We’ve Been Here Before: Learning From the Military’s History with White Nationalism
In February, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced a military-wide “stand down” after civilian and military leaders alike raised concerns about the disturbing link between domestic extremism and the U.S. military, evident in the disproportionately large numbers of servicemembers involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. But this is not the first time that the military has had to reckon with extremism in its ranks. The groups that were involved in the insurrection, including anti-government militias, like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, and militant white supremacist groups, like the Proud Boys, often reject being labelled as extremists or white nationalists by calling themselves “western chauvinists” or wrapping their ideologies in patriotism and “American nationalism.” Yet, experts have warned that this new crop of extremists is just the most recent manifestation of the white nationalist and far-right extremist threat that has been facing the U.S. military for over 40 years. The history of Department of Defense responses to domestic extremism needs to inform future policies, strategies, and bureaucratic structures to counter extremism in the military.
This history reveals three key insights. First, we are not starting from scratch — existing policies already empower commanders to act to curb extremism, though these policies rely too heavily on the individual commander’s discretion. Second, the Department of Defense’s approach to countering Islamist extremism post-9/11 led military leaders to consistently underestimate the threat of domestic and white nationalist variants. Third, policy alone is ineffective without continued commitment. This is not a problem that can be solved with isolated policy updates or individual stand-down days.
The Growth of White Nationalism in the Military
Since the growth of the modern white power movement in the 1970s, servicemembers have been directly involved in every major surge in white nationalist activity across the country. Throughout this discussion it is important to remember the legal distinction between veterans, who are no longer subject to Department of Defense regulations, and active-duty servicemembers, though extremists in both groups are often closely linked through ideology, experience, and personal networks. Since the 1970s, when white power militias began recruiting disillusioned Vietnam War veterans, both active-duty servicemembers and veterans have provided stolen weapons and paramilitary training to white nationalist groups, orchestrated the Oklahoma City bombing, founded neo-Nazi organizations, planned the violent Unite the Right rallies, and urged other extremists to enlist in order to gain skills and training for the coming “racial holy war.”
The 1970s and 1980s featured repeated instances of white nationalist activity on military bases. In 1976, the Camp Pendleton chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, led by active-duty marines, claimed to have over 100 members and held cross burnings outside the base. A 1986 investigation into stolen weapons implicated numerous marines and Army soldiers stationed at Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg in participation in the White Patriot Party. In 1992, Sgt. 1st Class Steven Barry launched a magazine called The Resister, which he described as the “Political Warfare Journal” of the Special Forces Underground, a clandestine group of white nationalist Green Berets.
In the 1990s, white nationalist activity on and around military bases increased, resulting in two violent attacks that shook the military community. In April 1995, army veterans Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing, then the deadliest attack committed on American soil since Pearl Harbor. In December 1995, a black couple were murdered by two Fort Bragg soldiers, James Burmeister and Malcolm Wright, Jr. All were known members of neo-Nazi or white nationalist organizations and made no secret of their white supremacist views. After these two deadly attacks, leaders could no longer ignore the threat of white nationalist violence.
Empowering Commanders: Early Department of Defense Policy Responses
The Department of Defense’s early policy responses to white nationalist extremism outlined a range of prohibited activities and ways in which commanders could respond, but a critical flaw allowed white nationalism to remain in the military. These policies placed responsibility on individual unit commanders to identify, investigate, and prosecute soldiers suspected of extremism. This resulted in a lack of coherent or coordinated response to what is still a systemic problem and provided no system for collecting centralized data on the extent of domestic extremism.
Two policies formed the core of the military’s early responses to extremism: within the Department of Defense, the Directive on Dissident and Protest Activities, and within the Army, the “Extremist Organizations” section of the Army Command Policy regulation. The Department of Defense directive was originally written in 1969 to suppress anti-war advocacy and unionization attempts. The directive’s aim shifted to extremism with the 1986 addition of a “Prohibited Activities” section, a response to the White Patriot Party weapons-theft incident. The Department of Defense added two additional points in 1996 in response to the Oklahoma City bombing and the Fort Bragg murders. The first point discussed the specific investigative powers that commanders could use against individuals engaging in prohibited activities, while the second aimed to “ensure” that all military departments implemented training on these policies. The Army made similar changes to the “Extremist Organizations” section of its regulation by adding new sections on command authority, options, and responsibility. These changes empowered commanders to address extremism in their units, but also placed the responsibility to fix the military’s extremist problem on individual commanders’ shoulders.
By placing the burden of identifying and eradicating extremism on commanders, these policies failed to address the systemic nature of the problem. With legal authority at the unit level — a central pillar of “commander’s discretion” — individual commanders, whether unable or unwilling, often ignored, mishandled, or just missed the warning signs of extremist ideology altogether. In one example, former Army Criminal Investigation Division investigator, Scott Barfield, was initially encouraged by his commander to develop local screening and education programs to combat white nationalism, meeting with success, but later resigned complaining of significant backlash and hostility to his work when command priorities changed. The reliance on commander’s discretion diffused responsibility for a systemic problem and hindered any attempt to collect coherent and centralized data about the extent of extremism in the military. No matter how extensive lists of prohibited activities become, such an incoherent approach to eradicating extremism within the military hinders organizational progress.
9/11 and the “Turn” to a Different Kind of Extremism
Despite the flaws, the 1996 policy changes marked important steps towards curbing white nationalism within the military. But policy should be prioritized and consistently implemented to be effective. Following the 9/11 attacks, the military did prioritize anti-extremist policies, but “extremism” was redefined as exclusively “foreign” and “Islamist.” This new chapter of anti-extremism policy ignored continued evidence of domestic and white nationalist threats and even walked back progress made in previous decades.
After the “Global War on Terror” began, the Department of Defense paired anti-extremist policy with a widespread commitment to educating commanders and troops, but only on the dangers of foreign extremism, Islamist radicalism, and “insider threats” from these sectors. The focus on a foreign, Islamist threat was so exclusive that experts raised concerns about generalized anti-Muslim bias in federal counter-terrorism training. To this day, the annual insider threat training required of Department of Defense personnel makes no mention of white nationalist and violent right-wing extremism, even though the Defense Personnel and Security Research Center asserted as early as 2005 that “the largest and most active domestic terrorist groups” are “white supremacists.”
At the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, low enlistment numbers and increased demand for deployable soldiers even led recruiters to ignore regulations meant to prevent domestic extremists from joining. Recruiters ignored neo-Nazi tattoos during enlistment screenings and granted moral waivers to known white nationalists. Extremists such as Forrest Foggarty and Kenneth Eastridge served during this period despite visible neo-Nazi tattoos. Deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan satisfied their genocidal intentions, as they bragged about looking forward to “killing all the bloody sand n—–s.” The 2005 Defense Personnel and Security Research Center report concluded that, “effectively, the military has a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy pertaining to [domestic] extremism.”
Inaction on domestic extremism also came from the top. Letters to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from the Southern Poverty Law Center and members of Congress revealed the identities of several active-duty white nationalists and called for an investigative task force and enforcement of a zero-tolerance approach to extremism of all kinds within the military. In 2008 and 2009, reports from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, respectively, again designated white nationalist and violent right-wing extremism as the most imminent terror threats facing the country. These reports specifically warned about white nationalist leaders encouraging members to enlist in the military. The FBI report, titled “White Supremacist Recruitment of Military Personnel since 9/11,” detailed 203 individuals with military service involved in white nationalist organizations between 2001 and 2008. Yet, despite numerous warnings, Rumsfeld refused to take action, claiming that current policies were adequate. In fact, the backlash to the 2009 Department of Homeland Security report was so fierce that it was retracted and the team that wrote it was dissolved.
Under the Radar: White Nationalist Extremism After 9/11
After downplaying the threat of domestic extremism post-9/11, several public incidents forced the Department of Defense into action in 2009. After the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, white nationalist activity surged across the country and within the military community. Researchers discovered online discussions about getting around enlistment screenings on Stormfront and found 46 people with their occupations listed as “active duty military” on the white nationalist social networking site NewSaxon. In 2009, Lance Cpl. Kody Brittingham was arrested after investigators found that his journal contained white nationalist material and a plot to assassinate Obama. These incidents prompted a series of policy changes between 2009 and 2014, which comprises the longest sustained focus on domestic extremism to date. Yet these policy changes perpetuated the same flaws and left the Department of Defense incapable of stopping the flood of extremists who would join the military in the midst of a second nationwide surge in white nationalism, driven by the rise of the alt-right.
Policy reforms enacted between 2009 and 2014 enhanced prohibitions against white nationalist extremist activities, but still relied on individual commanders to solve a systemic problem. Reforms expanded the list of prohibitions to include posting extremist material online and replaced the ban on participating in extremist organizations with a ban on advocating for supremacist ideology. In 2012, a new section in the Department of Defense directive encouraged commanders to remain alert and intervene early, while in 2014, army regulations required commanders to notify the Criminal Investigation Division and law enforcement agencies of any suspected or known cases of extremism. The latter is the first indication of a centralized and coordinated strategy to combat extremism, yet the persistent claim that leaders do not know the extent of this problem demonstrates that this coordination has been ineffective.
The rise of the alt-right after 2015 sparked a surge of white nationalist activity and two new violent organizations emerged with intimate connections to military networks. In 2016, Iraq War veteran Nathan Damigo founded Identity Evropa and quickly attracted several active-duty servicemembers. Atomwaffen Division, founded by Florida national guardsman Brandon Russell, similarly recruited through military networks. In 2017, Russell was arrested with a massive cache of explosives in his garage and at least five other Atomwaffen Division members have since been discharged from military service.
The defining event of this period was the 2017 Unite the Right rallies, which led to violent attacks on counter-protesters and the murder of Heather Heyer by army basic training washout James Alex Fields, Jr. Many veterans were involved in organizing the rally, but there were also several active-duty marines discharged for crimes committed during the event. One of those marines was Lance Cpl. Vassillos Pistolis, a neo-Nazi and Atomwaffen Division member. After the events, Pistolis bragged online about cracking skulls, even posting pictures of the violence.
Simply figuring out the extent of the problem is a challenge. This brief account does not include many less-publicized or uninvestigated occurrences of extremism throughout the military. Accounting is hampered even further by evidence that even known extremists were quietly discharged on other grounds, so as to not attract public attention. In February 2020, the House Armed Services Committee hearing on white supremacy in the military led to the Army’s most recent update of its regulation, which further prohibited online extremist activity and radicalization. While these changes make it easier to charge servicemembers for their online activity, it still does not provide a centralized, coordinated strategy, nor does it provide commanders with resources on how to identify such activity. Much of the traffic on online forums comes from individuals hiding behind accounts designed for anonymity. Extremists like former national guardsman and self-described Nazi content creator, Shandon Simpson, are able to enlist without their online personality being known or traced. When activated in response to Black Lives Matter Protests in June 2020, Simpson celebrated online: “we’re getting real ammunition to shoot and kill. Rahowa [Racial Holy War].” Dangerous military extremists like Simpson are rarely discovered through proactive internal measures, but rather are arrested for harm already committed or are uncovered by independent organizations who can only forward their findings to individual commanders and hope for the best.
What This History Means for the Military Today
With the mandate of a stand down day and Austin’s April 9 announcement of a counter extremism working group, military leaders have again taken initial steps toward a necessary commitment to rid the military of white nationalism and domestic extremism. But we have walked this ground before. Over the past four decades, military leaders have repeatedly updated policy, but crucial policy failures and disregard for the severity of the threat have allowed extremism to remain. There are important lessons to be learned from this history.
First, existing policies empower commanders to investigate, prosecute, and curb servicemembers’ extremist activities. Instead of further tweaking these policies, the Department of Defense needs to support individual commanders by making implementation of these existing policies more consistent across commands and services. Ensuring that individual unit commanders know what their authorities are and what they should watch for is the first step, and providing a centralized system for monitoring and prioritizing enforcement is also needed.
Second, the military’s post-9/11 response to Islamist extremism led to years of ignoring and even tolerating domestic and white nationalist extremism among active-duty military members. In order to fulfill its function of protecting the military and the nation, anti-extremist policy should place equal emphasis on all extremist threats, including domestic threats, with specificity and nuance. The military’s at-times too-broad approaches toward Islamist extremism resulted in discrimination against people of Muslim faith or backgrounds. We are not arguing for a broad crackdown on political activities, from right or left, in the name of rooting out extremism, especially as studies have shown that current military legal structures used to enforce “good order and discipline” unfairly target soldiers of color at significantly higher rates. The military needs to approach future anti-extremism efforts with a nuanced understanding of the ideologies and structures of the particular extremist threats they face, whether white nationalist, anti-government, or other, and how they overlap with each other and with foreign extremist organizations. This understanding needs to be paired with clear statements of priority from military leadership.
Finally, the most important lesson is that policy updates alone are ineffective without continued commitment from military and civilian leadership. It takes more than words. New, centralized bureaucratic structures, robust strategies, and better processes are needed to create a standardized mechanism for reporting and recording incidents of extremism within the military. The absence of this type of data collection has left military leaders without the information they need to even understand this problem. Our academic research team is working to remedy one aspect of this information deficiency by developing a historical database of incidents with confirmed ties to the military and white nationalism in the hopes of mapping past patterns of behavior and response. Our database is limited only to publicly reported incidents and currently has over 130 identified entries and over 300 cases found in de-identified reports, forming the largest single compilation of such incidents. Yet, based on recent reporting that the FBI opened 143 investigations into extremist activity among current and former military members in 2020 alone, our database and the public record capture only a small sliver of the true extent of the problem. Austin’s Feb. 5 memo called for a “concerted” and “sustainable” effort to “eliminate the corrosive effects … [of] extremist ideology.” The military can learn from its own history to make this call a reality.
Simone Askew is a 2018 West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar. She earned a master’s degree in refugee studies and a masters in public policy from Oxford University. While a cadet at West Point she was the first African-American woman to serve as First Captain of the Corps of Cadets. She is currently serving as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army and is a research fellow with the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the U.S. Military Academy as part of the New War Research Consortium.
Jack Lowe is a 2019 West Point graduate and Fulbright Scholar completing his master’s degree in cultural criminology at Lund University, Sweden. He is a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army and a research fellow with the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the U.S. Military Academy as part of the New War Research Consortium.
Nette Monaus is a 2018 West Point graduate and Schwarzman Scholar. She completed a master’s degree in global affairs at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China and is a co-founder of the annual Mass Atrocity Prevention Symposium at the US Military Academy. She currently serves as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army and is a research fellow with the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the U.S. Military Academy as part of the New War Research Consortium.
Kirsten L. Cooper, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of History at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point. She is a Boren National Security Fellow, specializes in the study of nationalism and propaganda, and has analyzed international disinformation campaigns as an intern with the U.S. Department of State. She currently leads the West Point Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies research team as part of the New War Research Consortium.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or U.S. government.