Fears are growing among experts, politicians, and former generals about the rise of rightwing extremism in the US military and the potential threat it could pose to American democracy.
Even as the US Department of Defense issues new policies to root out extremism in its ranks, some experts caution that the safeguards don’t go far enough, leaving the next election vulnerable to attack as well as fears about a broader violent “insurgency” by rightwing radicals.
“We’re behind the ball on what we know about domestic terrorists in the United States,” Paul Eaton, a retired US army major general and senior adviser to the non-profit VoteVets, said.
Eaton and two other retired army generals recently wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post last month warning of the threat of a coup in the 2024 election. The generals warned that it could succeed with the aid of rogue military elements. They contemplated the possibility of a breakdown of the chain of command, along partisan lines, in the aftermath of a contested election with “rogue units organizing among themselves to support the ‘rightful’ commander in chief”.
Eaton said in an interview that the American military and law enforcement have a history of underestimating the threat from the far right.
“It’s the Timothy McVeigh problem: what did we know about McVeigh and what were we doing about it?” said Eaton.
The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 people and injured over 650 when one morning ex-army soldiers Timothy McVeigh and co-conspirator Terry Nichols parked a rental truck filled with homemade explosives outside a federal building and detonated it. It remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in US history. The two men harbored anti-government and racists beliefs.
“The McVeighs of the world are still there, we had about 4,500 of them crawling all over the nation’s capitol [during the 6 January attack],” said Eaton, who added that the increased power of the internet and rise of social media had boosted the threat massively since McVeigh’s attack.
“The infection of extremism into our state and local police and our armed forces is a very serious concern that needs to be monitored,” said Eaton.
Eaton added: “There’s a recruiting effort going on locally, they’re going to school boards, like missionaries sent to the islands to convert people. The Proud Boys and Oath Keepers are definitely recruiting.””
In many ways the aftermath of the attack on the Capitol in Washington DC laid bare the vulnerability of US service members to extremism. The 727 defendants charged in the 6 January Capitol riot include 81 with ties to the military, while five were active duty service members. A 35-year-old woman, air force veteran Ashli Babbitt, was fatally shot while attempting to break the doors into the House chamber.
The appeal of extremism among active duty and veterans is a longstanding issue with a track record of violent incidents.
Last year army private Ethan Phelan Melzer confessed to prosecutors in the southern district of New York to plotting an attack on fellow soldiers in his unit. The federal indictment states that Melzer confessed to sharing sensitive information about his soon-to-deploy unit with members of a neo-Nazi group in order to facilitate an attack that would “result in the deaths of as many of his fellow service members as possible”.
In 2018 marine lance corporal Vasillios Pistolis was imprisoned after assaulting people at the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite The Right” rally. Pistolis was discovered to belong the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen after bragging about violence in chats with other Atomwaffen members, which were eventually leaked.
From 1990 to July 2021 there have been at least 354 people with military backgrounds that have committed criminal acts motivated by “political, economic, social, or religious goals” according to data collected by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.
The data suggest the problem is growing in the US as from 1990-2010 there was an average of six cases a year, but over the last decade “that number has more than tripled to nearly 21 subjects per year”.
The generals’ public call for elections safeguards in the military comes as the Pentagon issued new guidelines aimed at rooting out extremism in its ranks. The defense chief, Lloyd Austin, ordered a 60-day “stand down” early last year to come up with rules to stomp out extremism among the military’s various branches. The new rules adopted by the Pentagon last month specify that service members are prohibited from engaging in extremist activities and could face disciplinary action for even “liking” extremist content on social media.
The new guidance specifies that commanders must not be “indifferent” and hold service members who participate in extremist activity accountable. The Pentagon defines extremism as advocacy for violence to achieve goals that are “political, religious, discriminatory, or ideological in nature”. It includes efforts to overthrow the government and advocating widespread unlawful discrimination “based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including pregnancy), gender identity, or sexual orientation”.
Bu the Pentagon’s effort towards stomping out extremism in the military may not go far enough. An Associated Press investigation found the new guidelines fail to account for racism among the ranks, membership in groups such as the KKK, and longstanding racial disparities in military justice.
The new guidelines don’t prohibit membership in extremist groups like the KKK as long as they are not “actively participating”. The new rules attempt to police acts rather than associations or beliefs. Some former military figures say it’s absurd to allow service members to also be members of violent extremist groups.
“Seriously? You want to be in a foxhole with a guy whose a member of the KKK? Is that really what we want to do here?” said Eaton. “The idea of service members having to be in close proximity to card carrying members of the Proud Boys, as long as they don’t ‘march’, that just doesn’t get it.” he added.
Some experts also criticize the approach as ignoring the very real threat of white supremacists. “It reflects the institutional bias that permeates all of our government, that even calling out white supremacy is politically fraught,” said Mike German, a former FBI special agent and current Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.
German is concerned the classification has the potential for unintended consequences. “It opens the door to a strange political ‘both sides-ism’,” he said. “The consequence is that somebody expressing anti-racism can be seen as an extremist under that description.”
Experts see the far-right and other extremists as actively trying to recruit members of the military, including foreign agents seeking to promote disruption within the US.
“We’re in the early stages of an insurgency in the Untied States,” said Kristofer Goldsmith, an Iraq war veteran and researcher.
In a 200-page report published by Vietnam Veterans of America, Goldsmith found that between 2017 and 2019 foreign entities, such as Russian hackers, “coordinated online targeting of American service members, veterans, and their families” in an effort to disrupt American democracy.
“We found 10 different ways foreign entities were targeting veterans online,” said Goldsmith, including through ads, fake veteran accounts that sent friend request to other veterans in order to penetrate the “relatively small community of veteran advocates, and found large social media pages run by foreign admins that spread disinflation tailored to veterans in a effort to influence the election”.
Goldsmith sees anti-democratic, white supremacist and fascists movements targeting veterans for the same reason as foreign adversaries. “Veterans are an economically efficient target for campaigns, because if you get one, they often bring their immediate social circle with them,” said Goldsmith.
Goldsmith warns that the coming election is vulnerable to a rising insurgency. “We saw a violent insurrection, we did not experience a peaceful transfer of power. It was an attempted coup. Every failed coup is just practice for the next one,” said Goldsmith.