Editor's note: Research support for this article was provided by the Nation Institute's Investigative Fund.
Since the launch of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military has struggled to recruit and reenlist troops. As the conflicts have dragged on, the military has loosened regulations, issuing "moral waivers" in many cases, allowing even those with criminal records to join up. Veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder have been ordered back to the Middle East for second and third tours of duty.
The lax regulations have also opened the military's doors to neo-Nazis, white supremacists and gang members — with drastic consequences. Some neo-Nazis have been charged with crimes inside the military, and others have been linked to recruitment efforts for the white right. A recent Department of Homeland Security report, "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment," stated: "The willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned, or suffering from the psychological effects of war is being replicated today." Many white supremacists join the Army to secure training for, as they see it, a future domestic race war. Others claim to be shooting Iraqis not to pursue the military's strategic goals but because killing "hajjis" is their duty as white militants.
Soldiers' associations with extremist groups, and their racist actions, contravene a host of military statutes instituted in the past three decades. But during the "war on terror," U.S. armed forces have turned a blind eye on their own regulations. A 2005 Department of Defense report states, "Effectively, the military has a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy pertaining to extremism. If individuals can perform satisfactorily, without making their extremist opinions overt … they are likely to be able to complete their contracts."
Carter F. Smith is a former military investigator who worked with the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command from 2004 to 2006, when he helped to root out gang violence in troops. "When you need more soldiers, you lower the standards, whether you say so or not," he says. "The increase in gangs and extremists is an indicator of this." Military investigators may be concerned about white supremacists, he says. "But they have a war to fight, and they don't have incentive to slow down." [...]
"The anti-Arab racism came from the brass. It came from the top"
Once white supremacists are in the military, it is easy to stay there. An Army Command Policy manual devotes more than 100 pages to rooting them out. But no officer appears to be reading it.[...]
[T]he regulations on racist extremists got jettisoned with the war on terror.[...]
White supremacists may be doing more than avoiding expulsion. They may be using their military status to help build the white right. The FBI found that two Army privates in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg had attempted in 2007 to sell stolen property from the military — including ballistic vests, a combat helmet and pain medications such as morphine — to an undercover FBI agent they believed was involved with the white supremacist movement. (They were convicted and sentenced to six years.) It found multiple examples of white supremacist recruitment among active military, including a period in 2003 when six active duty soldiers at Fort Riley, members of the Aryan Nation, were recruiting their Army colleagues and even serving as the Aryan Nation's point of contact for the state of Kansas.
Rooting out extremists is difficult because racism pervades the military, according to soldiers.
Photo: Matt Kennard