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24 Feb 2009

US: From Militant to Military

A neo-Nazi screams at the crowd during a protest
Creative Commons - Attribution 2.0 Generic Creative Commons - Attribution 2.0 Generic

A neo-Nazi screams at the crowd during a protest

Military recruitment is on the rise in the US, but it is increasingly attracting white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations, who may be defending their country, but also may one day seek to overthrow it, Jody Ray Bennett writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Jody Ray Bennett for ISN

US President Barack Obama visited American military veterans and families of current military personnel in Colorado last July, calling for more people to enlist in the armed services. During his speech, Obama reiterated his plans to rebuild the military for 21st-century tasks, urging volunteers from all walks of life. Since then, the new president has certainly gotten what he asked for. Military recruitment has spiked, in some cases beyond target goals, but what no one really expected to happen was that many of the new recruits hail from white supremacist organizations.

Combine Obama's national security plan to recruit an additional 65,000 new personnel to the US Army and another 27,000 for the Marine Corps with the largest economic and financial crisis since the late 1930s, more Americans are now considering military enrollment as a last-ditch effort to secure an income, pay off debt or receive a university education. Some of those recruits now include the largest influx of people who openly identify with neo-Nazi, national socialist or white nationalist labels.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a watchdog organization that tracks extreme right-wing, racist and xenophobic activity, released a report in 2006 that linked this increasing trend to military recruiters' difficulty in meeting target goals during a bloody climax in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The SPLC report uncovered instances ranging from the formation of underground white nationalist groups on US military bases to individuals with previous Ku Klux Klan membership climbing ranks as high as the Navy SEALS.

One of the most striking cases involved a military intelligence officer that was forced to leave the armed forces after he was discovered sending disassembled AK-47s from Iraq back to the US. According to military officials, he now uses his former military connections to recruit for a small neo-Nazi gang, the East Washington Skins.

Military History X

One of the earliest developments between military service and the white nationalist movement occurred in 1959 when US Naval Commander, George Lincoln Rockwell, formed the American Nazi Party, the first post-war Nazi political party in the US. By 1962, Rockwell would co-found the World Union of National Socialists in Britain. He was eventually deported back to the US where he then formed the National Socialist White People's Party in 1967.

In that same year, Pedro del Valle, the first Hispanic American to become a lieutenant general, co-founded the Sons of Liberty with fellow military officer, John Crommelin. They would eventually create a political action group to support the candidacy of segregationist George Wallace, which would later manifest into the National Alliance after Wallace's defeat. Since then, the National Alliance has grown to be the largest and wealthiest white nationalist organization in the US.

Over the next 20 years, there would be several cases of white supremacist cell activity within the US military. And by 1986, several active duty military personnel would be found training in a white separatist paramilitary called the White Patriot Party.

Upon investigation, the Department of Defense found "32,000 rounds of ammunition, 1,500 grenades and 3,600 pounds of explosives missing […] One Marine [admitted to] selling the group 13 anti-tank rockets, 10 Claymore mines and almost 200 pounds of C-4 explosives." In response, the Department of Defense ordered military commanders to "reject active participation in white supremacy, neo-Nazi and other such groups."

The order forced many white nationalists in the military to go underground or take extra precautions when displaying or speaking about their political ideas. By 1992, even a moderately liberal Clinton administration could do little to impact the increasing numbers of white nationalist enlistment.

"I joined the US Army [in 1992]. Military life [was] not for everyone, especially those with [white] nationalist views. You had to keep it quiet and under wraps and if you lived on base; that [was] difficult," Leah (last name withheld), US Army veteran and current probate in the Women's Division of the National Socialist Movement, told ISN Security Watch.

"I have been a white nationalist since I was 14. I am very patriotic, and conservative, and the military was a logical choice. A true National Socialist takes pride in her country, regardless of the state of the government."

By 1996, militant separatist and Army veteran Timothy McVeigh would carry out the Oklahoma City Bombings just months before three Army paratroopers connected to small neo-Nazi groups were convicted of murdering two African-Americans. This eventually prompted then-defense secretary William Perry to amend military regulations that would, in his words, "leave no room for racist and extremist activities within the military."

The Military Fringe

Evidence gathered from a 2006 Department of Defense investigation found an "online network of 57 neo-Nazis who are active duty Army and Marines personnel spread across five military installations in five states."

This recipe for disaster came to a boil during the Bush administration's war on terror. By 2006, the US was already into a three-year military operation in two countries, much of which had since been outsourced to the private sector while the domestic economy dwindled, increasing unemployment. This scenario pressured recruiters to grab anyone willing to enlist, be they from black or Latino gangs in southern California, or violent, convicted felons (felon numbers doubled during this period) to militant extremists in white nationalist organizations.

One FBI gang investigator recently addressed the military's reluctance to recognize the issue as a problem: "It's often in the military's best interest to keep these incidents quiet, given low recruitment numbers and recent negative publicity. The relaxation of recruiting standards, recruiter misconduct and the military's lack of enforcement (gang membership is not prohibited in the Army) have compounded the problem and allowed gang member presence in the military to proliferate."

While the US military is far from rampant with white nationalist and gang activity, the latest spike in recruitment indicates a significance that may have been catalyzed by recent economic and political trends.

"Military training can be useful among National Socialists and many white nationalists are veterans. The NSM needs people like that, because we are highly trained in case it comes to a point in the US where you have to go underground or fend for yourself. Former military [personnel] are trained to function well in such situations," Leah told ISN Security Watch.

"I was a soldier in the US Army for 13 years. Now I am a soldier for my race and heritage."

However, not all in the white nationalist movement agree that enlisting in the US military is a good idea. Many discussions that develop on white nationalist internet forums discuss the implications of white supremacists serving under an African-American commander in chief, while others argue that the political and military establishment has long been infiltrated by a Jewish conspiracy to support Israel financially while invading states on its behalf or for ulterior motives. Most posts, however, support military enlistment as a means to an end for the movement:

"We need people on our side with [military] experience […] If we sit around drinking beer and talking about who we hate while only our enemies train, what do you think will happen when that day comes to do something? They bring the rain and we get swept up. Go in, have fun, learn some great skills and great discipline, and bring that back to strengthen your people."

Rise of the Ghost Skins

An unclassified July 2007 FBI report titled "White Supremacist Recruitment of Military Personnel Since 9/11," which was issued to all US domestic law enforcement agencies, found that "extremist leaders seek to recruit members with military experience in order to exploit their discipline, knowledge of firearms, explosives, and tactical skills and access to weapons and intelligence."

The report explained that "although individuals with military backgrounds constitute a small percentage of white supremacist extremists, they frequently occupy leadership roles within extremist groups and their involvement has the potential to reinvigorate an extremist movement suffering from loss of leadership and in-fighting during the post-9/11 period."

The report indicates that within the white nationalist movement, there is somewhat of a revolving door with the armed services. While leaders actively seek out those with military experience, "Other white supremacist leaders have encouraged followers who lack histories of neo-Nazi activity and overt racist insignia such as tattoos to infiltrate the military as 'ghost skins,' in order to recruit and receive training for the benefit of the extremist movement."

While the FBI report focuses only on 203 individual cases of white nationalists in the US military, their own "ghost skins" conclusion illustrates that the number is probably much larger. A new SPLC report criticizes the seeming lack of response on behalf by the FBI, military officials or the Department of Defense. The Pentagon has steadfastly denied there is a problem.

It could be argued that the "ghost skin" phenomenon is thus viewed in the same fashion as homosexuality in the US military: Don't ask, don't tell.

"The attitude of the Pentagon is shocking. Our top military officials seem to believe that the 'threat' of having gays in the military is far more important than having white supremacist extremists. After all, just last year they threw more than 10,000 homosexuals out of the military. Virtually no action was taken against right-wing extremists during the same time period," Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told ISN Security Watch.

It was this type of conduct that may have allowed for the recruitment of Marine Lance Corporal Kody Brittingham, who, as of last December, was found to be heavily connected with the white nationalist movement and is now under federal investigation for premeditating a plot to assassinate Obama.

White nationalist military enrollment illustrates how social and economic factors affect which individuals the military is able to attract at various times. It further demonstrates that the military population is a fragmented representation of the society from which it recruits.

Political ideology aside, when one understands that all militaries are inherently violent institutions, those individuals with violent behaviors or tendencies will most likely be drawn to areas of society that reflect, condone or reward their capabilities. Such is the paradox found in American military personnel: Should a white supremacist be trained by a government he might one day seek to overthrow or secede from, or might military service provide an indirect rehabilitation device in which those become disciplined, patriotic soldiers?


Jody Ray Bennett is an independent writer, researcher and journalist. His areas of analysis include the global defense industry, private military and security companies and the materialization of non-state forces in the global political economy.

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