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.