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Pentagon Orders ‘Stand-Down’ to Address Extremism in the Ranks

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 2/3/2021 Paul D. Shinkman
a group of people standing in front of a building: Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visits National Guard troops deployed at the US Capitol and its perimeter, on January 29, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta / POOL / AFP) (Photo by MANUEL BALCE CENETA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) © (MANUEL BALCE CENETA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visits National Guard troops deployed at the US Capitol and its perimeter, on January 29, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta / POOL / AFP) (Photo by MANUEL BALCE CENETA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday ordered a military-wide "stand down" to address the kind of extremism within the ranks that was thrust into the public view on Jan. 6 when supporters of President Donald Trump – including some active-duty war veterans – forcefully stormed the U.S. Capitol.

The dearth of details about the stand-down highlights the apparent lack of understanding overall on the issue of extremism among military leaders. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby on Wednesday afternoon told reporters that commanders would have 60 days to schedule events for "needed discussions" about extremism.

Kirby did not say what specific information, if any, Austin hoped to glean from the events. They come at a time the military itself is struggling to understand the extent to which those who may have extremist views serve, or what "extremism" itself may mean – whether belonging to a racist or violent ideological group such as the Proud Boys, having been recruited by a foreign terrorist organization or merely believing the widespread and debunked conspiracy theories like those espoused by the QAnon movement.

Austin, the first Black secretary of defense, during his confirmation hearing this month highlighted the threat and its effect on the military's ability to protect Americans from foreign foes.

"We can't do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks," he said.

The military has previously issued stand-down orders to address endemic and sweeping problems throughout the force, such as sexual assault, suicide or racism. They usually take place over a period of time to allow commanders to schedule events without interfering with the unit's readiness to wage war.

Such an order from the secretary achieves the recognition that the Defense Department has identified the issue as a serious problem and generally take the form of some highly visible event, such as a base-wide run led by senior officers or a day off for lower-level leaders to hold barbecues or other gatherings and discuss the issue with their troops. However, commanders who have previously worked through them tell U.S. News privately these events generally have little substance, particularly as career leaders seeking promotions may not want to admit a problem exists within their units. And the issues often remain under-addressed in the long-run once they have faded from public attention, as suicide and sexual assault have.

Kirby also acknowledged Wednesday that the military is still working to define and comprehend the scope of the problem before it begins to work to address it.

"We don't know how we're going to go after this," he said.

"The sixth of January was a wake-up call for this specific problem. It's not as if it hasn't been studied and reviewed in the past," Kirby said. "The problem is that it's still a problem. And for all the focus that has gone on in the past ... Jan. 6 brought it into stark relief."

The Pentagon has released very little data about the extent to which it understands the effect of hate groups within the ranks. A 2020 survey conducted by The Military Times estimated that more than one-third of all active duty troops and more than half of minority service members themselves observed acts of white nationalism or other forms of racism among their fellow troops.

"The number of extremists in the military has increased due to a higher percentage of white supremacists attempting to join the military and the development of white supremacist leanings among some currently-serving personnel," Mark Pitcavage, who specializes in analyzing far-right groups with the Anti-Defamation League, told the House Armed Services Committee last year. He later told Politico the military's ability to detect extremist elements is "haphazard" at best.

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