Ever since the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the nation’s capital, I have become increasingly concerned about extremism in military ranks. At the same time, I believe that our defense structure is superior, serving our country adroitly and competently.
As I watched the disciplined assault on our capital, I saw men and women trained to operate effectively in a deliberately chaotic and dangerous situation. They were no ordinary rioters. They could wreak havoc with great efficiency. And they did, in front of a stunned nation.
Eighty of the 880, or 10 percent criminally charged participants were veterans. Five were active duty, including a Marine Corps officer and four reservists. The numbers are alarming.
The inflamed traitors did not disgrace a military uniform. They stormed our capital on their own time and dressed as civilians, hoping to overturn a legitimate presidential election. However, they dishonored the country that trained them by ignoring their oath to protect and preserve the Constitution and their nation. It mattered not to them; they were angry, feeling betrayed by their country.
The post 9-11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken their toll. Men and women served and fought bravely, losing buddies and arriving home with psychological problems. They also lost faith in our nation because the wars seemingly accomplished nothing.
They returned home to economic distress and spotty care from veterans hospitals. They distrusted their civilian leaders. They noted that not all Americans served our nation, particularly those in the upper classes.
When well-intended Americans would spot a service member in uniform and then thank that person for his or her service, the greeting would be disdained, viewed as empty of any understanding about combat or overseas service. The social distance between the military and the civilian worlds consequently would grow after an authentic gesture of good-hearted gratitude.
The schism is just too wide. Our national divisiveness grows and festers. Alienation mushrooms. Tribalism abounds. Our culture and country suffer.
If the reader thinks that I am justifying the unconscionable attack on our beloved democracy, that perception would be dead wrong. I simply offer a context for the rise of extremism in our military ranks. The danger is real. We face the politicization of our Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard. An undercurrent of unrest and distrust propels well-trained troops, still serving or retired, to act in a traitorously illegal way.
How does the defense establishment combat insidious extremism? Serious vetting is one way—that is, being more attuned to potentially un-American behavior on the part of recruits. Being more attentive to comments and prejudice expressed by troops is another way. While not trampling on free speech, officers and senior enlisted must counsel those with aberrant behavior.
Training, one of the military’s best attributes, must focus on hatred and anti-American behavior—while taking care to respect and revere the 1st Amendment. This is tricky. But the military must not become a feeding ground for extremists who use their combat training to destroy democracy. Our armed forces face the very real threat of becoming stigmatized by allegations of extremism. It flourishes only because it is apolitical, retains public support and trains to fight foreign despots.
Extreme thought and bigotry have always existed in our fractious nation. Though ugly and unctuous, it must be tolerated until it endangers American citizens and institutions, such as the U.S. Congress. Then, it must face persecution and condemnation.
I commend Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a retired Army general, for attacking extremism in our ranks, exposing it for its malicious intent. His concern cannot diminish. He must ensure that the chain of command disciplines those who advocate hatred and illegal disruption.
Democracy is too precious to confront destruction from within. The Jan. 6 insurrection must be a one-time civil disaster.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. After 44 years in Easton, Howard and his wife, Liz, moved in November 2020 to Annapolis, where they live with Toby, a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel who has no regal bearing, just a mellow, enticing disposition.
Letters to Editor
Reed Fawell 3 says
The primary problem lies not in the men and women who fight our wars. It lies with their leaders, military and political, and as us, our highly troubled and hollowed out American society and culture that sends them into wars incompetently conceived, pursued and led at the highest levels. This sad reality increasingly mirrors our treatment of the military in the 1960s and 1970s during and after Vietnam. This time, however, we have no draft. And recruitment for today’s all volunteer force now has reached a crisis, all of our own making. Hence, our national ability to defend our nation is wasting away at an alarming rate, at the very time that our adversaries ambitions, means, and power grow on multiple fronts, around the world. Meanwhile, we spend and waste our public monies at alarming rates, into the threat of national bankruptcy.
Robert A smith jr says
By the way this article is scary when you attack my fellow veterans. Bo different than when they spat on Vietnam veterans returning.
Mickey Terrone says
It seems to me the radicalized minority of former military members who participated in the January 6, 2021 US Capitol insurrection have similar perspectives as those non-veterans in that mob. The similarity is in their mutual delusion on politics and brainwashed view of patriotism.
The most discouraging aspect of their behavior is their fundamentally weak grasp of our elections. They believed the demagogues who told them elections were stolen without any thoughtful explanation. Trump and others rattled these peoples’ cages without ever having to explain how, for example, he himself lost, but how many other Republicans on those same ballots were able to win hundreds of their races in many states.
The same delusional thinking likely applies to the many Americans who believe the US government is coming to take their estimated 400,000,000 privately owned guns. Is the government sending the Army, Navy and National Guard to do this? Will it be the state and local police? How many black helicopters does the ATF own? Have any rational people ever thought about the logistics taking guns 400 million guns from about 72 million Americans? Isn’t this paranoid thinking? Where does the fear mongering end? Do Americans have a perverse need to live in fear of NRA/gun manufacturers’ absurd fear campaigns aimed at selling even more guns? And by the way, aren’t these groups the ones making it easier for criminals to buy unregistered guns at gun shows by obstructing effective gun registration and control?
So long as one national political party perpetrates such falsehoods with the goal of radicalizing average Americans about their government, our elections and opposition leaders, these dangers to our democratic republic will fester and deepen. This is how the plague of Trumpism infects millions of well-meaning, but perhaps gullible, fearful Americans.
I’ve been meaning to ask people who own large stashes of weapons so they can better protect themselves and their families from the overweening federal government, how they plan for their family to deploy these weapons to wives and children in case of attack. How does all those weapons make a family safer? Why not trust that as law-abiding citizens, we need not worry about the government coming to take away our guns unless we commit a crime? Why would any of us believe that state and local police, many of whom are friends and neighbors, would participate in such a plot against the people?
Maybe the best approach would be publicly to ask how these massive government plots are supposed to work. Perhaps military veterans would better grasp the absurd, almost looney, proposition of sneaking in and removing 400 million guns from 72 million Americans.
State and local governments can and should make every effort to seize illegal firearms of all kinds from criminals. Certainly. there have been many cases of individuals with legally registered firearms (good guys with guns) who, for a host of reasons, overnight become bad guys with guns and murder individuals or masses of people. We often hear of mass murderers whose previous bad or mentally disturbed behavior was tragically glossed over ignored.
Perhaps we don’t publicly address these issues of violence and political violence adequately enough to move the American people to a more realistic view of the challenges and demagogues that endanger our society. Perhaps we had better do so.
Reed Fawell 3 says
America today,indeed much of the world, has entered into a time of great, and abrupt, change.
Such eras typically impose upon the human psyche novel challenges. This gives rise to feelings of great uncertainly and inadequacies against perceived threats. Anxieties then easily blossom into fears and confusions that mask objective realities, robbing humans of the ability to see real problems, much less them with real solutions. Instead they are consumed by hysteria, scapegoating, and fantasies masking objective realities. Highly inappropriate behavior, disguised as solutions, then typically follow, in a mad effort to excise neuroticism public and private. We see this all over America today on a daily basis, again and again, in all areas of our lives.
What we are experiencing is little different from the 1851 Springfield Mass witch burnings described in the new book just out. The Ruin of All Witches, by Malcolm Gaskill.
This problem infects ALL of Us, and the great majority of us refuse to acknowledge or admit to it. Instead we project our blindness, insecurity, inappropriate behaviors, and neuroticism onto others, especially those deemed different. Today its everywhere, but the major genesis of these modern emotional and mental diseases can be traced back to our elite, beginning with our institutions of higher education, that have over decades spread these plagues to the elite they improperly educate. Historically, this too is quite typical.
Reed Fawell 3 says
Correction – the witch burnings described in Malcolm Gaskill’s book took place not in 1856 in Springfield Mass. but there in 1656.