My Army reserve unit conducted its extremism training this weekend. It’s a legal unit. As lawyers like to probe and argue the finer points, I found the training interesting and can see how it could prove effective. The effectiveness of the DOD-wide stand down almost certainly depends, in part, on the unit level leaders. As press stories indicate, troops in different locations report mixed reviews.
During our training, we discussed the oath officers and
noncommissioned officers take to defend the Constitution from all enemies,
foreign and domestic. That oath, and the defense of the Constitution, reminded
us all of our role to defend our democratic form of government.
The impetus for the training was the events of January 6, where U.S. citizens stormed the Capitol, attacked law enforcement, and disrupted the peaceful transfer of power. The participants of that riot were disproportionately current and former military members, which was naturally a cause of concern.
As the training moved to the margins of the political issues from combating extremism, I, as I assume many other members, became uncomfortable. While I am entitled to personal political beliefs, it is awkward and against good practice to discuss them while in uniform. Especially where such beliefs directly confront the former president. Making my comments risked the non-partisan demeanor I strive for in uniform on a personal level, the same apolitical nature the organization also attempts to maintain.
So what went undiscussed during the training, the elephant in the room, was the role played by the leader of the Republican Party, the former president of the United States and the ex-commander-in-chief of the armed forces in the riot that led to the stand down. President Trump spoke to the rioters before they stormed the Capitol and attempted to thwart the lawful counting of electoral college votes. Those rioters used violence and intimidation, and the president’s speech was a call to action against the lawful counting of legal votes.
For any of those who doubt that assertion, the transcript to President Trump’s speech demonstrates his encouragement to the rioters. He told them, among other things, that their “election victory [was] stolen by emboldened radical-left Democrats…. We won this election and we won it by a landslide…. We will not let them silence your voices. We’re not going to let it happen, I’m not going to let it happen.” He also implored Mike Pence to “come through for us”, in reference to preventing the certification of the election President Trump had just lost.
As the training progressed, it became clear that for DOD to successfully combat extremism, it needs to have conversations that I was unwilling to have. These conversations would inevitably confront a large subsection of the Republican party that feels President Biden stole the election. And the decision to have these discussions would undoubtedly risk the apolitical military, and potentially put all of us in the partisan fray. But I don't see a way to successfully confront extremist groups, and those that believe their aims to be just, while avoiding a discussion that accurately reflects the role played by prominent civilian leaders.
Take for example the Proud Boys, an organization that participated in the January 6 riot, and which has recently been labelled a terrorist entity by the Canadian government. The Proud Boys took comments President Trump made during one of the 2020 debates as marching orders. Tucker Carlson has posed for pictures with members of the Proud Boys, and the group has maintained extensive ties with Roger Stone. The Southern Poverty Law Center finds the Proud Boys have engaged in violence and espouse white nationalist beliefs. Given the SPLC and the Canadian government’s views, and the Proud Boys history, will DOD label this group as one that military members must not participate in? And what about other orgs with white nationalist ties? And if DOD fails to list prohibited groups that are in good standing in some political corners out of fear of a backlash, isn't it avoiding the problem?
Thus, to the extent DOD is serious about combating extremism in its ranks, and to the extent service members are faithful about their oath to the Constitution, we must confront all enemies to democracy. We should strive to maintain the apolitical nature of our organization and stay above partisan battles. But when those battles involve the people’s right to choose their leaders, without the threat of or actual violence, the military must engage without fear of the consequences to our public standing.