actually sort of become like parasites on, and perverted; using the very sort of drive that takes a person into military service as a way to also radicalize them."

Col. McCausland: "You're absolutely correct. I mean, a couple of the groups that are pretty prominent, and were prominent in the attack on the Capitol, for example, are a group called the Oath Keepers and a group called The Three Percenters. Well where do those names come from? Well the Oath Keepers would tell you that there are those some military, some law enforcement, some firemen or whatever who swear an oath to protect society.

"And they argue that the government is violating that particular oath to them and therefore they need to respond. Where did The Three Percenters take their name from? Well, they argue that only three percent of the colonists actually stood up to the British during the American Revolution and they are the natural historical survivors or 21st century manifestation of that. ... They would argue they are defending that particular oath — in a pretty perverted fashion, oh, by the way."

Chakrabarti: "You wrote about this in 2019, I think, for NBC, on your concern about extremism in the military. And at that time, you got a lot of blowback, if I can use that phrase; a lot of criticism. What was the nature of the criticism?"

Col. McCausland: "Well ... Most of the reaction I got was positive, but most people said, 'Oh, you know, you're overreacting. It's not that big a problem,' etc etc. ... there are some groups that in a very dystopian way have kind of interpreted this and assaults like that as fulfilling some kind of oath they've taken or obligation.

"You know, if you want to really get into this in a big way, you can go back to a thing called The Turner Diaries that was written in 1968. Kind of a science fiction dystopian view of one man fighting the entire government. ... Timothy McVeigh, it's said for example, used to carry a copy of The Turner Diaries around with him wherever he went."

The Perspective of retired Air Force officer Mikey Weinstein

Weinstein is a retired Air Force officer and founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. He began his work on understanding extremism in the military, specifically through the lens of the separation of church and state, in the early 2000s after his son's experience in the Air Force Academy.

"My youngest one told me that he was being called a **** Jew by his cadet and officer chain of command and that he and his family and his ethnicity's people were being accused of total complicity in the execution of Jesus Christ. So I'm an academy graduate myself. My dad went to the Naval Academy. This was not just unacceptable, this was like a declaration of war. It was like a little thread on a sweater, and when you pull the thread, the whole sweater comes off."

A conversation with Col. McCausland and Heidi Beirich

Chakrabarti: "First of all, can you just give us a sense about some of the things that are in place in the military that ostensibly would try to tamp down on the growth of extremism among the ranks?"

Beirich: "There are actually pretty decent regulations right now in place related to white supremacy. In other words, you're not allowed to be involved in social media posting, organizing, flyering, anything to do with activities related to white supremacist hate groups. And those regulations are relatively strong. The problem really is that they're not systematically enforced at this point."

Chakrabarti: "So is there a lack of a systematic data gathering about the extent of what this problem might be? Because the best data that we could find was that Military Times poll 2019, 2017 and 2018. Is there a comprehensive database about known activities of extremists in the military?"

Beirich: "Unfortunately, there is not. A former representative, Keith Ellison, tried to get at that information in 2018, and he basically asked how many people have been removed from the military for involvement in white supremacy. And what he got back was a letter that fingered about two dozen people and didn't specify which of them were removed from the military for white supremacy. You know, we basically have no data.

"All the data that folks like [me] know about, related to either veterans activity in extremist groups or active duty, comes usually after people are arrested for involvement in domestic terrorism plots or hate crimes and the like, and then we see that they had connections. Very similar to what we found out after the storming of the Capitol: we now know that about one in five of those folks had some connection to the military."

Chakrabarti: "Have there have been any further attempts to even start getting a sense — getting that data to understand the depth of the problem?"

Beirich: "We finally saw change with the National Defense Authorization Act that was passed over Trump's veto just a few months ago. They are now going to add a part of a question to the military's annual climate surveys that will ask, 'Have you seen white supremacist activity?' In a way it mirrors what the Military Times has done for the last four or five years. That should be quite helpful. But you need another data set.

"You need to know exactly how many people have been fingered for, identified, found involved in these activities by the military itself so that you can get a comprehensive sense of how serious the problem is, which is something that we don't have right now. And that's a big problem because even the investigative agencies for the military don't seem to understand how the rules apply, where they apply. And often it's unit commanders who make the decision to expel someone from the military and they don't report the reasoning up. So that the whole data situation in the military has to be fundamentally altered."

Col. McCausland: "I think she's exactly right. You know, a lot of this falls down on the individual commander. And they're talking about, of course, in the new National Defense Authorization Act, more screening for enlistment and I would imagine reenlistment and new ways that they can better coordinate with the FBI. But having been a unit commander at the battalion level or brigade level or above, they don't have the tools right now to continually monitor the social media — for me, of the 750 soldiers in my battalion — on a continuous basis to see if they were violating those particular regulations about participation in such groups that Heidi just described so well. So that means you need to get external information so you as a commander can take action.

"And it comes down to commanders taking action and the command at the top making it a point of emphasis because military commanders can't eliminate people, certainly when they commit, you know, acts of violence which are illegal. Those are by court martials. But there are administrative procedures to eliminate people in violation of regulations. And that, again, was what Heidi was talking about. But they're not, if you will, captured in terms of why that person was barred — reenlistment or chaptered out of the service or could be for a variety of reasons, one of which might be participation in one of these particular groups."

Chakrabarti: "So we're talking about Americans who are enlisting to serve the country here. They have rights as Americans ... and one of those rights is to assemble in groups — to belong to groups — no matter how distasteful they are for as long as, you know, they don't become criminal or violate any laws. ... but does that apply across the military? I mean, is even being a member of some of these white supremacist groups allowed or not allowed across the branches?"

Beirich: "Well, it's definitely not allowed. The fact of the matter is, when you sign up with our armed forces, you don't have the same First Amendment protections that civilians do. You see that when you do this very sacrificial thing and join the military. And it is absolutely banned to be a card carrying member or a mere member of a white supremacist organization. So it's just flat out not allowed. It's the same rules of the road don't apply to active duty folks as they do to civilians.

"Now, that said, there is a big hole in the regulations that I didn't mention earlier. ... right now there's language about banning involvement in extremist groups, white supremacist groups; but militias aren't fingered there. In other words, anti-government groups like the Oath Keepers that were mentioned earlier and the Three Percenters. And I think that actually is a big gap and a problem with the way the regulations are written right now."

Col. McCausland: "Well, Heidi is exactly right, because many of these right wing nationalist groups will tell you in their propaganda that ... 'We're not white ... we're not racist groups; we're not anti-Black, we're not anti-Jewish. We're fulfilling these obligations' I described a little while ago. And so that hole is created, as Heidi just described. So you can put language in a regulation that says, you know, you're banned from membership in an extremist group.

"But then you have to define what exactly that means. And then you have to come up with a list of what specific organizations you're talking about. And if you look across the groups across the country, last time I sat in on the discussion by the Southern Poverty Law Center, I think there were eight or nine hundred different groups. And until you ban all those groups and give commanders something specifically to deal with, obviously it becomes very difficult and that hole that Heidi described will continue to exist."

Chakbrabarti: "We've been focusing for the moment on active duty members, but using Brock as the example from the top of the show ... I mean, veterans are no longer actively serving in in the military. Heidi, your thoughts on that?"

Beirich: "Well, yeah, of course, when you leave the military, you do regain those First Amendment rights. ... And and in that case, you can involve yourself in any organizations you want. And as Col. McCausland pointed out, groups like the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters target veterans specifically. Those are the people they're wanting to get into their ranks. So when it comes to veterans, we have a different situation and not the same tools that the military has if it so chooses to investigate to root these folks out."

A double homicide in Fayetteville, North Carolina

Last week, Lloyd Austin became the country's first Black secretary of defense. He was confirmed to that position with a 93-2 vote in the Senate on Friday. And during his confirmation hearing last week, Sec. Austin shared his own experience with extremism as he was coming up through the ranks. He told the Senate committee that in 1995 he was a lieutenant colonel with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, when three white soldiers shot and killed an African-American couple in Fayetteville.

"We woke up one day and discovered that we had extremist elements in our ranks. ...The signs for that activity were there all along, we just didn't know what to look for or what to pay attention to. But we learned from that." — Sec. Austin

For perspective on this, On Point spoke with George Reed, an Army criminal investigation division supervisor assigned to that case at Fort Bragg in 1995. Reed is now dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, but he said that 25 years after the double homicide in Fayetteville the details of the case are still fresh in his mind.

"These three soldiers got together, drank a lot of beer and decided that they would blow up a synagogue, that was their first plan. But they couldn't find the local synagogue. So one of them took a nine millimeter pistol and stuck it in his belt, said, 'Maybe I'll get my spider tattooed tonight.' That spider web tattoo was an image that has some significance in certain circles of hate groups and one of the soldiers had one on his elbow and the other one wanted it.
"So they piled into a vehicle and they drove around Fayetteville, North Carolina, until they observed two African Americans — a male and a female, Michael James and Jackie Burton — walking up the sidewalk. The driver of the vehicle stayed in the car. The other two got out and walked up the sidewalk. Later, the driver of the vehicle testified that he heard the shots and he said to himself, 'Oh my God, they really did it.' Two of them were sentenced to long prison sentences and one who turned state's evidence and was cooperative was only required to serve the time served while the case was pending.
"So the whole time I was there, I was asked the question, 'How big is this problem? Where is the threat? How many of these extremist groups are out there? What is their ideology?' And in the course of that investigation, about 22 soldiers at Fort Bragg were identified as being part of the racist subculture, in some cases neo-Nazi in orientation. And they were dealt with mostly administratively by the chain of command at the time.
"Before every single case of criminal offense associated with extremism that I'm aware of, there have been plenty of signs. I mean, in the case of the murders at Fort Bragg, one of the soldiers hung a Nazi flag in this room and his squad leader was heard to joke with him at one point, said, 'You know, it's Hitler's birthday. Why aren't you taking the day off?' It's crucial that commanders are familiar with the signs, that they see those signs and that they react to them when they are present. That isn't always done.
"It caused a lot of people to lose faith. It caused a lot of people to question. It caused potential recruits to say, 'Is this a place where I belong? Is this a place I would be welcomed?' Generally speaking, it is infrequent. It is a small number of people, but its impact, especially on faith and confidence of the American people, is outsized."
-- George Reed

Chakrabarti: "Now, Heidi Beirich, we wanted to resurface this case in particular. A, because it happened so long ago, and yet it seems that not enough has changed in the military. And B, I think it also highlights how much work can be done at the level, as both you and and Col. McCausland have talked about, of some of the unit commanders and active duty troops. ..."

Beirich: "Well, it's eerie to hear that account from George Reed about 1995, because you could apply it to cases that have happened just in the last couple of years. I think ultimately what we need to do is invest a lot more in screening processes in the military. So there needs to be tattoos, you know, looked at. It needs to be understood what people are coming in with. Then there has to be total change in the way investigations are done in the military, how unit commanders handle it. It's a whole series of basically major management challenges that have to be dealt with."

Col. McCausland: "I totally agree with Heidi. You know there are a bunch of things that can, in fact, be done. But, you know, at the same time, we got to step back a second, put this in a broader context of the leadership challenge. ... This is a dramatically serious problem, as evidenced by the attack on the Capitol. Just yesterday, of course, President Biden signed an executive order directing that once again we allow transgender people to join the military — something we had done back in 2016.

"And Sec. Austin, one of the first things he did as secretary of defense, was put out in order to all the services to review sexual assault and sexual harassment procedures and report back to him in a few days. This is a real effort by this administration, I think, to put their imprimatur on the leadership of the military and the social network of the military. It's good news that all these things speak to the question of inclusivity, treating people fairly and treating people consistent with the values of the military. That's the good news. The bad news is, this is ... an enormous leadership challenge for the military. It's got to be leaders that make these things work as Heidi suggested."

Chakrabarti: "We're getting a lot of response on social media about this conversation. And people are looking for solutions. For example, Tony says we should reopen a debate on the draft..."

"When we did away with a citizen's army, we separated people from the agony of the decision to go to war and send their kids to war. We have a fully voluntary professional military. The result? It's make-up may indeed be skewed." — Tony

Beirich: "Well, I don't think I can wade into the issue of the draft, I mean, my view on this is actually that the military does have the tools, if it invests in it, to screen people out appropriately. It's basically a matter of will. And the problem for the last four years is we haven't had that from the top. And I think now with [Sec.] Lloyd Austin in there, especially with his personal experiences, there will be change. And I should say the military itself in December issued a report, even while Trump was still the president, talking about the need for diversity and rooting out extremism. So what I see now is the will. Now they have to find a way."

Col. McCausland: "Well, [the draft] would be, you could say, more equal for everybody or more fair for everybody. But the big problem with the draft, having lived through the draft as a youngster, is how do you decide who doesn't go? And how do you create criteria by which you don't go? And I can remember the days back when college deferments were the way to keep out of the draft, which caused enormous social uproar. So who doesn't go? Number one. Number two, even though we're a two-million person force, we don't need every 18-year-old that turns 18 to join the military because this is more people than we need. And the soldiers of today, we have to spend a lot of time training them, even for tasks to be a light weapons instrument.

"And if you're only going to be drafted for a couple of years by the time you're trained, you're about ready to start moving out again. So the personnel costs become enormous. And then thirdly, perhaps one should think more in terms of national service as opposed to just the military and convincing Americans that every one of us have a responsibility to the greater good and being involved in a purpose greater than our own. And then finally, of course, even if you go to the draft, that doesn't remove some of the problems that Heidi was talking about in terms of screening people for their affiliation with these particular groups that you don't want. It just brings in more people that you've got to screen."

Chakrabarti: "Well we got a call from one On Point listener, Laurie, in Astoria, Oregon, who also had a question about some of the educational institutions associated with the military — particularly about the Air Force Academy."

"I remember a decade or so ago hearing that there was a really strong evangelical presence in the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and that there was a lot of pressure on even the incoming newbies — I can't remember what they're calle — to be not only just protestant, but evangelical, and that it was very difficult for people to not be that way. And considering the ties we've seen between some evangelical belief systems with extremism and ... even the insurrectionists in D.C., it seems to me that's a topic that needs to be looked into." — Laurie in Astoria, Oregon

Chakrabarti: "Well, in fact, Mikey Weinstein, who you heard from a little earlier, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and a graduate of the Air Force Academy himself, here's what he had to say about that."

"Well, you know, you saw people carrying large crosses. You saw people wearing shirts saying 'Camp Auschwitz', you know, kind of massively giving homage to one of the worst concentration camps that the Nazis had. You saw the proud boys stomping on Pennsylvania Avenue to pray to their version of Jesus Christ. The mothership of homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism and hatred of the Constitution, is this form of fundamentalist Christianity or what's known as 'dominion' Christianity."
-- Mikey Weinstein

Col. McCausland: "Well, I will quickly tell you that I actually taught at the United States Military Academy at West Point as a civilian. I taught at the Naval Academy and I was involved in a major study for the then-superintendent of the United States Air Force Academy about 15 years ago on all the service academies. And the listener is quite right. The Air Force Academy and all the service academies ... had a challenge with this problem of evangelical Christianity ... at one time. This has been addressed to some degree by the academy. It used to be a problem. The football coach at the Air Force Academy used to refer to the team as Team Jesus, which alienated some of the Jewish football players, not unlike what Chaplain [Mikey] Weinstein talked about.

"But there's no doubt about it. Again, back to what we said at the very beginning, is the military not a reflection of American society? The answer is, of course it is. As a consequence, as we've seen the growth of evangelical Christianity across the United States, it's not surprising that we would see that showing up in the U.S. military. And again ... who joins the military? Well, it tends to be people who are a bit more conservative in their views overall. And secondarily, if you examine where soldiers, Marines, sailors, airmen come from, they come disproportionately from areas of the country in the south, the southwest and elsewhere based on population. And these are areas where we see a stronger presence of evangelical Christianity and conservative Christianity more broadly."

Chakrabarti: "And Heidi Beirich, I'm going to give the last word to you. ...We've heard a couple of times from both of you that for that, for example, there are things like the 2021 NDAA that actually has provisions in it addressing extremism in the military. And I'm seeing ... for example, Tim Kaine of Virginia is the senator saying they're going to carefully monitor how the Department of Defense implements those provisions and future legislation might be informed by what the Congress learns from the DOD updates on this. But, Heidi, in the last minute that we have, you said that you believe the military already has the tools to really push back against extremism in the ranks. I'm just wondering if you could specifically outline to me ... what those tools actually are."

Beirich: "Sure. They have the regulations that ban most of these groups, excepting militias — that's a change I would suggest. They have the investigative ability to do this and they have the ability to direct resources from the top to these issues. There may be things that have to be dealt with legislatively, but there's a lot that the military can do by simply emphasizing this problem.

"And so hopefully that's exactly what's going to happen here. The climate change surveys will help inform this. Maybe regulations will be tightened later, but there is no reason not to right now, for example, create a good tattoo database to screen incoming recruits."

Wilder Fleming transcribed, edited and adapted this interview for the web. 

From The Reading List

NPR: "After The Capitol Riot, Officials Promise To Crack Down On Extremism In The Military" — "Dozens of people who took part in the January 6th insurrection had a military history. Officials have repeatedly pledged to root out extremism in the ranks, with little to show for it so far."

Military Times: "Signs of white supremacy, extremism up again in poll of active-duty troops" — "More than one-third of all active-duty troops and more than half of minority service members say they have personally witnessed examples of white nationalism or ideological-driven racism within the ranks in recent months, according to the latest survey of active-duty Military Times readers."

Associated Press: "For 1st Black Pentagon chief, racism challenge is personal" — "Newly confirmed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will have to contend not only with a world of security threats and a massive military bureaucracy, but also with a challenge that hits closer to home: rooting out racism and extremism in the ranks."

Politico: "The military has a hate group problem. But it doesn't know how bad it's gotten." — "The Pentagon is confronting a resurgence of white supremacy and other right-wing ideologies in the ranks and is scrambling to track how acute the problem has become in the Trump era."

New York Times: "Pentagon Accelerates Efforts to Root Out Far-Right Extremism in the Ranks" — "The Pentagon is intensifying efforts to identify and combat white supremacy and other far-right extremism in its ranks as federal investigators seek to determine how many military personnel and veterans joined the violent assault on the Capitol."

The Atlantic: "Extremists Don’t Belong in the Military" — "During my 40 years as a Marine officer, including nearly four years as commandant of the Marine Corps, I came to believe that one of the military’s most important missions is to lead the fight against hate, inequality, and injustice, both at home and overseas. The factors that divide Americans today pose a greater threat to the country than any foreign adversary does."

This program aired on January 26, 2021.


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Anna Bauman Producer/Director, On Point
Anna Bauman is a producer and director at On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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