Rep. Bob Wittman (R-Va.) told Breitbart News in a recent interview that he believes the one-day “stand down” announced by Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin in a bid to combat extremism in the ranks of the military is an ill-conceived effort driven by partisan impulses that he called a “political purge.”
Austin last week ordered U.S. military commanders to spend time talking to their troops about extremism in the ranks of the armed forces, an issue that has been on the Pentagon’s radar for some time and one that its newly appointed chief has vowed to tackle.
“Yesterday, I directed all CO’s and supervisors to select a date within the next 60 days to conduct a one day ‘stand-down’ on extremism in the military,” Austin wrote in a Feb. 6 tweet. “This is an opportunity for us to listen, learn, and try to find solutions—and it’s only a first step.”
Austin wrote in a Feb. 5 memo that, while he believes the “vast majority” of military service members “serve with honor and uphold our core values,” he spoke of a need to “eliminate the corrosive effects that extremist ideology and conduct have on the workforce.”
“We will not tolerate actions that go against the fundamental principles of the oath we share, including actions associated with extremist or dissident ideologies,” Austin wrote.
During the one-day “stand down,” commanding officers and supervisors are expected to talk to their troops about the importance of their oath, describe impermissible conduct, and identify procedures for reporting suspected, or actual, extremist behavior, Austin said.
Wittman took aim at the “stand-down,” saying that he believes it is driven by partisanship.
“He talked about enemies within the military,” Wittman said, referring to remarks Austin made at his confirmation hearing, with the GOP lawmaker adding, “and by this, they mean extremists on the right within the military.”
“The military is the most diverse institution in America, so I don’t know why they think they’re going find a bunch of white supremacists in the military,” he said. “I think it’s kind of a Democratic prejudice against the armed forces and law enforcement in general,” he added.
“I understand getting rid of people like Major [Nidal] Hassan, Islamic extremists, and if you’ve got information on white supremacists in the military, get them out—but we’re going to pause our military readiness of our entire force to ferret out people who might have had some reservations about the November 3rd election? I think this is crazy,” Wittman said.
Chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said last week that Austin is determined to address extremism in the ranks of the U.S. armed forces and is gathering more information about how best to address the problem.
“We don’t know how we’re going to be able to get after this in a meaningful, productive, tangible way and that is why he had this meeting today and that is why he certainly ordered this stand-down,” Kirby told reporters.
At his Jan. 19 confirmation hearing, Austin highlighted the need to rid the ranks of the U.S. military of “racists and extremists.”
Saying that we “owe our people a working environment free of discrimination, hate, and harassment,” he vowed to “fight hard to stamp out sexual assault, to rid our ranks of racists and extremists, and to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity.”
While the Pentagon has yet to define how it will deal with extremism or offer current data estimating how many service members hold extremist ideologies, a 2017 survey (pdf) on racial/ethnic relations in the military may offer a glimpse. The survey, which was designed to assess both self-reported experiences of racial/ethnic harassment and discrimination in the military as well as the climate surrounding the issue, found that most members denied problems with hate crimes (90 percent), gangs (88 percent), and racist/extremist organizations (86 percent) at their duty station.
While the problem was more acute in the local communities surrounding duty stations, most members denied problems with hate crimes (71 percent), racist/extremist organizations (67 percent), and gangs (63 percent) in their vicinity.
In speaking to service leaders about troops with extremist views, Austin “noted that even though the numbers may be small, they may not be as small as we would like them to be or that we believe them to be,” Kirby said.
At his confirmation hearing, Austin offered a sense of how to address the issue of extremism, saying military leaders should be trained “to make sure they are in touch with the people they are leading, that they understand who they are, what they are doing, what they are reading, that they are looking at the environment they are living in and looking for signs of things that could indicate that something is going in the wrong direction.”
Calling the issue something that you can’t “put a Band-Aid on and fix and leave alone,” Austin said military leaders “need to be able to talk to their subordinates and instill in them the right types of values.”
“Being engaged more with your people on these types of issues can pay big dividends,” he said, “but I don’t think you can ever take your hand off the steering wheel.”
Stand downs are not uncommon in the U.S. military. They often last a day or more and usually involve meetings between commanders and their units about a specific subject, including safety issues or to address concerns such as sexual assault or suicides within military ranks.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.