Is it really true that the active duty and veteran ranks are rife with extremists? Get the facts before you decide

Since the January 6 Capitol siege, many media and even academic outlets have published articles that paint a disturbing picture suggesting the active duty and veteran ranks are virtually infested with domestic extremists.   But are such stories really accurate?  Do they over-hype data?  Very recently MiltaryTimes published two examples, so let’s unpack them a bit and see if there is reason to question what they claim.

“[M]isinformation, disinformation, and malinformation”?

The first appeared on December 2 and was entitled Fighting falsehoods: Veterans coalition aims to battle extremism with truth.”  It was written by persons who identify themselves as part of something calledWe the Veterans with the aim “to raise awareness of the threat of misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation within the veteran community and better inform our fellow Americans of the tactics used by hostile influence operations.”

“[M]isinformation, disinformation, and malinformation”?  Ok, but consider what the writers said in their essay:

“Following the election, misinformation and disinformation spreaders accelerated their efforts, incubated the Stop the Steal movement, and openly coordinated a direct attack on our democracy on Jan. 6. In the aftermath, we now know that nearly 15 percent of those arrested had military service backgrounds (compared with approximately 7 percent of the U.S. population).” 

They link their “almost 15%” claim to a report from the excellent George Washington (GW) University Program on Extremism.  The problem?  The report the authors cite in their December 2021 op-ed was actually from last April

The figures “we now know” (from today, 10 December) as provided by GW show 79 of 693 persons charged in the Capitol riot had some military connection.  This calculates to 11.3%, not “almost 15 percent.”  

In other words, the “almost 15%” figure the “We the Veterans” writers cited is a whopping 32% larger than the actual 11.3% number.  This is hardly a small ‘miss,’ and a curious one for an organization that touts itself as one to counter “malinformation.” 

But even more importantly, the “We the Veterans” writers omitted an important nuance found in the April GW report they did cite. 

A “very slight underrepresentation of veterans among the January 6 attacks”

Specifically, here’s what GW said (I broke this section into more paragraphs for readability, and bolded key parts):

As it applies to the Capitol Hill cases, simply comparing the number of individuals with military experience to the proportion of veterans in the broader U.S. population is misleading. 

There is no reason to think that the arrestee population should be a representative sample of the U.S. population, so any interpretation needs to be cautious.  Beyond this fact, the Capitol Hill military arrestees are overwhelmingly male (see the discussion below), yet the percentage of veterans in the U.S. population has a large portion of females overall. 

So, it may be the case that the better comparison for the proportion of individuals with military experience is not with the overall proportion of veterans in the U.S. population, but the proportion of male veterans. 

That number for the general population, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, is 14 percent. If we look only at the Capitol Hill federal cases 16 involving men, the percentage with military experience is 13.6 percent. 

Comparing these two numbers suggests, if anything, that there actually is a very slight underrepresentation of veterans among the January 6 attacks. The bottom line is that, while there are reasons to focus on the presence of individuals with military experience among extremists, researchers, reporters, and policymakers need to recognize the nuance involved.

More garbled numbers

I believe part of the problem arises from the fact that very early reports about the January 6 siege, particularly that from NPR, put the percentage of those involved with a military connection even higher (“1 in 5”) than the “We the Veterans” writers did. 

Disregarding the wisdom of the time-honored military axiom of “The First Report Is Usually Wrong,” too many reporters, pundits, and even academics continued to repeat the “1 in 5” report even when it became clear it was inaccurate.  Did they do so because it fit the narrative they wanted to propound?  You decide whenever you see that statistic quoted.  

Other data might be technically accurate, but can nevertheless mislead.  Consider the December 3rd MilitaryTimes article that made the following claim:

“Over the past three decades, the number of veterans involved in extremist crimes has shot up 350%, according to data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. 

Alarming?  Of course; but digging into the data in the actual report can tell a different, less sensational story.  It’s important to focus on the fact that the 350% figure comes from a database that “explores military service backgrounds of individuals who committed extremist crimes in the U.S. from 1990 through the first six months of 2021.”  (Emphasis added.)  

Keep in mind the mathematical truth that when total numbers are small, even a very slight change can translate into a large percentage figure that can be deceptive.  Thus, for example, if you go from one person to four people that is a 300% increase.  But ask yourself how meaningful is such a percentage increase if those four people are in a pool of millions?   Wouldn’t it be more important (if less sensational) to know what percentage those four people are of the total group?

30-plus span of years

So, how many vets—total—are we talking about over that 30-plus span of years who were allegedly involve in “extremist” crimes?  354….out of the “7.8 million who served in the Gulf War era, which spans from August 1990 through the present.   (Pew Research Center, April 5, 2021 report). 

This means only a minuscule percentage — .0045% — of vets were allegedly involved or, put another way, more than 99.9955% of the millions who served during that period were not involved in what the data collectors claim are “extremist” crimes. 

Consequently, while a “350%” increase may grab headlines, my bet is that most people view it differently once they understand that even if technically accurate, it remains inarguably true that the overwhelming number (and percentage) of vets had zero involvement. 

Any number of bona fide extremists is certainly a concern, but let’s be sure to understand that number and what it really means, and not hype it in a way that confuses.

What is–or is not–included, and why?

Furthermore, what definition of “extremist” crimes did the data collectors use?  They say they included any vet who committed a criminal offense “that was clearly motivated by their ideological views and resulted in their arrest, indictment, or death.”  Exactly how they determined what “clearly motivated” the actions of each of the 354 isn’t really explained.  How did they get inside the heads of all of them?  Criminologists tell us that motivation can be a very complex matter.

How broad a net did the data collectors throw?  In addition to their “clearly motivated by..ideological views” criteria, they seemed to expand upon their understanding of the qualifying “ideological views” by indicating that they counted as “extremist” any criminal acts “motivated by [the vets’] political, economic, social, or religious goals.” 

That could cover a lot of ground.  Is there any differentiation among the “political, economic, social, or religious goals”? 

Does it mean that a vet arrested, for example, for a misdemeanor trespassing or property crime (for which many if not most vets were arrested as a result of Jan 6 siege) in a social or racial justice demonstration (e.g., for misdemeanor acts of civil disobedience “motivated by political [or] social…goals”) likewise earn the label of having committed an “extremist” criminal offense?  Even if no conviction resulted?

I would hope not, but if not, how – exactly – do the data collectors decide which fit or don’t fit among the many possible “political, economic, social, or religious goals” that may motivate an individual’s act? 

These are the kinds of questions you might want to ask yourself when you see data like this.  Even when well intended, a headline or excerpt can’t tell you everything you might want (or need) to know.  This is why on Lawfire® you are encouraged to gather data yourself and we provide links when we can)

Further, as suggested above, the data collectors apparently co-mingle in their numbers those who were adjudicated as having “committed” an “extremist” crime (as they define it), with those who were merely arrested for one.  There doesn’t seem to have been any effort to follow-up over the pass three decades to see who might not have been convicted.

The presunption of innocence doesn’t seem to matter.  For example, the data collectors concede that the sharp increase in their 2021 numbers “is in part driven by the comparatively large number of subjects with military backgrounds who participated in the Capitol breach on January 6.”  This makes their numbers a mess because in this country simply being “arrested” for a crime is not the same as having been found to have “committed” a crime. 

In my book, people are still innocent until proven guilty in this country.

In short, you have every reason to be wary when you see such allegations of military “extremism.”

The Pentagon still hasn’t figured it out

There are still more complications.  Specifically, even the the Pentagon has yet to really decide what “extremism” actually means in the armed forces.  Lawfire® readers may recall this post back in February: “Is the Pentagon prepared for its “extremism” stand-down?  Six ideas that might help.”  In that essay it was suggested that the absence of a clear definition of “extremism” would hobble any ‘stand-down’ effort.

An “extremism” definition is essential to determining the scope of the problem, which is fundamental to developing a plan to stamp it out.  Indeed, on February 1st RAND policy analyst Heather Williams warned that the first step one in rooting out the problem would be to “figure out how pervasive the problem is.”   Back in October, press reports said the definition was “imminent” but nothing has been forthcoming.  If the Pentagon can’t settle on a definition after ten months, what is the public supposed to think, let alone the troops? 

A May 2021 post: Shades of Greene?  How the Pentagon could brand the law-abiding with “extremist behavior explored the “stand down” guidance the Pentagon did issue.  It was disturbing.

Why?  Here’s what I said then:

“[The Pentagon guidance] called upon servicemembers to inform on each other if they perceive “extremist behavior.”  This is understandable if the behavior is illegal or contrary to some policy, but the Pentagon goes much further in demanding that military members also report their peers for activities that are fully lawful and compliant with all policies.   

Specifically, here’s the troubling part of what military members have a “responsibility to report”:

Extremist behavior by Department personnel that does not rise to the level of a violation of the [Uniform Code of Military Justice] UCMJ or other applicable laws, or the Department of Defense’s, Military Department’s, or Military Service’s extremism policies may still be a concern under the U.S. Government’s national security adjudicative guidelines, used to assess eligibility for access to classified information or to hold a sensitive position.  (Emphasis added.)

Evidently, someone could dutifully follow the law and all the military’s extremism policies yet still be labelled as exhibiting “extremist behavior” and potentially suffer career-ending security clearance denials, as well as being deprived of the opportunity to serve in “sensitive positions.”

In my book, the fact that this is still evidently the Pentagon’s position–along with the continued absence of a clear definition of “extremism”–is unconscionable. 

Those that serve deserve better than this.

Much work yet to do

Although many media types, pundits, academics and others have already drawn their conclusions, I believe there is much work yet to do to discern exactly why some veterans were involved in the Capitol siege.  I think it is quite possible that the popular “extremist” narrative may turn out to be off the mark.

There are lots of possibilities that ought to be examined.  For example, back in February the Washington Post reported that a “majority of the people arrested for Capitol riot had a history of financial trouble.”  To my knowledge, no one has fully sussed out the precise reasons those with a military connection were allegedly involved in the Capitol siege, but it would not surprise me if a good number were among the majority the Post says suffered financial difficulties.  Surveys have shown this:

Financial stress connected to military service is cited more than any other military-family issue by veteran spouses (54 percent) and military spouses (49 percent), as well as by veterans (44 percent). Among active-duty members, it ranks just below the stress of relocation.

Additionally, CNBC reported in June of 2020 that [v]eterans, hit hard by Covid-19 economic fallout, struggle over their financial future.”  Other experts suggested that the isolation the pandemic caused could hit veterans harder than most people In late January of this year the then Acting Veterans Administration Secretary said his organization was acting “to ease economic hardships for Veterans, their families, survivors and caregivers.”  Just a few months later the VA announced additional “monetary aid” for veterans hurt by the pandemic.  All good, but obviously too late for those arrested in the Capitol siege.

Could still other factors have been involved?  For example,  what about PTSD?   About 3.5% of the general population suffers PTSD (see here)., but the rate among veterans can be triple or quadruple that percentage (see here).  Between 4 and 21% of the U.S.’s prison population suffer PTSD (see here) and, sadly, veterans represent “8% of the total incarcerated population in the US.”

This is why some states – Florida for example – have established special courts to adjudicate cases involving veterans.  Florida explains the rationale for its veterans’ courts this way:

Veterans’ courts are designed to assist justice-involved defendants with the complex treatment needs associated with substance abuse, mental health, and other issues unique to the traumatic experience of war. Some veterans returning home from war find it difficult to integrate back into the community. Veterans with untreated substance abuse or mental health illnesses, including those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), may find it even harder to return home, which can sometimes lead to criminal activity.

Have Federal prosecutors adopted the approach of the Florida courts because of the issues so many veterans have?  No.  Quite the opposite, they favor the never-served with more leniency than they afford those who did.  The Philadelphia Inquirer reports:

[I]n least five cases so far, prosecutors have cited a rioter’s military service as a factor weighing in favor of a jail sentence or house arrest. Prosecutors have repeatedly maintained that veterans’ service, while commendable, made their actions on Jan. 6 more egregious.

Decide for yourself if it is the right thing to do, in an era when so few serve, to use the service of the those who did put on the uniform to enhance their punishment. 

Or is the Florida approach (and that of similar courts in other states) better?  Or, at a minimum, should veterans get at least the same beneficial treatment from prosecutors as those who never served?

You decide.

Concluding observations 

My point in all this is that before anyone assumes those who served or are still serving harbor nefarious motivations related to racism and extremism, they need to get the facts.  As we so often say on  Lawfire®, things can be way more complicated than they seem. 

In this post we examined just two of many similar articles that make it appear that the military’s active and retired ranks are rife with extremism.  No one seems to pay much attention to that fact that, for example, only one of 1.3 million active duty members of the U.S. armed forces has been arrested in connection with the January 6th siege. 

Likewise, few articles try to provide balance by noting  studies that find that “[a]cross a number of metrics — volunteerism, voting, charitable giving and community involvement — veterans of all generations tend to be more involved and more generous than non-veterans, even if not always overwhelmingly so.”  .

Back in March my friend Mackubin Owens was obliged to observe that the “fact that there were veterans among the rioters who unlawfully entered the Capitol on January 6, the persistent claim that Trump appealed to extremist groups, and Trump’s popularity with the military form the basis for proliferating allegations that the military has become a friend to racism and extremism.

Owens rightly insists that the “accusation that the military is full of racists and extremists is false, and damaging.”  Indeed, it is hurting the military: there are reports that interest in joining the military is dropping among Black men, Hispanic men, and women.  If we are going to have the military we need in the years to come it is imperative that these groups feel welcome.  To do so, we have to change the inaccurate narrative about the military and those who have served.

Of course, as Owens correctly points out, there “have been serious racial incidents involving military service members in the past’ adding that “military leaders were quick to deal with the perpetrators appropriately.”  His key point, however, is this: “the idea that racism is somehow pervasive in the military is nonsense.”

The military like American society in general has serious issues that need to be addressed, but inflating – and conflating – extremism allegations beyond anything justified by the facts is wrong, counterproductive, and harming America’s national security.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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