Recently, Michael Busch, Coordinator at the Colin Powell Center and lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the City College of New York, interviewed journalist Matt Kennard about his book, Irregular Army, which was published in time for the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The interview in its entirety has been published on theHuffington Post.
This past March marked the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a decade of fighting, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, destroyed an entire country, and destabilized the broader Middle East. As journalist Matt Kennard argues in his new book, Irregular Army, the war in Iraq — as well as that in Afghanistan — also had deleterious consequences for the U.S. military itself. Faced with declining enlistment numbers as fighting dragged on year after year with no clear end in sight, Kennard shows that the American armed forces looked for alternatives to populate its ranks. In the process, regulations were weakened, rewritten and in some cases, not enforced.
The results are disturbing. According to Kennard, the military was suddenly tolerating the open presence of white power extremists and street gang members in the rolls, and actively recruiting physically and psychologically unfit Americans to fill enlistment gaps. While evidence suggests that these lax recruitment standards have already resulted in death and murder on the battlefield, the consequences could prove equally upsetting here at home. If the Sikh temple massacre is any indication of what may be in store, Kennard’s argument that the United States faces an uncertain future as these veterans return from home from war couldn’t be more urgent.
I recently spoke with Kennard about his research into these issues, how government brass has responded to these threats to the integrity of its armed forces, and what the irregular American army might mean for Americans in the years to come.
The most disturbing finding of your research is the extent to which white power extremists have penetrated the United States military, something which first came to light as far back as the mid-1970s. How do they get in? What happens when they get discovered? What have been the most immediate consequences of their presence in war zones?
It is important to note that there are a raft of regulations that govern the presence of white supremacists, both during the recruitment phase, and then afterwards if they are discovered within the ranks. But the trouble with these regulations is that they’ve always been reactive. So you have cases where white supremacist cells have been exposed on different bases, dating back to the 1970s. And every time this happens, whether that is a neo-Nazi killing another soldier, or killing someone in a nearby town to a base, every time there is a short-term outpouring of anger, the military responds by saying that they have tightened regulations. The first time something like this happened, in 1976, the military said being in a white supremacist organization was inconsistent with service. That can be interpreted any way you want. To my mind, the ambiguity related to the regulation of white supremacists is deliberate, i.e., the military doesn’t want these people in the military, but in times when they can’t afford to kick troops out, the regulations allow them enough leeway to ignore it, or have enough plausible deniability, to leave these people in.
During the War on Terror, regulations were not adhered at all. So, for example, you had people who were able to get into the military with swastikas tattooed on their skin. I spoke with the head of recruitment for the United States army about this, he said, “well, there’s first amendment rights.” If someone says they like the way swastikas look, or claim that they are Indian symbols which look very similar, then the commander can basically blow it off. So, there are regulations on tattoos — which are frequently the best indicators for recruiters of extremism — that were broadly ignored.
And then you had the other side, when these people are discovered after they are already in, there are other regulations to deal with that. So, if you are caught posting messages on websites like StormFront, or writing racist messages on places like the New Saxon, a sort of neo-Nazi Facebook, you can be disciplined, and maybe even kicked out of the military altogether. But that didn’t happen, either. In fact, I received reports from the Criminal Investigative Command (CID), which is the criminal investigative arm of the Army, about what happened to white supremacists when they were caught. Some of it is really shocking. In one instance, a soldier passed a military explosives manual to the leader of a white supremacist group. In the report I received from the CID, the military terminated the investigation because the soldier in question had been shipped off to Iraq. This is somebody who may have been planning a domestic terrorist attack! Jaw-dropping.
There are obviously first amendment rights. But if you are training, equipping and then sending white supremacists to a country of brown people, I think that really does trump first amendment rights. I focus on the War on Terror, but there is also the case of Michael Wade Page, who carried out the Sikh Temple Massacre last August. He was serving in the 1990s, a period during which there was supposedly a harsh crackdown on white supremacists in the military, by the military, following the Oklahoma City bombing. Well, Stars and Stripes interviewed friends of Page, who told the paper that he was completely open about his Neo-Nazism while in the Army.
But it’s not just white power groups that are populating the military. Other gangs have also colonized the American armed forces. Can you talk about what other gang activity exists within the military?
It’s tempting to focus on the problem of white supremacists in the military when thinking about undesirable elements in the armed forces. It makes sense — these people often have goals which are terrorist goals. They want to kill people to further the cause of racial holy war. But in terms of numbers, and everyday violence, the street gangs problem in the military is much more serious. I have spoken with security experts who estimate that up to 10 percent of the American military is made up of gang-affiliated troops.
During the height of the War on Terror, we saw it all along the border, where active duty soldiers carried out the murders of other soldiers, not to mention of the enemies of local drug traffickers nearby to the bases. Gangs see the military as a good way to traffic drugs — when soldiers are on a base, they are not subject to the same rigorous law enforcement as you are when you are civilian. Cartels look to recruit soldiers who are on bases, or recruit soldiers especially those stationed at Fort Bliss and Fort Hood, both in Texas and hotbeds of this kind of activity.
We’ve seen evidence of this up to this day. Recently, there was a case in which the DEA carried out a sting operation on a group of soldiers. DEA officers posed as a representative of a Mexican drug cartel, and offered the soldiers money in return for carrying out hits against rival factions. The soldiers agreed. The DEA knew this was a good tack to take, because they’re very aware that trafficking groups are in constant contact with active duty personnel.