Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has 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.
Chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Austin met with all of the military service chiefs and secretaries on Feb. 3 and told them he was ordering a “stand down” by all units in the next 60 days.
While details of the initiative are still scant, Kirby said 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.”
Kirby said there are no decisions yet on how long the pause in regular activity will be, adding that training materials will be developed and sent out to units so they can have discussions about the issue.
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. Often, military branches order safety stand downs when various aircraft or ships are grounded, and troops go over operating and safety guidelines. In other cases, they can be used to address issues such as sexual assault or suicides.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.