- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Jesse Sloman
Best Defense guest columnist
Kathleen Belew’s New York Times op-ed "Veterans and White Supremacy" has generated a fierce response for its attempt to connect military service with membership in white supremacist groups. I hope that Dr. Belew and the Times editorial staff don’t dismiss the palpable anger they’ve prompted in the veteran community as a knee-jerk reaction to an unflattering portrayal. Instead, alongside a sense of collective outrage at being subjected to tired and ill-informed stereotyping, most of the criticism I’ve read has been sober, thoughtful, well-informed, and centered around the op-ed’s analytical flaws and inadequate research.
First, despite some veiled implications, Dr. Belew fails to show any empirical evidence of a causal relationship between military service and membership in white supremacy groups. The closest she comes is her statement that "the return of veterans from combat appears to correlate more closely with Klan membership than any other historical factor." That is an extremely bold assertion, one that arguably anchors her entire thesis, and it merits far more than the brief two-sentence treatment she provides. In the absence of a rigorous assessment of the available data, we are left to rely on Dr. Belew’s word that war has "fueled every surge in Ku Klux Klan membership in American history, from the 1860s to the present." Given the enormous breadth of that dataset, which seems to encompass everything from the armies of the Civil War to the one-third minority volunteer force the United States fields today, it is irresponsible of Dr. Belew to make such a far-reaching claim without spending more time describing her methodology.
Second, as J.M. Berger has pointed out, Dr. Belew’s thesis suffers from a framing problem. She very persuasively argues that Vietnam veterans had an outsized role as leaders of white supremacy groups from the 1970s to the 1990s. However, the fact that vets once made up a disproportionate portion of Klan leadership does not also mean that a disproportionate percentage of veterans are likely to become white supremacists. Making that logical leap is akin to saying that because the vast majority of suicide bombings have been carried out by young men, young men have a propensity to become suicide bombers. As Dr. Belew admits herself, the number of Vietnam vets who participated in white supremacist groups was "a tiny percentage of those who served" and "a vast majority of veterans are neither violent nor mentally ill."
Finally, although Dr. Belew includes some menacing quotes from a 2009 Homeland Security intelligence estimate and alleges that the threat the report described "proved real," she provides no real-life example of an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran committing violence after being radicalized by a white supremacist group. She also fails to mention that the estimate lists just three citations to back up its assessment of the veteran population, one of which is a 2008 FBI report which concludes that "some veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have joined the extremist movement. However, they have not done so in numbers sufficient to stem declines among major national extremist organizations…. Nor has their participation resulted in a demonstrably more violent extremist movement."
There is room for a thoughtful and considered discussion about the presence of veterans in white supremacist groups. I am not advocating that we should ignore the ugly history of white extremism in certain segments of the Army in the 1990s, the former soldier Wade Michael Page’s murderous rampage in a Sikh temple in 2012, or pretend that some of the 23 million vets in America today aren’t racists who belong to the KKK. However, there is simply no evidence in this op-ed to support Dr. Belew’s central claim that there is anything more than a tangential link between membership in white supremacist organizations and service in the U.S. military. To her credit, Dr. Belew is more measured than the Times editors. They chose to splash an inflammatory graphic beneath a misleading title and go to press with little thought for the feelings of a veteran community that is already reeling from poor reporting spurred by the Fort Hood shooting.
A recent poll conducted by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that seven out of 10 veterans "feel[s] that the average American routinely misunderstands their experience" and "more than 1.4 million vets feel disconnected from civilian life." Dr. Belew’s op-ed makes that case with crystal clarity. Many Americans still view veterans through a binary lens, sometimes as heroes, sometimes as monsters, but seldom as the individuals we are. Dr. Belew and the Times should use their platforms to help expand our nation’s understanding of its servicemembers, not continue to narrow it.
Jesse Sloman is an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council.