Based on reports that more than 80 of the 700 defendants charged in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot had a military background, a popular narrative emerged that the military is riven with extremists.

Gripped by the moment, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reacted by ordering a one-day stand-down for the more than 2 million uniformed members of the military to deal with “extremist behaviors.”

On April 9 of that year, Austin further established a Countering Extremism Working Group to consider further actions to deal with extremism.

Now, more than two years later, the Rand Corp., a think tank largely funded by the federal government, has published a study contradicting the belief that the military has an extremism problem. The report found that veterans of the U.S. military are indeed less prone to extremism than their civilian counterparts.

According to the report, veterans are less likely to support extremist groups such as the Proud Boys, Antifa, and white supremacist groups than the general population. Veterans are also less likely to advocate extremist actions such as political violence or adhere to extremist ideologies.

Although the Rand report may come as a surprise, given the heated rhetoric about the depth of the extremist problem, the findings make sense. The U.S. military is an incredibly diverse organization, with more than 40% of active-duty service members being ethnic minorities. Unlike the civilian world, where people tend to socialize with their own ethnic and socioeconomic groups, service members interact with people of all different backgrounds and races on a daily basis.

For the U.S. military to perform its mission of protecting the country, from Day One, service members are taught they must respect those of different backgrounds from themselves and that they must work together. Although veterans may no longer be in the service, they take those same values with them when they depart the military.

Not only is the U.S. military a diverse environment, where all different Americans work together for the goal of national defense, it has a long history of standing against racist and extremist ideologies. It was the first major public institution to desegregate in 1948, requiring that “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national original.” That was at a time when in many parts of the country, they could not even share the same restrooms.

That’s not to say that the military should not be mindful of, and be prepared to deal with, extremism. One extremist is one too many in the military or veteran population, and the military needs to hold itself to the highest possible standard. But the very nature of the military as a reflection of the broader U.S. society means some extremists will slip through the cracks.  

The current state of extremism certainly does not warrant the time and resources that the Pentagon has already spent. During the stand-down ordered by Austin, the Defense Department spent a total of 5,359,000 man hours on extremism prevention, costing the military more than $500,000. In addition to the stand-down, the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2023 budget request was amended to include $34.2 million for “countering extremist activities.”

The Defense Department continues to spend large amounts of time and money to combat extremism, yet its own analysis of the situation shows that such measures are not even necessary.

According to the Pentagon’s Countering Extremism Working Group, from 2020 to 2021, fewer than 100 service members have been subject to discipline due to “engagement in extremist activities.” That represents only about 0.005% of the more than 2.1 million active and reserve personnel.

Clearly, extremism is not the problem that some politicians and media outlets made it out to be, and that’s now backed up by both the Rand report and the Pentagon’s own data.

At a time when the U.S. military strength is not where it should be to combat the danger of China and others, the Pentagon cannot afford to be spending valuable time and resources on a problem that largely doesn’t exist.

The Defense Department should instead focus its energy and resources on building a capable military posture that can counter the rise of authoritarian nations such as China and Russia.

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