Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III briefs the press from the Pentagon Briefing Room, Washington, D.C., Feb. 19, 2021. DoD Photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders.
Troops who have encountered extremism from their fellow service members should share those experiences with their leaders, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a video posted Friday.
In the video, Austin said the military needs troops’ help to stamp out extremism and extremist ideologies, or “views and conduct that run counter to everything that we believe in, and which can actually tear at the fabric of who we are as an institution.”
And when troops report examples of extremism in the military, Austin said their leaders need to listen to their stories, as well as any ideas on how to eradicate “the dangerous conduct that this ideology inspires.”
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters Monday that the video, which is part of the military’s broader effort to crack down on extremist ideologies in the ranks, will be shown to troops, along with other training materials, during stand-downs to address the problem.
Earlier this month, Austin ordered each of the services to take one day over the next two months to talk about extremism in the ranks. The stand-downs were ordered in the wake of the violent Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol; several of the rioters had previously served in the military.
Kirby said at the time that, while the number of troops holding extremist views is likely small, “They may not be as small as we would like them to be or we would need them to be.”
In the video, Austin said he has seen and lived through these attitudes before, both as a soldier and a commander.
“It’s not new to our country and, sadly, it’s not new to our military,” he said.
But a key difference today is the ease and speed at which social media allows extremist ideologies to spread, as well as the organized, emboldened and aggressive recruitment efforts by hate groups and sympathizers.
“It concerns me to think that anyone wearing the uniform of a soldier, or a sailor, an airman, Marine, or Guardian or Coast Guardsman would espouse these sorts of beliefs, let alone act on them,” Austin said. “But they do. Some of them still do.”
The military has to be better than that, he said, not just for its own sake, but for the United States as a whole and the idea of what it represents to the world.
Wiping out extremism is also a readiness issue, he added.
Austin prefaced his remarks by saying “there is not a single doubt in my mind” that troops watching the video take their oaths to the Constitution seriously, serve with “honor and dignity and character,” and uphold the military’s core values every day. And he acknowledged such stand-downs can seem like yet another burden to troops.
Austin said he wants service members watching the video to revisit their oaths to the Constitution.
“Read those words again,” he said. “Consider what they really mean. And think about the promise that you made to yourselves and to your teammates and to your fellow citizens.”
However, Austin did not go so far as to call for them to take part in a full reaffirmation, as the Navy is requiring as part of its stand-downs. The Pentagon has not yet answered a question on whether the other services will be required to conduct oath reaffirmations.
“We have serious commitments around the world, and people depend on us,” Austin said. “So we can’t afford actions and behavior that are at odds with our values and that undermine good order and discipline, that harm or harass or otherwise violate the oath that we share, and the bonds of trust upon which we all rely.”
In Monday’s press conference, Kirby said Austin would like to find a way to better compile data on the extent of extremism in the military, but he acknowledged that getting numbers on how many troops hold those beliefs and are willing to act on them will be difficult.
The military usually learns about individual cases of extremism through violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice or instances of conduct and behavior that hurt good order and discipline, Kirby said. But even then, it sometimes may not be possible to tell whether extremist beliefs motivated such harmful actions or something else, he added.
Further complicating matters, Kirby said, is the fact that some instances of extremist behavior happen off base and are handled by federal or even local law enforcement. The military may not have full access to those law enforcement databases.
But Kirby also acknowledged that troops’ First Amendment rights have to be respected.
“This isn’t about trying to get into the brains of an individual member of the military, but rather to make sure that we have a better sense of who we’re bringing in and that those who are in are ascribing and acting on our core values, the core values of the institution, and not some other group’s core values that are inimical to what we’re supposed to do for defense of the nation,” he said. “And then the last piece is that they’re not acting out on extremist beliefs that put good order and discipline in jeopardy or, worse, put their shipmates, their teammates, their colleagues in jeopardy as well.”
Kirby said some commands have already conducted stand-down days. The Pentagon will soon provide additional training materials to help the services conduct the stand-downs, he said, though he did not have a specific date.
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