Commentary

The Radical Case Against White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis in the US Military

The distinction between membership and active participation in white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations for US military members is deeply flawed.

I wish the following did not need to be said.

In the past 75 years, the United States has fought – with varying degrees of vigor – human rights abuses. We incurred almost 300,000 casualties to defeat Nazi Germany. Decades of demonstrations and divisive legislation followed to eradicate the very codified racism that inspired Adolf Hitler.

Yet, just months ago, defense officials testified to the House Armed Services Committee that membership in white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups does not constitute grounds for separation from the military. Distinguishing between membership and “active participation,” these officials stated that neo-Nazis can serve in the ranks of the same military that liberated Buchenwald and Dachau.

With extremist organizations, however, any distinction between membership and participation is a spurious one. Indeed, mere membership in such groups is incompatible with the military’s values.

US Military Ethics

A proudly traditional organization, the military boasts no shortage of creeds, oaths, and values systems capturing its ethics. Here the important distinction between ethics and morals emerges. The military’s ethics – the principles established by a social system – define right and wrong for service members.

Conversely, service members’ morals comprise their personal principles. Ideally, a soldier’s morals align with the military’s ethics. If not, consequences will likely arise. At best, these consequences remain internal to the soldier.

Disagreeing with the military’s ethics, he probably experiences cognitive dissonance. Perhaps he harbors his disagreement quietly. But maybe he externalizes his beliefs, acting out against the military’s norms and regulations.

White Supremacist and Racist Ideologies in the Military

By distinguishing between membership and active participation in white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, these defense officials make two troubling assumptions.

First, they assume that these members will not inevitably externalize their dubious beliefs. But why should these extremists receive such latitude? Evidence indicates that white supremacy in our ranks has risen over the past few years. Over one third (36 percent) of service members who responded to a 2019 Military Times survey reported evidence of white supremacist and racist ideologies in the military, up from 22 percent in 2018.

Respondents described specific manifestations of white supremacy such as racist language, swastikas drawn on service members’ cars, white supremacist-affiliated tattoos, and KKK paraphernalia.

This disturbing trend demands a lower threshold for action against service members affiliated with such organizations. Given the very nature of white supremacist groups, active participation logically proceeds from membership.

White supremacy is an inherently revisionist ideology, seeking to change the status quo. Adherents support policies to “reverse changing demographics and the loss of an absolute, white majority.”

White Supremacist Strategies

The Southern Poverty Law Center describes two white supremacist strategies: mainstreaming and vanguardism. Mainstreamers infiltrate existing political institutions, intending to convert disenchanted “normies.” Conversely, vanguardists advocate for a revolution to achieve a white ethnostate.

With its forced uniformity, the military offers a viable ecosystem for mainstreamers hoping to remain under the radar. Moreover, in the thousands of young, impressionable (and often disenchanted) soldiers, they may find a receptive target audience.

By allowing extremist group members in our ranks, defense officials provide them a platform to amplify their pernicious message.

Racial Equality

The defense officials make a second flawed assumption: service members need not accept the military’s ethics to be part of the organization. Consider first the oaths all service members must affirm. While each oath varies slightly between services and officers and enlistees, all hinge on the Constitution. Specifically, service members “solemnly swear (or affirm) that [they] will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Allowing anyone affiliated with a white supremacist or neo-Nazi group in the military effectively renders this oath optional. Any organization seeking to codify white racial supremacy rejects the principle of racial equality enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment.

And what of the military’s Equal Opportunity (EO) program? The Army’s EO policy, for example, bans discrimination based on of race, color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and national origin. The notion that a soldier who decides to join a group with a central ethos of discrimination subscribes to EO seems rather ludicrous.

Seven Army Values

Each service branch maintains its own values system. As an Army Officer, I am most familiar with the seven Army Values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.

At minimum, affiliation with a white supremacist organization casts doubt on a soldier’s adherence to these values, especially loyalty and respect. A member of an inherently discriminatory group likely does not “bear true faith and allegiance to the US Constitution, the Army, [his] unit and other soldiers.”

A white supremacist presumably does not endeavor to treat non-white soldiers “with dignity and respect.”

Why should such oaths, policies, and values systems exist in the military without the expectation that every service member follows? Do officials and commanders accept that some in our ranks will merely pay lip service to military ethics? As a future company commander, I certainly do not.

Trust in the US Military

The military has long maintained its enviable status as the most trusted institution in the United States. Gallup, which polled the American public on the matter for the past few decades, recently concluded that, “Americans cite their perceptions of the professional and competent way in which the military has executed its responsibilities, followed by a focus on the importance of what the military does for the country.”

This popular trust, strikingly widespread given extreme political polarization, is no foregone conclusion.

Amid the impassioned and wide-reaching demonstrations following George Floyd’s death, we are approaching a critical moment in the history of social justice. As our national dialogue continues focusing on racial relations, the military cannot afford to be perceived as accommodating to racists.

Make no mistake: members of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups are racist. We must move with the American public, not against it.


The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the US Army or the Department of Defense.


Lindsay Gabow

Linsday Gabow an active-duty captain in the US Army currently stationed at Fort Huachuca.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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