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Neo-Nazis, gangs and criminals in the US military

This is an excerpt from my latest op/ed for Al Jazeera.

Investigative reporter Nir Rosen once aptly remarked on the tendency in mainstream Western journalism to downplay unfavourable trends occurring in the context of US military operations abroad: “The big scandals like Abu Ghraib, or the “Kill Team” in Afghanistan, eventually make their way into the media where they can be dismissed as bad apples and exceptions, and the general oppression of the occupations can be ignored”.

A similar sort of argument can perhaps be made with regard to incidents such as the August 7 Sikh temple massacre in Wisconsin, perpetrated by Wade Michael Page, a decorated former Army psychological operations specialist and a neo-Nazi. Although any Pentagon-sanctioned explanation of the event would undoubtedly rest on the bad apple assumption, it has occurred to media outlets such as the Christian Science Monitor to question whether the intersection of military training and racist extremism in Page’s case is not in fact indicative of a larger pattern.

Noting that civil rights organisations like the Southern Poverty Law Centre “have warned that hate groups encourage their members to join [the military] for training and experience that they can later use to perpetrate crimes in the United States”, CSM’s Anna Mulrine writes:

“The Army’s Criminal Investigation Division conducts a threat assessment of extremist and gang activity among Army personnel. ‘Every year, they come back with “minimal activity”, which is inaccurate,’ Scott Barfield, a former gang investigator for the Department of Defence, told the Southern Poverty Law Centre in its 2006 report ‘A Few Bad Men’. ‘It’s not epidemic, but there’s plenty of evidence we’re talking numbers well into the thousands, just in the Army’.”

Irregular Army

Wade Michael Page’s military service terminated prior to the inauguration of America’s 21st century wars, when – as journalist Matt Kennard documents in his forthcoming bookIrregular Army: How the US Military Recruited Neo-Nazis, Gangs, and Criminals to Fight the War on Terror – insufficient enlistment levels led to an abandonment of certain recruiting standards and an increased influx of unsavory elements into the nation’s armed forces.

According to a 2005 report sponsored by the US Department of Defence itself, “the military has a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy pertaining to extremism”. However, Kennard’s investigations suggest that even blatant “telling” often fails to incur meaningful repercussions. For starters, he reports telephoning five different Army recruitment centres, posing as an aspiring soldier curious as to whether his tattoo of Nazi SS lightning bolts will impede his soldiering aspirations. The upshot: “Despite being outlined in Army regulations as a tattoo to look out for, none of the recruiters reacted negatively and, when pressed directly about the tattoo, not one of them said it would be an outright problem”.

Even more revealing are Kennard’s interactions with Forrest Fogarty, an Iraq war veteran and “white supremacist of the serious Hitler-worshipping type”, whom Kennard meets in Tampa and accompanies on an excursion to the zoo with Fogarty’s two children.

Prior to departing for his tour in Iraq, Fogarty signed up with the Hammerskin Nation, “described by the Anti-Defamation League as the ‘the most violent and best-organised neo-Nazi skinhead group in the United States'”. Although his girlfriend attempted to thwart his deployment by submitting – to his military superiors – photographs of Fogarty at neo-Nazi rallies and performances of his Nazi rock band, he quickly persevered in front of the military committee assigned to scrutinise the circumstances: “I just denied it and said my girlfriend was a spiteful bitch, which is true”.

Click here to continue reading at Al Jazeera.

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