Following the events of January 6th, 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin made the extreme decision to bring all operations to a stop to examine and address what he believed was a fresh appearance of extremism within the ranks. He along with other top brass seemed surprised by seeing servicemembers at the US Capitol on that fateful day.
Despite his assumptions about it being prevalent, the numbers don’t lie. 884 people were charged for actions that day. Less than 10% were Veterans, with five people who are known to be serving at the time; one US Marine Corps officer on active duty, and four reservists whose branch is unspecified. To the top brass, this is unacceptable, even one is too much.
While Sec Def Austin has a point, and one extremist is too many, the belief that extremism is ramping up too much in the US military is going the wrong way with things. This is a problem that is always lurking in the shadows.
When you ask rough men to do rough things and fail to provide an environment of respect for these servicemembers problems are bound to spring up. During the latest conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the only way you were seeing mental health was by being on a bigger base. Combat outposts and patrol bases barely had any medical services, if any at all. It was easy for many of these men and women to develop biases because quite simply they can keep them alive while serving in combat.
Upon coming home, they are supposed to be forgotten about or changed. Some people unfortunately cannot quite seem to let that go so easily, and they keep them fresh in their minds until someone can help them uncover the why and change it.
Then you have those who are born in parts of the country where those biases can mean the difference between life and death in their experience. These people have seen it all and have their reasons for feeling like they do. Does it excuse it? Not in the least, but those instincts of knowing how to read and trust people are crucial. It can mean the difference for an entire unit while on patrol or while working with foreign nationals.
Skills like these make the kinds of people who are most prone to extreme views some of the most common candidates for recruiters. They are often poor and from either the inner city or rural parts of the country. That kind of thought process boils across all racial and geographic boundaries too. For many, basic training gets all of that out. A fight or two over the wrong words, and people learn that it’s not allowed.
Once someone signs that dotted line to serve, they find themselves under different rules than civilians. The First Amendment, for example, is gone. They instead have a watered-down version of it. They cannot say or do things that disrespect top brass (including the President), nor bring discredit upon their service. That means those having extremist views are often excused as a joke, or they simply serve with their views in silence.
For leadership across the board, the second one is the biggest problem and a huge risk. Those extremists who serve in silence present a gigantic risk of going to the max with it, and while it has happened in the past, it has largely been eradicated.
Despite what Sec Def Austin thinks he saw, the service members at the Capitol were not there to be extremists. They were there to support President Trump. A man they felt was making the military better by taking care of them as well as our nation’s veterans. He had a special connection with many. Not because he was one of them, but because he genuinely acted as if he cared. Which is something many service members don’t see while serving.