Purge White Supremacist Extremism from the Military

Photo credit: Australia Broadcasting Service, Emma Machan and Ola Haydar

In October, 2020, the Department of Homeland Security released an annual assessment that declared white supremacist violence the “most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland.”[i] That sentiment, echoed by FBI Director Christopher Wray in his February address to Congress, supports the general consensus among experts that white supremacist violence is growing rapidly.[ii] Despite these warnings from officials, the military has taken a laid-back approach to addressing the issue of white supremacist extremists within its ranks.[iii] Indeed, the military does not forbid membership in white supremacist groups, only “active participation,” a distinction that leaves a significant gray area for commanding officers to navigate.[iv] Furthermore, the military’s tepid responses have allowed extremists to find safe haven in its ranks.[v] As the country confronts rising white supremacist violence, the importance of purging the military of these domestic terrorists has never been so clear.

Threat Assessment

The presence of white supremacist violent extremists in the military may be increasing. A 2019 Military Times survey found that of 1,630 active-duty troops polled, more than a third had witnessed examples of white nationalist or racist ideologies in the military.[vi] Concerningly, that number had increased, up 14 percent from the same poll in 2018.[vii] Respondents cited incidents such as individuals using the Nazi salute and drawing swastikas on cars.[viii]

It is important to note that holding extremist views does not directly correlate with carrying out extremist actions. Moreover, the military maintains that the presence of extremists in its ranks is miniscule.[ix] However, recent incidents involving white supremacist extremists suggest that the military’s official reporting does not tell the full story of white supremacist activity.[x] For example, in 2017, US Marine and Atomwaffen member Vasillios Pistolis clubbed three counter protestors at the Unite the Right rally.[xi] Then, in 2019, Coast Guard lieutenant and white nationalist Christopher Hasson was arrested after stockpiling weapons and planning to murder several “leftist” journalists.[xii] Finally, in June of this year, the FBI arrested US Army soldier Ethan Melzer for sharing classified information with a neo-Nazi group as part of a mass casualty plot against his own unit.[xiii] Melzer remains one of the few white supremacists charged with domestic terrorism offenses.[xiv] These few recent examples suggest that the number of white supremacist extremists in the military may also be growing.

The History of White Supremacy in the Military

White supremacist extremist groups have long recruited from the military’s ranks and even sent their members to receive military training.[xv] After the Civil War, the Second Ku Klux Klan openly recruited from within the military and even saw itself as operating in service to the state.[xvi] The group went so far as to establish a chapter aboard a Navy ship.[xvii] While the KKK and other groups have employed similar recruitment tactics since the post-Civil War era, white supremacist emphasis on gaining access to military training and weapons took on a new zeal in the post-Vietnam era.[xviii] For example, in the 1980s, the White Patriot Party stole more than $50,000 worth of explosives and weapons from Fort Bragg.[xix] In the same decade, active-duty troops demonstrated their continued participation in the white power movement. They appeared at white power rallies, advised white supremacist groups on the proper tactics for guerilla warfare, and joined their ranks.[xx]

Veterans have held significant leadership positions within the white power movement since at least the 1970s. Vietnam War veterans like Louis Beam defined the movement’s rhetoric by mapping post-war grievances onto the white power cause.[xxi] They also appealed to other veterans who similarly felt the need to fight “the war the government had abandoned.”[xxii] Since then, veterans have featured heavily in the membership of white supremacist and domestic extremist groups.[xxiii] Notably, Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing, had served in the Gulf War.[xxiv] With such long-standing links to the military, officials should not be surprised that white supremacist extremist groups draw on these connections today.

The Next Steps

Confronting the threat from white supremacists in the military will require significant efforts from multiple directions, including top-down and bottom-up initiatives. The first step to ridding the military of white supremacist extremists is to recognize that optics matter. Accordingly, an organization’s culture, the statements from its officials, and the presence or absence of diverse voices at the table can all either embolden or constrain actors. With this in mind, President-elect Joe Biden should diversify the highest ranks of military leadership. Appointing a Black Secretary of Defense or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for example, counters the message that the military is a safe space for white supremacist violent extremists and their sympathizers. This act would also bolster efforts to diversify the highest ranks of military leadership, which included this year’s appointment of General Charles Q. Brown, the first Black Chief of Staff of the Air Force.[xxv]

In this vein, the military should replace confederate base names with those of the nation’s true battle heroes. Keeping the names of confederate soldiers extends tacit support for white supremacist ideology. As US Air Force Colonel Mike Pietrucha eloquently states, “The messages sent to soldiers and sailors by maintaining monuments to racism are pernicious, and unavoidable. The first message, and the most dangerous, is that not only is it OK to support a white supremacist cause, but that it’s OK to take up arms to do so.”[xxvi]

Second, the military must view individual, white supremacist extremists in its ranks not as “lone actors” but as part of a broader white power movement that seeks to exploit slow and noncommittal responses.[xxvii] Thus, the military should quickly respond to the recent congressional letter urging a reevaluation of DoD policies. All future policies and actions should be made with the broader, violent white supremacist extremist movement in mind. The military must also take care to ensure proper implementation of its policies. Currently, discipline and discharge responsibilities fall to commanders, who are often overworked and undertrained for the task of evaluating reports of white supremacist extremist activity.[xxviii] Other times, supervisors willfully overlook prohibited behaviors, such as having white supremacist tattoos.[xxix] To combat these failings, the military must develop and deploy uniform, strict policies that leave no wiggle-room for domestic terrorists to remain in the ranks. 

Lastly, the armed forces should ban membership in white supremacist violent extremist groups and streamline the process for disciplining offenders. These groups, which espouse violence in order to rob American citizens of their civil rights, not only threaten American national security, but also contradict core military values.[xxx] The current culture of permissiveness, already proven deadly in the past, will only embolden white supremacists within the military. In the face of such a threat, the military must take strong, swift action to purge white supremacist extremists from its ranks. 


[i] Zolan Kanno-Youngs, “Delayed Homeland Security Report Warns of ‘Lethal’ White Supremacy,” The New York Times, October 6, 2020, accessed November 4, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/06/us/politics/homeland-security-white-supremacists-russia.html; “Homeland Threat Assessment October 2020,” Department of Homeland Security, October, 2020. https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/2020_10_06_homeland-threat-assessment.pdf.

[ii] Emma Broches and Julia Solomon-Strauss, “White Supremacist Prosecutions Roundup,” Lawfare, July 13, 2020, accessed November 4, 2020. https://www.lawfareblog.com/white-supremacist-prosecutions-roundup; Seth G. Jones, Catrina Doxsee and Nicholas Harrington, “The Escalating Terrorism Problem in the United States,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 17, 2020, accessed November 4, 2020. https://www.csis.org/analysis/escalating-terrorism-problem-united-states.

[iii] Mike Pietrucha, “Of Course the U.S. Military Has a White Supremacy Problem. It’s Baked In,” War on the Rocks, May 7, 2020, accessed November 4, 2020. https://warontherocks.com/2020/05/of-course-the-u-s-military-has-a-white-supremacy-problem-its-baked-in/.

[iv] Richard Sisk, “Neo-Nazi Group Membership May Not Get You Booted from Military, Officials Say,” Military.com, February 12, 2020, accessed November 17, 2020. https://www.military.com/daily-news/2020/02/12/neo-nazi-group-membership-may-not-get-you-booted-military-officials-say.html.

[v] Pietrucha, “Of Course the U.S. Military Has a White Supremacy Problem. It’s Baked In.”

[vi] Leo Shane, “Signs of white supremacy, extremism up again in poll of active-duty troops,” Military Times, February 6, 2020, accessed November 4, 2020. https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2020/02/06/signs-of-white-supremacy-extremism-up-again-in-poll-of-active-duty-troops/.

[vii] Lois Beckett, “How the US military has failed to address white supremacy in its ranks,” The Guardian, June 24, 2020, accessed November 4, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/24/us-military-white-supremacy-extremist-plot.

[viii] Shane, “Signs of white supremacy, extremism up again in poll of active-duty troops.”

[ix] Dave Philipps, “White Supremacism in the US Military, Explained,” The New York Times, February 27, 2020, accessed November 4, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/27/us/military-white-nationalists-extremists.html.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] A.C. Thompson, Ali Winston and Jake Hanrahan, “Ranks of Notorious Hate Group Include Active-Duty Military,” ProPublica, May 3, 2018, accessed November 4, 2020. https://www.propublica.org/article/atomwaffen-division-hate-group-active-duty-military.

[xii] Dave Philipps, “Coast Guard Officer Plotted to Kill Democrats and Journalists, Prosecutors Say,” The New York Times, February 20, 2019, accessed November 4, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/20/us/christopher-hasson-coast-guard.html.

[xiii] Kyle Rempfer, “US soldier plotted with Satanic neo-Nazis to ambush his own unit overseas, feds say,” Army Times, June 22, 2020, accessed November 4, 2020. https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2020/06/22/us-soldier-plotted-with-satanic-neo-nazis-to-ambush-his-own-unit-overseas-feds-say/.

[xiv] Broches and Solomon-Strauss, “White Supremacist Prosecutions Roundup”; “U.S. Army Soldier Charged with Terrorism Offenses for Planning Deadly Ambush on Service Members in His Unit,” Department of Justice, June 22, 2020, accessed November 4, 2020. https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/us-army-soldier-charged-terrorism-offenses-planning-deadly-ambush-service-members-his-unit.

[xv] Philipps, “White Supremacism in the US Military, Explained.”

[xvi] Philipps, “White Supremacism in the US Military, Explained”; Max Boot, “The Deconstruction of Reconstruction,” in Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (New York: Liveright, 2013), 224.

[xvii] Philipps, “White Supremacism in the US Military, Explained.”

[xviii] Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2018), 48.

[xix] Ibid., 136.

[xx] Ibid., 136-137.

[xxi] Ibid., 42-43.

[xxii] Ibid., 49.

[xxiii] Ibid., 48.

[xxiv] Ibid., 210-211.

[xxv] James L. Jones, “Extremists Don’t Belong in the Military,” The Atlantic, October 17, 2020, accessed November 4, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/10/extremists-dont-belong-military/616763/.

[xxvi] Pietrucha, “Of Course the U.S. Military Has A White Supremacy Problem. It’s Baked In.”

[xxvii] Belew, Bring the War Home,137.

[xxviii] Philipps, “White Supremacism in the US Military, Explained.”

[xxix] “Testimony of Lecia Brooks Before the Subcommittee on Military Personnel, U.S. House Armed Services Committee,” Southern Poverty Law Center, February 11, 2020, accessed November 4, 2020.  https://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS02/20200211/110495/HHRG-116-AS02-Wstate-BrooksL-20200211.pdf.

[xxx] Nancy Montgomery, “Neo-Nazis excluded from military service by policy, but concerns persist,” Stars and Stripes, August 18, 2017, accessed November 4, 2020. https://www.stripes.com/news/neo-nazis-excluded-from-military-service-by-policy-but-concerns-persist-1.483558.

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