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We Must Stand Down on Extremism and Polarization in the US Military to Safeguard National Security

Now infamous photos of men armed in Kevlar vests and helmets, holding zip-ties on the Senate floor, convey how dire the situation was at the Capitol. Among the different military branches, the Marine Corps led the charge with fourteen arrests, followed by the Army with ten. As a Marine Corps judge advocate, images of servicemembers storming the Senate floor were disturbing. Why were so many veterans eager to participate in the riot and abandon the oath they took years prior?

Divided Armies, written by Dartmouth Professor David Lyall, is a new book that blueprints inequality, polarization, and a lack of diversity in the military can lead to corrosion of US national security.

            Lyall argues that increased inequality and polarization among servicemembers can aid in future exploitation of fissures in society from near-peer threats on the world stage. In the future, it is not farfetched that we see the fissures that lie hidden in every society targeted as acts of war to create instability in a nation’s armed forces. Future acts of war may focus on injecting propaganda into the military populace, aiming to increase desertion and defection among military members, or even in the promotion of riots of great magnitude, like what we saw earlier this year at the Capitol.

The fallout for the US military from the January 6 riot has been immense. According to NPR, “Of more than 140 charged so far, a review of military records, social media accounts, court documents and news reports indicate at least 27 of those charged, or nearly 20%, have served or are currently serving in the US military. To put that number in perspective, only about 7% of all American adults are military veterans.

The overabundance of military representation at the Capitol riot needs answering: to what effect does polarization and extremism among troops have on US national security? The answer lies in the degradation of unit cohesion and recognizing the potential threat this cohesive breakdown has long-term on the US national security posture. Cohesion is the glue that allows the military to work.

Cohesion takes shape in two forms: task cohesion and social cohesion. Task cohesion binds a team together towards one ultimate end, shared by a mutual desire for success in achieving that collective mission. Social cohesion is the shared bond of individuals where one enjoys another’s company and wants to spend time with other team members. Both facets of cohesion are inseparable from having a fully formed and effective US military. Once task cohesion or social cohesion begins to erode, the job servicemembers are tasked with becomes impossible. What occurred on January 6 is a prime example of what can happen when the two forms of cohesion are not in sync.

            Another threat posed by polarization within the US military is the potential for exploitation by near-peer threats such as Russia and China. Former Ambassador Susan Rice stated in September, “Our own fissures also create easy openings for Russia to inflame Americans’ fears of one another and to erode our faith in democracy by using social media to spread disinformation and sow distrust.” What is at stake is much like what occurred in 2016, where Russian agents helped propagate misinformation to sew discord and anger among the general populace.

            The riot on January 6 was jarring for numerous reasons. The most eye-opening may have been the number of servicemembers included on the list of those arrested, along with the unfortunate death of Air Force veteran Ashli Elizabeth Babbitt, who lost her life because of unfounded conspiracy theories and a mob mentality. Recognizing a lack of social cohesion among present and former servicemembers will go a long way in combating a future loss of life stemming from patriotic disillusionment.

            When studying the relationship between extremism and polarization, the military must do more to re-fashion unit cohesion. On February 5, Secretary of Defense Austin issued a memo to commanders directing them to “select a date within the next 60 days to conduct a one-day ‘stand-down’ to discuss extremism in the ranks with their personnel.”

            Having gone through this training recently, I concluded that more is needed to mend such a prevalent and growing problem. It will take an honest, sustained effort by leadership to depolarize the military. National security depends on the re-fissuring of unit cohesion within the ranks. Commanders must stand up with their troops and relay the message to “stand down” on polarization and extremism.   

Author’s Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the US government.

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Thomas Persico

Tom is a judge advocate, defense counsel, aboard Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina. He is concurrently a Master of Public Administration student at UNC-Chapel Hill, focusing on international relations and innovation for the public good.
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