During the height of the Iraq War “Surge” in 2007, the 3rd Infantry Division was entirely deployed to Iraq. Its headquarters unit commanded Multinational Divison-Center, and all four of its brigades were deployed in an arc on the south side of Baghdad. It was conducting daily combat operations against hostile forces who were at or near the height of their aggressiveness and power. Yet, at the 3rd Division Headquarters, a decision was made to implement mandatory anti-sexual harassment training on a regular basis — quarterly, if I recall correctly. Every four months soldiers deployed at war, charged with arranging the maneuver of combat forces actively engaged, were to take a day and attend a training course on the proper treatment of others in sexual matters. Even in the severity of war, the Army was concerned to combat rape, sexism, and harassment. This kind of training is redoubled at times when concern rises that it is needed.
At this time, there is a great deal of concern about extremism in the ranks. These changes are not entirely provoked by the 6 January incursion into the Capitol, nor the new Secretary of Defense, but are part of a rising concern among military and security professionals that has been ongoing. Georgetown Security Studies Review published a piece in November of last year calling for a “purge” of the military, especially targeting white supremacists. In August of last year, the military adopted a more aggressive posture toward social media posts by military members.
The military is already making changes, such as a review of its methods for screening recruits for extremist thoughts and expressions. There may be some expressions that are worthy causes for excluding a recruit from military service. Yet we should not forget the benefits of being subject to military discipline and education. In many cases, the best possible thing may be to admit the recruit to a life of service. If you believe that extremism among the youth can be countered at least in part by education, there is no institution in America that is more devoted to this education than the military. Young people who come in with questionable beliefs will receive regular and pointed instruction, on a mandatory basis, in what right looks like.
The fact that the military was already making changes last year should be encouraging. Well before the crisis in January, the military had already recognized the need to redouble its efforts. This is a strengthening of an ongoing effort to ensure respect for all servicemembers. Any Congressmembers who happen to be visiting deployed military units, or any military units anywhere, should visit a dining facility and take a meal with the troops. This is Black History Month, and so if you visit any such facility of any size you will see posters and decorations reminding soldiers of both past discrimination and great heroes from the African American community. Contact any military public affairs officer and ask him or her what they’re doing for Black History month. They will have an answer. Next month is Women’s History Month, which will be celebrated with similar decorations and lessons imparted annually. November is Native American History Month, which I learned about from the Army in the course of two consecutive Thanksgivings in Iraq embedded with Army units.
The Army has an Equal Opportunity Branch that certifies officers through a ten week course to provide regular training to all servicemembers. Even when the Army is not experiencing a spike in behaviors that concern it, equal opportunity training must be repeated annually. Additional training against discrimination and retaliation is also annual. Anti-sexual harassment training is to be repeated every two years.
This is a degree of training that young Americans will not receive elsewhere, not even in college, certainly not in the ordinary working world. Insofar as committed, regular education is a component of the answer to extremism, military service is a good thing for young Americans who may be coming into the service with childhood beliefs that could lead to extremism later in life.
In addition to the regular training, military service offers the opportunity to meet with people from many different backgrounds and develop working relationships. These working relationships often turn into friendships. Even people who come in with certain prejudices are likely to find friends from different backgrounds over the course of their time in service.
That is not a call for complacency, and the military is not being complacent. They are making significant reviews, adjustments, and redoubling of efforts. This is only to suggest that a “purge” is going too far, precisely because it would remove at-risk youth from the best possible environment for ensuring they receive education that would mitigate extremism. The best use of the military here is to let military training work.