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Examining the microaggressions and ‘building blocks to extremism’ within the military

About 15 percent of the insurrectionists at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 were current or former members of the military. The military admits it has an extremism problem, but advocates say it hasn’t taken the necessary steps to tackle it. The Pentagon on Friday announced new initiatives and a new working group to counter extremism in the ranks. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, the Pentagon announced new initiatives and a new working group to counter extremism in the ranks.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, the military admits there's a problem, but advocates say it hasn't taken the necessary steps to tackle it.

  • Man:

    This is going to be the stand-down training for extremism.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    From a Marine Corps base in California to an Air Force base in Texas.

  • Man:

    Our purpose is to address a concern that has likely been around for decades, and has either been dormant or simply ignored.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The military's two million active-duty and reserve men and women were all recently ordered to pause their day jobs and stand down to admit they had a problem.

  • Man:

    Never has this been more important than now, as we face potential threats from within.

  • Lloyd Austin:

    Hello, everyone. I'm Lloyd Austin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In February, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin required every unit to discuss extremism in the ranks.

  • Lloyd Austin:

    Views and conduct that run counter to everything that we believe in, and which can actually tear at the fabric of who we are as an institution.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The stand-down was sparked by the January 6 insurrection. But the military's problems run deeper than the 15 percent or so of insurrectionists who were current or former military.

  • Geoffrey Easterling:

    The reaction that you get just when you tell somebody you're a Black West Pointer, they're like — one, they're like flabbergasted, like, how did you make it?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Former Captain Geoffrey Easterling was a West Point graduate and Army field artillery officer who deployed to Afghanistan. He left the military in 2019.

    Easterling remembers confronting a fellow officer wearing a patch for the Three Percenters, the far right militia group whose members were among the insurrectionists.

  • Geoffrey Easterling:

    I was like: "That seems to be like an extremist group."

  • And he’s like:

    "Oh, that's just what people say, but it's not extremism."

    If I had a Black Panther anything, there'd be a lot of questions, if not some outright fix yourself. But name your favorite white Oath Keeper-type organization don't get policed, or at least they didn't when I was in the military.

  • Richard Brookshire:

    You're going to the military for an opportunity to grow. These microaggressions can tear at you. They're like psychological whippings. And they're really meant to pacify you, to kind of put you in your place.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Richard Brookshire is a former Army sergeant and combat medic.

  • Richard Brookshire:

    Hello, I'm Specialist Brookshire with the 218 Infantry deployed to Northern Afghanistan.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He says the military never welcomed him as a Black gay man, and he calls the racism, homophobia, and sexism he says he witnessed stepping-stones to extremism.

  • Richard Brookshire:

    There's building blocks to get to extremism, right? And, certainly, if you become — if you're xenophobic, if you're — if you hold racist proclivities, if you are a fascist, and you're kind of building toward actually activating around those issues.

    You know, by way of January 6, I wasn't surprised at all. When I served, conspiracy theories were rife, right? It's this open — this openness and this kind of is tolerance that I think is most damning on the military's part.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Last month, the Pentagon made public a 2020 report that admitted: "White supremacy and white nationalism pose a threat to the good order and discipline within the military and individuals with extremist affiliations and military experience are a concern to U.S. national security."

    But it also concluded: "We believe we have been effective at screening for individuals who possess or advocate extremist ideologies."

  • Lecia Brooks:

    We're happy to see that the Pentagon agrees that there's a problem, but we completely disagree that they're doing anything about it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lecia Brooks is the chief of staff for the Southern Poverty Law Center. Her father joined the military shortly after it was desegregated and deployed to Korea.

  • Lecia Brooks:

    In joining the military, he wanted something other than the experience that he had as a Black man growing up in Mississippi.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The military is proud of the history it's tried to provide Black enlisted service members.

    But it hasn't always lived up to promised opportunities. And the SPLC has been calling out extremists in the ranks for decades. In 1986, a letter to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger said active-duty troops were rallying with the Ku Klux Klan.

    The SPLC has sent letters warning of white supremacy in the military about every five years since.

  • Lecia Brooks:

    The military seems to respond when something horrific happens. They feign interest, and then do not implement the recommendations that we offer.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The military admits it doesn't even know the scope of the problem. It has no centralized system for monitoring extremism-related incidents. And advocates argue recruits aren't screened well enough and regulations are inconsistent.

  • Lecia Brooks:

    We should know how many people have been separated from military service based on their extremist activity. We don't know. There's also inconsistencies among command in terms of taking this problem seriously, and just buying into the romanticized notion that all is equal in the military.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Right now, the military doesn't prohibit service members from belonging to extremist organizations, so long as they don't conduct prohibited activities.

    When Brookshire was deployed to Germany, he was stationed on a former Nazi base and noticed his fellow soldiers' fascination with Nazi culture. After he separated, he realized a veteran who'd killed a Black man hoping to start a race war had been in his brigade.

  • Richard Brookshire:

    It kind of brought home the point that these things these — these things weren't just being made up in my mind. There were people being radicalized right alongside me.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This stand-down was held at a chapel on Fort Lee, named for the Confederacy's top general.

  • Geoffrey Easterling:

    It starts at the top. If a post is named after an extremist, Fort Hood, Fort Bragg, Fort Lee, it kind of sets the tone that a radical with the right morals can still be honored.

  • Woman:

    Against all enemies…

  • Man:

    … foreign and domestic.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Pentagon says the stand-down has focused on the morals of its mandatory oath.

  • Man:

    That I will support…

  • Man:

    … and defend…

  • Man:

    … the Constitution of the United States…

  • Man:

    … against all enemies…

  • Woman:

    … foreign and domestic.

  • John Kirby:

    the number ought to be zero, given the fact that you take an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States, that you make a promise to the American people about what you stand for. But even though the number is small, it can have a corrosive, outsized effect.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby unveiled new steps, including a new military-wide definition of extremism, standardizing extremism screening among recruits, and training service members as they leave the military on extremist groups that recruit veterans.

  • John Kirby:

    More needs to be done to educate and inform transitioning members about who and what are waiting for them on the other side.

    We have evidence that some extremist groups are actively recruiting active-duty members as they get ready to transition, because they value their leadership capability, their organizational skills, their weapons training.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Richard Brookshire's organization, the Black Veterans Project, uses advocacy and storytelling with famous veterans to organize and support Black veterans. And he fights what he calls systemic bias and exclusivity.

    Geoffrey Easterling believes solutions should also focus on veterans who don't feel supported when they leave the military.

  • Geoffrey Easterling:

    How could you feel so rudderless and so unheard in a society that you helped create, you helped defend? How are we ensuring that they have the tools and resources to have community, financial stability, and family stability for the rest of their lives, so they're less likely to buy into conspiracy, insurgency,

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And ensuring that all who've served are less likely to buy into extremism's building blocks won't be accomplished in a single stand-down.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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