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POLITICS-US: White Nationalists Find a Home in the Military

OAKLAND, California, Jun 19 2009 (IPS) - A recent report issued – and later withdrawn – by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis warned of the possibility of an up-tick in violent activities by right-wing extremist groups.

The assessment pointed to a number of factors, including the election of the country’s first African American president, the economic crisis combined with escalating unemployment, and conservative-initiated rumors that the Barack Obama administration would advocate stricter gun control regulations, that might fuel a growth in “right-wing extremist groups”, and homegrown terrorist incidents.

Titled “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” it drew immediate criticism from conservative pundits and media personalities, but one “key finding” was particularly seized upon.

“Returning veterans possess combat skills and experience that are attractive to rightwing extremists,” read the section “Disgruntled Military Veterans”. “DHS/I & A is concerned that rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to boost their violent capabilities.”

“The willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned, or suffering from the psychological effects of war is being replicated today,” the report said.

It pointed out that a 2008 FBI report on the white supremacist movement had noted that “some returning military veterans” from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had “joined extremist groups”.

While many claimed to have found those passages offensive, the DHS warning reflected the changes in military recruitment policy guidelines. By loosening its standards, the military has allowed “large numbers of neo-Nazis and skinhead extremists” into the service, a July 2006 Southern Poverty Law Centre report pointed out.

“Since the launch of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military has struggled to recruit and reenlist troops [and] as the conflicts have dragged on, the military has loosened regulations, issuing ‘moral waivers’ in many cases, allowing even those with criminal records to join up,” Matt Kennard recently pointed out in Salon.

In addition, the military appears to have turned a blind eye to previous regulations that rejected members of hate groups.

“The lax regulations,” Kennard wrote, “have also opened the military’s doors to neo-Nazis, white supremacists and gang members – with drastic consequences. Some neo-Nazis have been charged with crimes inside the military, and others have been linked to recruitment efforts for the white right.”

According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, an Alabama-based group that tracks the activities of hate groups, neo-Nazi groups such as the National Alliance, whose founder the late William Pierce was the author of “The Turner Diaries” – a best selling book among white nationalists and the novel that was said to have inspired Timothy McVeigh to bomb the Oklahoma City federal building – have infiltrated the military.

“We’ve got Aryan Nations graffiti in Baghdad, and that’s a problem,” the SPLC quoted a Defence Department investigatory report as stating.

An SPLC report on the subject of white supremacists in the military also quoted Scott Barfield, a Defence Department spokesperson, who said that “Recruiters are knowingly allowing neo-Nazis and white supremacists to join the armed forces, and commanders don’t remove them from the military even after we positively identify them as extremists or gang members.”

The change in recruitment policy – at least surreptitiously – appears to have materialised at a time when the military was finding it more difficult to keep up its recruitment quotas.

“They don’t want to make a big deal again about neo-Nazis in the military, because then parents who are already worried about their kids signing up and dying in Iraq are going to be even more reluctant about their kids enlisting if they feel they’ll be exposed to gangs and white supremacists,” Barfield said.

In 1996, the Pentagon “declared a zero-tolerance policy for racist hate groups”, the New York Times reported in July 2006.

The “crackdown” came after “revelations that [Timothy] McVeigh had espoused far-right ideas when he was in the Army and recruited two fellow soldiers to aid his [Oklahoma City] bomb plot,” the Times reported.

“Those revelations were followed by a furor that developed when three white paratroopers were convicted of the random slaying of a black couple in order to win tattoos, and 19 others were discharged for participating in neo-Nazi activities.”

According to Matt Kennard, “Today a complete ban on membership in racist organizations appears to have been lifted – though the proliferation of white supremacists in the military is difficult to gauge. The military does not track them as a discrete category, coupling them with gang members. But one indication of the scope comes from the FBI.”

“There will undoubtedly be a up-tick in violence because these guys [veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan] have been over there and solving problems with guns over the past few years,” Leonard Zeskind, author of the recently published “Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream”, told IPS in a telephone interview.

“However, most of the way that it is thus far manifesting itself is in a rising number of suicides and domestic violence. The cases of post-traumatic stress disorder are overwhelming,” he said.

In reality, Zeskind added, the Department of Homeland Security “presents only a very thin sliver of the issue of returning veterans in the report”.

*Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column “Conservative Watch” documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.

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