Why Extremism Appeals To Some Active & Former Military Members
Dr. Jessica White is a Research Fellow in the Terrorism and Conflict group at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Her expertise encompasses countering terrorism and violent extremism policy and programming, as well as gender mainstreaming strategies. Before completing her PhD, she spent six years as an intelligence analyst in the United States Navy.
Over the last year, since the events at the US Capitol on the 6th of January, there has been increasing scrutiny and concern around the threat of far-right extremism to and within the military. However, what is driving this threat is less clear, not only in the US but in militaries across the Western world. Therefore, it is important to consider how the hyper-masculine organizational culture promoted in the military might be creating a bridge of familiarity and appeal between service and far-right extremism.
On one side of the threat are the individuals already possessing far-right extremist belief systems that enter the military with the purpose of using their service time to gain useful skillsets or to enforce their belief systems (i.e., the opportunity to engage in sanctioned combat with an outgroup). This aligns with research indicating that others, such as organized criminal gangs, also strategically infiltrate the armed forces, in order to receive the accompanying training. This is ultimately an issue of vetting and learning to be aware of, as well as being willing to address, risk identifiers within recruits and within the culture of the ranks.
The other side of the threat comes from radicalization during or after time in service and the appeal that these groups might offer to current and former members of the forces, as well as specific targeting strategies aimed at veterans and retirees by extremists because of their skillsets. For example, there is evidence of such a strategy being employed by The Base, a US-based neo-Nazi group, seeking to appeal to veterans for their skills – they see the radicalization of ideological viewpoints as a secondary step.
The bridge between service and violent extremism is only traversed by the very few. However, these very few also have the potential to be very dangerous. Additionally, the larger the number of active and former service members that cross to non-violent extremism the higher the general threat level. While they might not pose a direct threat of violence themselves, the further extremism spreads within the ranks the sooner it reaches the level of violence.
The building blocks of this bridge are the hyper-masculine culture within which the military was formed and still operates today, offering organizational familiarities and cultural overlap for those who crave this type of environment. Western militaries were established within the international relations system – a system based on realist interpretation of the state as the sole actor, entirely masculine in nature. The male citizen both holds the power within the state, as he is the rational actor, and is willing to defend the state at all costs.
This patriarchal foundation has developed the idealized conception of the archetypal ‘hero’ as a white, straight, male figure who is brave, valiant, honorable, and patriotic. The same patriarchal organizational structure applies to most groups across the far-right spectrum, with many of the same foundational expectations of heroism twisted to extremist viewpoints.
The military training environment banks on these expectations, building the strength of the unit on absolutes – trust in authority, trust in your comrades, and the value of the mission. Boot camps and other forms of military training are designed to use extreme stress and even sometimes violence to develop the military unit in-group and formulate the strength of the hierarchal culture. Once this has been developed, a sense of loyalty lies with the in-group (i.e., the unit) and its established chain of command. A process of othering then takes place to prepare for combat, dehumanizing the enemy as a threat which needs to be neutralized. This process of becoming a soldier or “martialization” can share many parallels with the radicalization process itself, as well as with the pseudo-martial environments that many far-right organizations seek to create.
In this cultural environment, expectations of hyper-masculinity and the archetypal hero can create familiar pathways into white supremacy, ultra-nationalism, and even anti-government sentiment. The othering of the enemy is often linked to racial and ethnic profiling – in the context of the last two decades of the Global War on Terror, the Middle Eastern Muslim man – and can create a familiar pathway into white supremacy.
Patriotic, nationalist expectations of military members can be a short step from ultra-nationalist sentiment, either based on racial or ethnic hatred. On the other hand, the potential negative experience within the military – perception of failure or misjudgment, or failure to reach required goals – can be an equally short step to anti-government sentiment.
These familiar pathways are potentially encouraged by the hyper-masculinized military training and culture, often with the immediate negative impact being felt first by those within the ranks that don’t fit within this archetypal hero conception. There needs to be increased understanding at the top of how this culture is propagated within the ranks. Additionally, there needs to be further research on how transition points, into the military, potentially between ratings, and especially out of the military can be points of vulnerability and opportunity for altering mindset and action.
Transparency is needed to prevent the spread of extremism within the ranks, both on the extent of concern (e.g., details of cases or investigations into extremism) and on regulatory guidance for what is considered extremism. Ultimately, there needs to be meaningful introspection and a concerted effort to address cultural permission and encouragement of othering, through critical engagement and education at all levels. However, further education and training will only be effective if it is designed and implemented alongside transparent and meaningful analysis of the problem, not if it is only a tick-box exercise to appease the concerns of others.
Veterans should not be tainted by fears of extremism. Rather, it is essential to think about how to protect and increase resilience among active and former service members to these ideological threats. However, in order to prevent and counter the appeal of far-right extremism within the security forces, it is necessary to challenge the hyper-masculine organizational culture that is promoted and to examine how it might be creating a bridge of familiarity and appeal over the gulf between service and far-right extremism.