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Extremism and the Military

Due to recruiting shortages, the military is relaxing bans on extremists joining the armed forces.

Twenty years ago this spring, the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote a letter to Caspar Weinberger, then the U.S. secretary of defense, to report that active-duty Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., were participating in paramilitary Ku Klux Klan activities and even stealing military weaponry for Klan use. Weinberger reacted with force, issuing a directive saying "active participation" in "white supremacy, neo-Nazi and other such groups" was "utterly incompatible with military service."

Ten years later, the random murder of a black couple outside Fort Bragg, N.C., by neo-Nazi skinheads in the 82nd Airborne Division sparked another round of soul-searching by military authorities. After congressional hearings were held and an Army task force reported on the problem, Defense Secretary William Perry amended regulations to make clear there was "no room" for extremists in the military.

But today the nightmare is back. Facing intense pressure to meet manpower goals in Iraq and Afghanistan, some commanders and recruiters have relaxed the standards that Weinberger and Perry sought to impose. As reported in a remarkable cover story by David Holthouse, many neo-Nazis have served or are serving in Iraq. Hundreds anonymously proclaim their ideology in racist online venues. At a single base, Fort Lewis, Wash., 320 soldiers are involved in extremist activity, according to a Defense Department investigator -- but just two of them have been discharged.

How serious is the problem? According to the Defense Department investigator and others who spoke to the Intelligence Report, there are "thousands" of soldiers in the Army alone who are involved in extremist or gang activity. If that sounds high, it's worth remembering that a 1996 study found that 0.52% of soldiers interviewed by military officials admitted to being members of a neo-Nazi or white supremacist group -- a far higher percentage than in the general population.

The ramifications are frightening. Timothy McVeigh, whose volcanic anger at the government partly stemmed from his service in the first Gulf War, went on to murder 168 people. Others, such as then-Green Beret Michael Tubbs of Florida, stole military weapons and explosives in plots to attack black and Jewish targets. And still others emerged from the armed forces to teach high-level military skills to fellow extremists, like White Patriot Party leaders did in the mid-1980s.

Hate groups and neo-Nazi ideologues routinely encourage their followers to join the military to hone their warrior skills. In the late 1990s, former Special Forces soldier and neo-Nazi leader Steven Barry urged skinheads to join the infantry "because the coming race war, and the ethnic cleansing to follow, will be very much an infantryman's war. It will be house-to-house, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, until your town or city is cleared and the alien races are ... hunted down."

There is another danger, too -- one that should concern all of us.

America's armed forces represent our system of government and values to the world. In the six decades since President Harry Truman issued an executive order ending segregation in the armed forces, the military has developed into what may be the single most integrated institution in American society -- a showcase of multiculturalism. The men and women who serve abroad reflect and are instruments of American democratic values.

As Secretary Perry, echoing Weinberger, said in 1996: "Extremist activity compromises fairness, good order, and discipline. The armed forces, which defend the nation and its values, must exemplify those values beyond question."

What if the next soldier to be accused of murder, rape or some other atrocity in Iraq turns out to have a swastika tattoo on his chest? Coming on the heels of scandals that began with torture in the Abu Ghraib military prison and continued most recently with the arrest of an allegedly sociopathic soldier in the rape-murder of an Iraqi 14-year-old, the answer is obvious -- and deeply worrying. Our country would face a public relations disaster that could harm its image for decades.

Center President Richard Cohen has written to the current secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, to ask that he launch a new inquiry and impose a zero-tolerance policy on extremists in the military. The stakes are simply too high for this country and its servicemen and women to consider any lesser course.