Bureaucratizing to Fight Extremism in the Military

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The military loves a task force. The very name suggests military activity — overwhelming a difficult job (a task) with a crack team of personnel and equipment (a force). When confronted with a challenge, whether defeating improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan or designing new Navy uniforms, the military has historically responded with a task force. It was unsurprising, then, that after Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced a 60-day period in which all military units must hold a stand down to counter the challenge of extremism, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby mentioned that a task force was among the long-term organizational solutions being considered. While the instinct that an institutional solution is needed is good, a task force is the wrong answer. Violent domestic extremism is a long-term problem, and extremism in the military could have a devastating effect on public trust in the armed forces. The military organizational response needs to acknowledge this and address it with one of the most potent tools in the military arsenal: bureaucracy.

The history of organizing for military special operations offers some insight into the benefits of defense bureaucracy. Both Operation Eagle Claw, the failed 1980 mission to rescue American hostages in Iran, and Operation Neptune Spear, the successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2012, were conducted by skilled and brave commandos. The 30 years in between the two missions were marked by bureaucratic changes in the organization of special operations within the Department of Defense that removed barriers to interagency cooperation, helped to focus institutional resources, and clarified legal and operational authorities. So, while the derring-do of special operators captured headlines, the success of the bin Laden raid was enabled in large part by decades of work by civil servants in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict whose mission is to oversee and advocate for “Special Operations and Irregular Warfare throughout the Department of Defense to ensure these capabilities are resourced, ready, and properly employed in accordance with the National Defense Strategy.”

Countering violent domestic extremism promises to be an even more challenging bureaucratic problem than enabling the success of special operations forces. It will require intrusive data gathering and extensive coordination with other government agencies. Missteps or misguided policies could not only blunt the effectiveness of the efforts, but actually harm civil liberties and the credibility and legitimacy of the government in ways that feed the narrative of extremist groups. Creating a task force to address the issue would suggest that the problem is temporary, bounded, and can be solved with a focused effort of limited duration. By nature, task forces are ad hoc, designed to achieve a specific short-term goal or make problem go away. They are ill-suited to making lasting changes that allow an institution to manage an enduring problem. Unfortunately, as much as military leaders would like extremism in the ranks to go away so that they can focus on more traditional military threats like great-power competition, the American military will have a problem with violent extremism as long as American society does. Addressing this problem requires an enduring bureaucratic structure with consistent resourcing and institutional authority equivalent to that of a deputy assistant secretary of defense, or higher.

Understanding the Problem

The first step in formulating a military institutional response to violent domestic extremism is to identify exactly what problem is being addressed. Three significant areas stand out. First is the issue of extremism among active duty, Guard, reserve, and Department of Defense civilian personnel currently serving. Second is the question of how to screen recruits in order to ensure that extremist organizations aren’t using the military as a training ground. Finally, the military needs to figure out how to address extremism among veterans, including military retirees who may still be subject to military disciplinary authority and shorter-service veterans who may lack any current institutional connection to the military.



Before the Department of Defense can respond effectively to the question of extremism among currently serving personnel, it must first get its arms around the scope of the problem. A widely cited survey of Military Times readers, published in February 2020 (and based on data gathered in 2019), indicated that over one-third of active duty respondents had recently witnessed examples of white nationalism or ideologically driven racism. Among minority service members, the number was nearly one in two. This represented a marked increase from data gathered in 2018, when only one in five active duty respondents reported witnessing such behavior. While these data are disturbing and suggest a growing problem, they cannot precisely scope the issue due to limitations inherent in this type of surveying: It is impossible to distinguish, for example, whether multiple respondents are reporting the same behaviors and incidents or whether the reported increase might be due to increased awareness of what constitutes extremist behavior rather than actual increases in such activity. The truth is that despite years of anecdotal evidence of extremists in the ranks, the military doesn’t have solid data on the problem. One source of potential data could be command climate surveys conducted by the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute. But these data were not gathered with the goal of identifying extremist behaviors in mind, so they will require significant analysis and interpretation before valid conclusions about extremism can be drawn. And changes in survey questions and focus will likely be required to ensure future surveys collect the data needed to detect and monitor signs of extremist behavior. Additional monitoring and data analysis tools will probably be needed as well, especially since extremist behaviors are likely to be driven underground by the increased focus of military and law enforcement personnel. Understanding the scope of extremism in the military is a lot like weighing yourself: Just doing it once or looking at past data won’t tell you what you need to know. It should be an ongoing process.

While the scope of the problem may seem to be growing, the problem of extremists in the ranks is not new. As Kathleen Belew details in her book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, white supremacists have recruited among active duty military, some of whom helped to steal weapons from military armories in the 1980s and 1990s. Similarly, the three men convicted in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City first met during their military service. The problem has been around for decades, and there is no reason to think it will go away quickly.

As important as understanding and addressing the scope of extremism within the armed forces is keeping extremists from joining the military in the first place. Right-wing groups have sought military training for decades. All of the military services have programs to screen recruits for tattoos and other indications of participation in hate groups. But, as shown by the case of Brandon Russell, a National Guard soldier and leader of the violent hate group Atomwaffen Division who sported the group’s logo tattooed on his shoulder when he joined the military, these programs are inconsistent in their effectiveness and enforcement. And not all members of an extremist group will be so obliging as to label themselves with a tattoo or other easily visible means of identification. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that while hate group activity such as the distribution of flyers increased markedly from 2019 to 2020, it became more difficult to track these groups over this period as they migrated to less-visible online networks.

As extremist organizations become more adept at hiding their activities, the challenge of screening military recruits for membership in such groups will increase. This challenge is even more pronounced in recruiting Department of Defense civilian employees. While it is routine for service members to undergo physical exams and tattoo screening as part of their military induction process, asking civilian employees or contractors to do the same would raise a host of civil liberties concerns. Yet the increasing reliance on government civilians and contractors to perform functions once performed by uniformed service personnel suggests that an extremist in the ranks may be equally harmful whether in civilian clothes or in uniform.

The role of veterans in the Jan. 6 insurrectionist riot at the U.S. Capitol has been the subject of considerable media attention. Indeed, three of the most notorious figures in the violence were military veterans. Prosecutors say that retired Air Force Lt. Col. Larry Brock “intended to take hostages” during the uprising; Jacob Chansley, aka Jake Angeli, the “Q-Anon Shaman” whose outlandish attire made him an iconic figure in photographs of the violence, served for two years as a junior supply clerk in the Navy; and Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed by Capitol police while attempting to breach the barricaded Speaker’s Lobby, was an Air Force veteran. But the diversity of their military backgrounds points to the challenge inherent in grouping all veterans together. Brock, for instance, served nine years on active duty before transitioning to the reserves and retiring in 2014 with 25 years of combined active and reserve service. Although officers who retire from the regular component of a military service remain subject to military discipline under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, officers who retire from the reserve component do not. Chansley’s brief service, which appears to have terminated after he refused to take the anthrax vaccine, would not qualify him for veterans’ benefits or normally result in any routine, future interaction with military officials or institutions. Babbitt’s 14 years of combined active and Guard service and junior rank at departure would similarly not qualify her for retirement or health care benefits and would give military leaders no justification to monitor whether she was involved in extremist activity after she left military service. The problem of how to monitor and address extremist activity among military veterans is made more acute by the fact that some extremist groups, such as the Oath Keepers, actively target military veterans for recruiting.

But … Another Bureaucracy? Don’t We Have Enough of That?

Anyone who has worked in any large organization recognizes that bureaucracy can sometimes be a hindrance to getting things done quickly — or at all. And the military has no shortage of bureaucracy already: the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness (one of six under secretaries) has three assistant secretaries of defense and four deputy assistant secretaries. Why would adding another layer of bureaucracy help solve the problem of extremism in the ranks? The answer lies in the scope of the problem, which spans multiple organizations both in the Department of Defense and other agencies, and in its enduring nature.

Bureaucracies excel at establishing procedures, policies, and pathways for coordination — exactly the things that are needed to address the problem of violent domestic extremism in an enduring way rather than through a short-term, ad hoc fix like a task force. In particular, a dedicated bureaucratic entity could establish funding and procedures to assess the scope of the problem on an ongoing basis; create uniform policies for screening potential recruits and employees, including coordination with law enforcement agencies; and create interagency mechanisms to monitor and address extremism among former military personnel.

Understanding the scope and risk posed by extremists in the force is not a question of obtaining a one-time snapshot and then chipping away at what you find. Much like the problem of sexual assault in the military, the problem of violent extremists in the military is a societal problem manifesting in a military context. If the Department of Defense is going to monitor, track, and address the challenge, this effort will require ongoing processes to gather data, compare military data to trends in American society at large, and develop effective tools to counter extremist behaviors. Part of the solution will include increased digital literacy training in order to reduce the susceptibility of military personnel to online messages from extremist groups. It may also include resources to monitor the public social media profiles of military and civilian Department of Defense personnel without unduly intruding on their civil liberties. And an increased emphasis on the meaning of military professionalism and the Constitutional oath sworn by servicemembers and civil servants alike is also part of the answer. None of these solutions are likely to be “one-shot deals.” They will require bureaucratic structures to provide continuing oversight, adjustment, and assessment.

Similarly, the need to screen the military workforce — uniformed, civilian, and contractors — for those who have engaged in extremist behavior is going to be long-term  and ill-suited for a task force. In addition to increasing the efficacy of existing screening programs, outreach to state and local law enforcement will likely be needed. This promises to pose more challenging civil liberties questions: Is it legal to deny someone employment as a Department of Defense civilian because he or she is under investigation for extremist activity? What about if the person has made social media posts that are supportive of extremist positions, but has taken no direct action? Individual cases are likely to require evaluation by lawyers and policy professionals to balance the risk to the force against the risk to civil liberties. This need will continue as long as the problem of extremism does.

Addressing extremist activity among former military personnel poses a daunting interagency challenge. On one hand, the Veterans Administration offers a promising path to help veterans who may be drawn to extremist messages due to challenging personal circumstances. On the other, not all former military personnel are eligible for veterans’ services. And not all extremist veterans are interested in or amenable to changing their views. To deal with these veterans will require consistent coordination with local, state, and federal law enforcement.

A Serious Solution to a Serious Problem

If you want to know what an organization cares about, look at how it is organized and where it spends its money. Problems that are temporary, are bounded in scope, and involve only a few organizations are well-suited to being addressed with an ad hoc institutional response like a task force. But the military’s role in countering violent domestic extremism — both within its ranks and in American society as a whole — promises to be a much larger challenge. To understand the problem; accurately assess the success of mitigation strategies; coordinate with the myriad of other government agencies involved; and ensure that the use of military personnel and resources is timely, appropriate, and carefully regulated, the Department of Defense needs to put its money where its mouth is and adopt a more lasting bureaucratic solution.

What type of bureaucratic organization is needed to address the problem? On one hand, raising the issue to the level of a Senate-confirmed position would communicate a strong commitment to addressing the problem. But such a move would also require legislation and mire the process in the politics of confirmation. A better answer may be to create an office with the institutional authority of a deputy assistant secretary of defense, which can be done by the secretary of defense without legislative action. Such an office, which would logically be located within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, would command the bureaucratic clout to move resources and demand responses from services and other agencies, while staying out of the current charged partisan political atmosphere.

The problem of extremists in the military is a serious subset of the problem of extremism and political violence in American society. As the events of Jan. 6 showed, participation in extremist violence by current and former military personnel undermines the foundations of public trust in the military. If Americans have reason to fear that the person to whom they have handed a gun may use it to violently advance an extremist cause, then American civil-military relations will move from focusing on “luxury goods” such as the balance of bureaucratic power between the Joint Staff and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, to focusing on existential questions related to the integrity and competence of the armed forces. Preventing this outcome demands a serious solution that can command lasting, serious resources.



Doyle Hodges is the executive editor of the Texas National Security Review and a contributing editor at War on the Rocks. A retired Naval officer, he has taught at the Naval Academy, the Naval War College, George Mason University, and Princeton.

Image: U.S. Air National Guard (Photo by Master Sgt. Matt Hecht)