U.S. Marines lead charge in rooting out racism in military ranks

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
A man holds up a Confederate flag in one hand and a U.S. Marine Corps flag in the other along the side of the road as President Barack Obama’s motorcade passes by on July 1, 2015, in Nashville, Tennessee.
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The United States Marine Corps is often considered a magnet for “tough guys.” But is it also a haven for white supremacists?

Legislators and top-ranking military officials have been grappling with that question in recent years, as polls and congressional testimony have highlighted a persistent thread of racist ideology among the rank and file. Recent interest in the issue among members of Congress has been heartening for many advocates. But congressional action takes time. Last week, Gen. David Berger, the nation’s top Marine, took a decisive step in banning Confederate paraphernalia on Marine bases.

Why We Wrote This

Does Confederate symbolism have a place in today’s U.S. military? That question echoes a complex debate that continues to evolve in broader society. But for America’s top Marine, the answer is simple.

“It’s very encouraging,” says the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Lecia Brooks, who testified at a House Armed Services Committee hearing in December. “It really does seem like the military leadership was listening,” she says.

The move is just one step in one branch of the military services, but General Berger’s announcement “sends a strong signal” to all of the services, says Richard Kohn, former chief historian for the Air Force. What’s more, he adds, the move marks a notable step forward in the U.S. military’s “uneven trend towards trying to live our values” as Americans within the armed services.

Last week, the United States Marine Corps took a step toward rooting out racism in military ranks. 

With the decision to ban troops from having Confederate paraphernalia on bases, Gen. David Berger, the nation’s top Marine, weighed in decisively on the side of those who argue that today, these items are more likely to be emblems of hostility than heritage. The move comes amid a broader reckoning, as the U.S. military grapples with the persistence of racism and extremist ideology among rank-and-file service members. Recent interest in the issue among House Armed Services Committee members has been heartening for many advocates, but congressional action takes time – and extensive debate, says Lecia Brooks, the chief workplace transformation officer at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). General Berger’s decision represents a concrete step forward.

While there is a “real possibility of [troops] pushing back and saying, ‘I should be able to wear my Confederate flag belt buckle,’ if they go up against this, they’re going to lose,” she says. “That’s the beautiful thing about the military. If the highest military leader says that it’s going to be done, then it’s going to be done,” she adds. “I feel really good about that.”

Why We Wrote This

Does Confederate symbolism have a place in today’s U.S. military? That question echoes a complex debate that continues to evolve in broader society. But for America’s top Marine, the answer is simple.

The move, announced last week, comes on the heels of a congressional hearing in which senior Pentagon officials acknowledged a rise in reports of white supremacists within the military ranks. Nearly 1 in 4 service members noted signs of “racist ideology” in the workplace, according to a 2018 Military Times poll. More than half of nonwhite respondents said they had seen and heard everything from the casual use of racial slurs, to the display of Confederate battle flags despite complaints from fellow troops, to tattoos known to be connected with hate groups.

Last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation also cited an increase in domestic terrorism investigations involving soldiers as suspects. Yet the “majority of soldiers identified as participating in extremist activities are not subjects of criminal investigations,” Joe Etheridge Jr., chief of criminal intelligence at the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, told lawmakers at the February hearing, echoing the approach outlined by his counterparts in each of the services.

Instead, the military’s response typically involves “advising soldiers that participation in extremist activity will be taken into consideration when writing evaluation reports” and “may impact decisions on leadership assignments,” Mr. Etheridge said. At the same time, leaders counsel soldiers “when indicators of extremist activities are identified, in order to prevent violations of Army policy and/or criminal acts.” 

These actions have been deemed wanting, at best, by hate group analysts, who had been heartened by a U.S. House of Representatives addition to the 2020 defense budget requiring the Pentagon to ask whether troops have seen “extremist activity” on base in the hopes that it “may lead to better information on the extent of these problems in the military,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, who testified at the House Armed Services Committee hearing. 

Yet a Senate amendment stripped specific references to examining “white nationalism” and “white supremacy” in the military surveys, drawing bipartisan criticism. “If it’s white supremacy, we can’t use the word ‘extremism,’” Rep. Trent Kelly, a Mississippi Republican, told Pentagon officials, arguing that white supremacists should be called just that.

For this reason, the Marine Corps’ move is “huge,” says the SPLC’s Ms. Brooks, who also testified at the February congressional hearing. “It’s very encouraging, because it really does seem like the military leadership was listening” to the points raised in the recent testimony. At the same time, she adds, “The fact that this came from the Marines – it challenges a stereotype I may have had about who’s in the Marine Corps.”

Alex Brandon/AP
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger testifies during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on Capitol Hill, Dec. 3, 2019.

The Marines are considered a magnet for the “tough guys who want to prove their manhood,” says Richard Kohn, former chief historian for the Air Force and now professor emeritus of history, peace, and war at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The service has typically had among the lowest rates of women and racial minorities in its ranks and drew particular attention when Marine Lance Cpl. Vasillios Pistolis was found to have been a member of the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division and expelled from the military in 2018. The international group, whose name means atomic weapons in German, has been involved in U.S. murders as well as the creation of, among other crimes, a hit list against liberal German politicians. Mr. Pistolis’ membership in the group was discovered after he violently assaulted counter-demonstrators at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

White supremacists have caused alarm in each of services. This winter Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson was sentenced to 13 years in prison on weapons charges in connection with alleged plans to commit domestic terrorism. He was found to have performed internet searches – on his work computer – that included such Googled gems as “homemade C4,” “biological weapon,” and “bomb [Timothy] McVeigh used,” referring to the former soldier who was executed for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people. 

It is clear that white supremacists place “a premium on the type of training afforded by the U.S. armed forces,” Ms. Brooks says. It’s “no surprise,” she adds, that hate groups “encourage their followers to join a branch of the military, and that they target existing service members for recruitment.” In her view, this makes it all the more vital that the Defense Department is on board with efforts to root out racist criminals within its ranks.

To this end, in addition to General Berger’s zero-tolerance policy, the Pentagon is also working to use new “testing and screening techniques that assess a range of critical personality dimensions to identify applicants who best fit with the military’s culture of treating all personnel with dignity and respect,” said Garry Reid, director for defense intelligence in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security. These include “commitment to serve, order, selflessness, and tolerance.”

Congress is also pushing the services to create a database of tattoos fashionable among white supremacists, as well as to better monitor the social media of recruits, and eject members who belong to racist groups. Representative Kelly reminded Pentagon officials that they have the ability “without congressional authority to say, ‘If you’re found as an active, passive – any – member in these [hate] organizations, you shall be removed from service.’” Indeed, current distinctions between “active participation” and “membership” in hate groups are confusing and “woefully inadequate for what we know today is a very serious domestic terrorism problem,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, who chaired the House hearing. “We’ll be working with you.” 

For now, General Berger’s move marks a notable step forward in the U.S. military’s “uneven trend towards trying to live our values” as Americans within the armed services, Dr. Kohn says. “It took a long time for racial integration to take hold in the military, but if you take a long historical view you see the progression.” Whether the suppression of white supremacism among some service members has “regressed a bit because of the current [U.S.] president, I don’t know – I suspect it has in some circles.” 

Perhaps as a result, “The armed services in general and the Marines in particular are very keen to develop and demonstrate a certain kind of culture that unites its troops to perform in combat and buttresses bravery in battle,” he adds. Racism runs counter to this, and General Berger’s announcement “sends a strong signal” to all of the services. “The commandant doesn’t come up on the net with things he considers insignificant.” 

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