America's military: a far-right threat

A lax recruitment policy has allowed neo-Nazi and other extremists to enter the United States army. The violent consequences are increasingly being felt in the domestic arena, says Matt Kennard.

A tragic incident in August 2012 at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin left six innocent worshippers murdered in cold blood. The killings were hideous and mindless acts of murder motivated by hate and racism. Unfortunately, for those of us who have been watching and investigating the rise of the far-right in the United States, particularly the mushrooming problem within its armed forces, there was nothing random about it. Many have been predicting for years that something like this would happen. The recent unearthing of a violent militia operating at Fort Stewart in Georgia, which was allegedly planning to assassinate the US president, has emphasised the threat.

The Wisconsin shooter, neo-Nazi army veteran Wade Michael Page, was merely one of many far-right radicals who have used the US military over the past two decades to gain access to the highest-grade weaponry in the world, alongside attendant training. The Springfield semi-automatic 9mm handgun used by Page in Oak Creek is very similar to the Beretta M9 which is the civilian version of the pistol issued by the US military. And neo-Nazi veterans, like Page, are explicit about wanting to use their new military skills in the coming race war - often called “Rahowa” in extremist circles - which they believe (and hope) will ignite in the US in the near future. Page’s heavy-metal white-power band, called End Apathy, was itself a call to arms.

The most shocking part of Page’s story is that he was completely open about his neo-Nazi views while serving in the army during the 1990s. Page was no rookie army private either - he was assigned to the esteemed psychological operations (“psych-ops”) branch, a kind of offensive intelligence service.  But despite this senior status, the independent American military newspaper Stars & Stripes, writes that Page was “steeped in white supremacy during his army days and spouted his racist views on the job as a soldier.”

This is especially worrying considering Page served from 1992-98. The latter part of this period putatively witnessed the US military taking a strong stand against white supremacism within the ranks after neo-Nazi and active-duty paratrooper James Burmeister murdered an African-American couple near Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1995. It is doubtful that much changed in reality.

What is certain, however, is that the impunity afforded to violent neo-Nazis and white supremacists by the US military hit a new high during the “war on terror”. My new book Irregular Army: How the US Military Recruited Neo-Nazis, Gang Members, and Criminals to Fight the War on Terror (Verso, 2012) includes extensive interviews with neo-Nazi veterans as well and leaders of the far-right movement, all of whom reported to me that the US military was basically running an open-door policy on far-right radicals during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. An internal Pentagon report I dug up noted that by 2005, “The military [had] a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy pertaining to extremism.” In reality there was not even any need for secrecy: it could be more accurately described as an “ask, tell” policy. The same report said screening for racist tattoos - ostensibly banned by the US military - was basically non-existent in the same period. Wade himself was covered in white-supremacist
tattoos.

The crystal rule

In March 2008, I went to Tampa, Florida, to interview Forrest Fogarty. Like Page, he is a neo-Nazi; like Page, he is part of the Hammerskins, probably the most violent skinhead group in the US; like Page, he served in the US military (in Fogarty’s case in Iraq from 2004-05); and like Page, he is the lead singer in a neo-Nazi rock band (Fogarty’s is called Attack). Fogarty had in fact signed up to the US army, complete with racist tattoos, in 1997, around the same time Page was denied re-enlistment.

Fogarty told me bluntly how his command as well as his fellow soldiers had been fully aware of his neo-Nazi ideology before and during their deployment in Iraq. while stationed in Iraq. They had done nothing about it. In fact, Fogarty was feted because of his “war-like” attitude. “They all knew in my unit”, he told me. “They would always kid around and say, ‘Hey, you’re that skinhead!’” Did anyone rat on you, I asked. “No, I was hardcore, I would volunteer for all the hardest missions, and they were like: ‘Let Fogarty go’. You know what I mean, they didn’t want to get rid of me.”

Fogarty’s story is not singular. The US military have, in fact, always been ambiguous in their regulation concerning enlisted neo-Nazis and white supremacists, precisely so that in times of chronic troops needs, as was the case during the “war on terror” they would have enough leeway to allow these radicals to keep fighting for the flag.

For example, in Army Command Policy (the rulebook for the army revised in May 2002), the guideline for commanders is that: "Participation in extremist organisations and activities by army personnel is inconsistent with the responsibilities of military service." But a word such as "inconsistent" is ambiguous enough to be interpreted in any way a commander chooses. Why not “prohibited”? On the back of this tragedy, the US military must make its regulations very clear: racist extremists are not accepted in any form within the armed forces. If connections with or membership of far-right groups is found, that should constitute a lifetime ban from service for that individual.

If a racist tattoo is found, that also must unambiguously be a bar to enlistment; there must no longer be an option to have it removed or modified. (I heard of one recruit turning a swastika into a sun-wheel and being sent off to Iraq.) Any individual with a racist tattoo must also have a lifetime ban on service. These are easy regulatory changes to make - if the will is there. In terms of future attacks, it could already be too late.

The ticking bomb

During the “war on terror” even the extant regulatory structure, thin at best, was completely scorched. When the war in Iraq was peaking in the period around 2005, the US military had to all intents and purposes broken. It could no longer recruit the soldiers it needed to populate the war’s frontlines; in fact, in 2005 it missed its recruitment targets by the largest margin since 1979, when the US was still afflicted with so-called “Vietnam syndrome”, which had turned many Americans off military service.

In the same period, the US military was also finding it hard to retain the soldiers it serving in the middle east. At a Senate hearing in March 2005, General Richard A Cody expressed his concerns publicly: “What keeps me awake at night is what will this all-volunteer force look like in 2007.” His insomnia, as it turned out, was more than warranted. In reality, the US military needed conscription - but it was too unpopular. Instead, the George W Bush administration turned the country’s fighting force into a social experiment.

To cope with the massive shortfall in troops, the US military (with the express approval of defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld) explicitly loosened requirements for enlistment age (pushed up to 42 years-old by 2006), body-weight, high-school diplomas, as well as for other groups that were deemed not too shocking for the American public. More quietly, however, groups which would have caused much more controversy amongst the domestic population (as well as the people occupied by the US military) were granted easier entrance - people convicted of felonies, including assault, rape and other serious crimes; members of some of the most violent and powerful gangs in the US, like the Gangster Disciples out of Chicago; and, yes, violent neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

Even Islamic fundamentalists like Nidal Malik Hasan, who is alleged to have killed thirteen  of his fellow soldiers at Fort Bragg in November 2009, was allowed to continue serving, even though the FBI and the military’s investigative branch discovered he had sent more than a dozen solicitous emails to the extremist Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki (who was eventually assassinated on orders of the Barack Obama administration in 2011). A resulting Senate report found that Hasan had been a “ticking time-bomb” and senator Joe Lieberman said the massacre at Fort Bragg “could have, and should have, been prevented”. Many more ticking time-bombs - unlike Hasan and Wade not yet detonated - are now settling back home after a decade of hard combat-training courtesy of the US military.

The open-door cost

A number of groups and individuals implored the US military and politicians in Congress to take this problem seriously during the “war on terror” They included the anti-racist group the Southern Poverty Law Center, which constantly warned (in ways that now look prophetic) of what could happen if these radicals were allowed to stay in the military; military investigators themselves, such as defence-department gang detective Scott Barfield, who warned of neo-Nazis flourishing in Baghdad; and active duty personnel like Sgt Jeffrey Stoleson, who raised the issue of rampant gang activity in Iraq.

Both these men - and many other whistleblowers - were shunned, then forced out of their jobs, after they sounded the alarm. The Pentagon brass, down to the non-commissioned officers on the ground, did not want to be exposed, and protected itself by targeting the messengers every time. I myself contacted the US Senate committee on the armed forces (when it was headed by senators John McCain and Carl Levin) to ask what they were doing about this burgeoning problem. I was refused an interview and merely told: “The Committee doesn’t have any information that would indicate this is a particular problem.”

But the US military over the past twenty years - and particularly so during the “war on terror” when it turned into a free-for-all - has been incubating a monster which is now threatening to grievously harm the domestic population. What has been done to the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan since the wars there were launched because of this open-door policy on all sorts of unsavoury groups is also painful to contemplate.

Many of the worst reported atrocities committed by American troops during the “war on terror” - from the Mahmudiyah massacre to the Abu Ghraib torture scandal - can be linked directly to loosening regulations on extremists, gangs, and the mentally ill. This is a military that was once the envy of the world, but thanks to the recklessness of the Pentagon - and particularly its implacable
ideologue Donald Rumsfeld - it is now a tinderbox waiting to blow.

About the author

Matt Kennard is a journalist who has worked for the Financial Times in London, New York and Washington. He is the author of Irregular Army: How the US Military Recruited Neo-Nazis, Gang Members, and Criminals to Fight the War on Terror (Verso, 2012)

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Matt Kennard is a journalist who has worked for the Financial Times in London, New York and Washington. He is the author of of Irregular Army: How the US Military Recruited Neo-Nazis, Gang Members, and Criminals to Fight the War on Terror (Verso, 2012)