Preventing the radicalisation of military personnel is of vital importance to domestic security; these service members have been trained in combat, possess the skills to handle a variety of weapons and have an understanding of military/combat tactics. Add this to the current era in which everyone has an online voice, can use this anonymously and, thereby, allowing for extremist ideas to be widely available to all. The internet already plays a big role in spreading far-right ideologies and subsequently allows for recruitment to far-right groups. Without proper background checks and psychological support, this can lead to trained soldiers using this training with bad intentions, which can have catastrophic results. This article focuses on racist radicalisation in the military of the United States of America (USA) and pleads for better psychological monitoring throughout the military, thereby hoping to prevent radicalisation from occurring and tackling it at an earlier stage.

According to the United States Department of Defense, over 1.1 million people are enlisted in the US military, with people from different social, economic and political backgrounds being brought into service. Because of this, there is a risk that some of these people have far-right ideologies or ties to far-right groups.

Within the US military, this problem of right-wing groups and individuals has been present from the outset, with the Ku Klux Klan being founded in 1865 by six former Confederate army officers. In the 135 years since, cases of extremist members of the military have been increasingly present. In 2019, a survey was held among readers of Military Times, which found that over one third of active-duty members have personally witnessed instances of white nationalism or ideology-driven racism within the ranks.

Previously, the US Department of Homeland Security, a ministry concerned with affairs related to domestic security, published an analysis of right-wing extremism and its recruitment, expressing the concern that right-wing extremist groups will target veterans, due to their combat skills, the experience they possess and the nationalist tendencies they usually develop in the course of their service.

Due to discrepancy in the use of far-right, radical right and extreme right, it is important to note the differences. As Bjørgo and Ravndal argue in a 2019 article, radical and extreme right are subgroups of the far-right, with de difference lying in radical right working within the boundaries of the political and legal system.

According to Hazel Atuel, radicalisation among military service members occurs along the same lines as with civilian counterparts – it depends on several factors including background, beliefs, experiences, peer networks and the kind of communities they engage with.

She also draws the distinction between cognitive radicalisation and behavioural radicalisation, with the former referring to feelings and attitudes towards a particular ideology, while the latter refers to violent behaviour being encouraged, promoted or rewarded, something more common among terrorists.

Although the extent of the threat of radicalisation cannot be measured fully, it is of vital importance to be able to weed out any person with bad intentions.

Previous & Current Policies

In February 2020, during a congressional hearing, military officials testified that it is not prohibited for members of the military to be a member of white racist groups. Although active participation was prohibited in 1996, this refers to taking part in fundraising or attending rallies.

While active membership is prohibited, there is still ample evidence of far-right affiliation within the military, such as online neo-Nazi cells, consisting of serving members from both the Army (name of US ground forces) and the Marines (name of US sea forces). Joe Ethridge, representative of the US Army, added to this, saying they saw an increase in investigations into soldiers involved in activities of an extremist nature, related to white racism.

Background Checks

With the start of the War on Terror after the turn of the millennium, the United States military was under pressure to maintain enlistment numbers, due to the global large-scale deployment of military personnel. This led to less priority being placed on doing proper background checks, with an investigator from the Department of Defense claiming that recruiters allowed neo-Nazi and white racists to join, and commanders not removing them even after having been positively identified as extremists.

Within the United States, there is an agency that is concerned with background investigations, namely the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA). On their site, it is mentioned that each military member will be subject to a background investigation, but that the scope of this investigation will vary, being determined by both the position of the person and potential harm possibly being caused by an individual in this position. Whilst the military does have the Army Insider Threat Program to screen and clear personnel, it still depends on the position of this person to what extent a screening is done.

Psychological Guidance

In Army Regulation 600-20, it is stated that “in any case of apparent soldier involvement with or in extremist organisations or activities […] commanders will take positive actions to educate soldiers”, as well as “Commanders will advise Soldiers that extremist organisations’ goals are inconsistent with Army goals, beliefs, and values”. However, being responsible for identifying potential threats from so-called insiders (person who will use their authorised access to do harm to the security of the United States) should not be some job on the side for commanders – this approach does not display a genuine commitment to deal with the issue effectively. Although clinical psychologists are part of the military, they are focused largely on post-traumatic stress disorder-related issues.

Policy Options

Prohibit any affiliation with far-right groups

As stated prior, although it is prohibited to be an ‘active member’ of a white supremacist or extremist group, it is still allowed to be a member of such a group, as long as this person does not attend rallies or raises funds for the group. However, what is problematic here is that, whilst such a person might not engage in activities for the group, this person did willingly choose to join this group, thereby openly showing that they align themselves with the group’s ideas. There is a proven correlation between radicalisation and far-right group membership. Prohibiting passive membership as well would help in preventing people with a far-right ideology from entering the military.

Improved background checks

According to Jeff McCausland, a retired Army colonel and former member of the National Security Council, the American military has not been successful in establishing a comprehensive way to screen extremists. Added to the aforementioned poll in 2019 in which 36% of service personnel admitted to having experienced ideology-driven racism, 14% more than in a similar survey carried out a year prior.

There is a Dutch saying that translates to ‘To prevent is better than to cure’. Rather than trying to combat the problem once it has grown, it is possible to tackle the problem before it occurs.

Improved background checks would lead to identifying whether or not people who have applied for the military are actually fit to join the ranks of an organisation with so many different people from different walks of life.

Psychological guidance throughout the ranks

Whilst prohibiting any affiliation with extremist groups and having better background checks in place would help, it is not enough. There are ample cases of service members radicalising without joining a right-wing group, also after having joined the military. It would, therefore, be most useful to offer more psychological guidance, starting with education in the military training program on mental stability and the threat of domestic extremism, as well as education on the dangers of internet in radicalisation. Especially the internet is a significant factor here: in 38% of cases of radicalised service personnel, the internet played a role. Having increased awareness of the dangers of far-right activity on the internet would aid in preventing such radicalisation. Also adding psychological counsellors throughout the ranks, with service members having allocated appointments every week in which they talk to such a person about their experiences, would aid greatly in identifying and thereby preventing extremism occurring in the military.

Final Thoughts

It is clear something needs to change in order to combat military radicalisation. Whilst prohibiting any affiliation with right-wing groups would solve part of it, and improved background checks could weed out some of the rotten apples, having more psychological guidance throughout the ranks of the military could prove the best option to combat radicalisation. Prohibiting something only does so much and background checks do not account for radicalisation after joining the military. It is therefore that improved psychological guidance appears as the best option, given the fact that continued psychological monitoring would allow for seeing changes in behaviour, and thereby offering the possibility to identify radicalisation before it occurs.