By Jay Kirell
Today’s New York Times Op-Ed section had a rather controversial opinion piece by Kathleen Belew on the history of white supremacists and the Army. In it, Belew writes about the shooting in Kansas by Frazier Glenn Miller, a noted white power advocate and veteran, who killed three people on Sunday:
“Mr. Miller obviously represents an extreme, both in his politics and in his violence. A vast majority of veterans are neither violent nor mentally ill. When they turn violent, they often harm themselves, by committing suicide. But it would be irresponsible to overlook the high rates of combat trauma among the 2.4 million Americans who have served in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the full impact of which has not yet materialized. Veterans of those conflicts represent just 10 percent of those getting mental health services through the Department of Veterans Affairs, where the overwhelming majority of those in treatment are still Vietnam veterans.”
This is an interesting piece, if only because the author makes a few interesting points about the history of the white power movement in America and how its members are oftentimes made up, partly, of military veterans. Where the author fails though, is in connecting the combat these veterans faced and the surrounding trauma, as somehow being a linchpin for otherwise noble veterans to fall prey to extremist groups.
All that I saw and all that I experienced, both in combat and outside of it, during my time in the Army, has led me to conclude that combat, and the stress and strain and mental anguish that go along with living through it, have absolutely zero to do with why someone would join an extremist group.
Living through combat can result in a lot of things – sleepless nights, depression, anxiety. But one thing it can’t result in is a sudden and violent urge to overthrow your government or start a race war.
You had to come into the military with those ideas in mind.
Which brings me to my next point – namely, that white supremacists, anti-government extremists and Neo-Nazi’s do, in fact, exist in our Armed Forces. But they weren’t created there. They joined up with the pre-shaved heads and lightning bolt tattoos and 17 fully-loaded automatic weapons in their basement for when the revolution starts.
These people were crazy before they ever saw war.
The 911 attacks helped push a lot of these people from their basement out on the front lines. The lax recruiting standards in place from 2002-2012 meant that for many of them, they didn’t have to hide their hatred. The fact that they could go halfway around the world and kill brown people was as much of an enlistment bonus as any of the cash awards the Army was dolling out 10 years ago.
Not to say that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq helped their mental state, but it certainly didn’t result in them flipping a switch one day and hating everyone who wasn’t white and/or Christian.
If nothing else, the two wars of the past decade gave us a new generation of bigots and extremists. A generation grown up on anti-government media and white supremacist websites. A generation that was bred to hate from a young age, scarred by the sight and response to terrorism immediately after the 911 attacks. A generation that went to war for revenge and loved every minute of it.
Because they were already scarred before the first bullet whizzed past them.
Those type of people our all-volunteer military had no problem accepting when it needed as many bodies as it could toss into the sand.
Now that the sand is done with them, where are they to go?
For a lot of the guys I served with, the Army was the only part of the “government” that was worth paying for. Because it was the only part of the government that they saw as being “theirs.” The only part of the government that could be trusted.
And now those people are slowly being re-integrated back into the society they hate so much, due to the downsizing taking place in the armed forces. They’ll still be practicing the drills they learned. They’ll still be shooting at targets to perfect the 300-meter bulls-eye. Still waiting for the day when the revolution happens and they can take their country back.
And while some of these people served in combat with just as much honor and distinction as anyone else, the horrors they saw cannot be blamed for the extremism that purveys their worldviews. Much like extra socks or a favorite book – those extremist views were carried with them on the flight from home.