The 'Woke Military' Will Let You Join The Oath Keepers

Current Pentagon policies against far right or white supremacist extremism in uniform are "absolute milquetoast," according to a senior Pentagon official.

The 'Woke Military' Will Let You Join The Oath Keepers
Oath Keepers inside the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Filing in US. v Moerschel, via Wikimedia Commons.

Edited by Sam Thielman

A FEW WEEKS AGO I GOT MAIL from Hillsdale College, the conservative academic redoubt in Michigan. While I don't know how I ended up on their distribution list, I don't really mind it—you either read political mail or you throw it away—particularly since this particular mailing contained a contention I had been curious to see laid out: "The Rise of Wokeness in The Military," by Thomas Spoehr, a retired Army three-star and current Heritage Foundation think-tanker.

I've had pretty extensive dealings with the U.S. military over the past 20 years. It is, at risk of understatement, not a woke place, however you want to define "woke," an originally tongue-in-cheek term that now operates as a politically correct right-wing euphemism for black, queer and so forth. Military sexual assault, for instance, has skyrocketed, following a decade of assurances from the Pentagon that the rise in reported assaults was a positive sign, indicating growing trust servicemembers have in the reporting and adjudication channels under the chain of command. That was never true, as anyone who spoke to sexual assault survivors in uniform quickly learned, and the Pentagon's institutional lassitude endangered servicemembers. In any event, systemic tolerance of blue-on-blue misogynist violence doesn't exactly scream "Woke Military."

Spoehr sees things much differently. But framing the Rise of The Woke Military requires him to place undue emphasis on things like Diversity Equity and Inclusion "indoctrination" trainings and the occasional recommendation from a service chief that people should read How To Be an Antiracist. It also requires Spoehr, in a fashion familiar to the military, to assert that there's no evidence of "a problem of extremism in the military."  

I dug Spoehr's essay off my pile of unread/undealt-with mail (bills, we're talking about bills, for the most part) after getting a clarification sent to me from the Pentagon. On Sept. 13, reporter Travis Tritten, and good for him, asked if the Defense Department considers the Oath Keepers an “extremist” (I hate the euphemism of that word but am going to use it here as shorthand) group. You'll recall that the Oath Keepers played a significant role in January 6. Its founder was arrested and indicted earlier this year on charges of seditious conspiracy. A recent hack indicated that around 128 Oath Keepers are on active or reserve duty.

On Monday came an official response from Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the chief Pentagon spokesperson:

The DoD does not maintain a specific list of domestic extremist groups and I would refer you to federal and local law enforcement for that information.  Department of Defense policy focuses on individual activity as service members are, and have always been, judged by their individual actions.  Active participation in extremist activities violates the updated policy regardless of whether such actions are taken alone or as part of an organization.

That's a lot of words to say "no." But REIGN OF TERROR readers know that rendering illegal only those "extremist" groups that nonwhites and foreigners join has the effect of normalizing homegrown violent groups that white Americans join. In this case, the effect is to allow the Pentagon to defer addressing uniformed membership in the Oath Keepers—a deferral entirely consistent with the Pentagon's historical patterns of ignoring such activity among people it trains and equips to succeed at violence. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, REIGN readers also know, literally was allowed to wear a t-shirt reading WHITE POWER, merch from his KKK trial membership, in his Army barracks.

For the past nearly-two years, DOD has emphasized that the most important words in its statement are "active participation." Former Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby, who's now the chief NSC spokesperson, said in February 2021 that measures like "fund-raising, demonstrating a rally on behalf of these organizations, recruiting, training, organizing or leading members, distributing material" would result in discipline. Membership wouldn't. You can be an Oath Keeper in uniform, as long as the Pentagon doesn't catch you doing Oath Keeper stuff. The thing is that the Oath Keepers want to do stuff like acceleration toward a civil war. That's something that the kind of Americans the Oath Keepers define as their enemies—to say nothing of nonwhite enlistees, officers and veterans—may not wish their military to get mixed up in. Meanwhile, would-be Army officer Spenser Rapone got an other-than-honorable discharge for writing communism will win on his West Point cadet cap.

Anyone familiar with the military knows how the conspicuous vagueness of active participation cashes out: as the discretion of a commander. An alert and attentive commander would be able to find violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice's Article 134 "good order and discipline" requirements for the Oath Keepers and so forth in their unit. Other commanders won't give a shit at all. Some are likely to consider it risibly Woke to apply the UCMJ to right-wing militia membership. As the sexual assault cases demonstrate, commander's discretion is an alibi that permits inaction while the problem festers.

"You should explain that to Congress," said a senior Pentagon official I harangued yesterday morning about the Oath Keepers posture. "The Department of Defense is not empowered to change the Uniform Code of Military Justice without congressional approval. We enforce against those behaviors using the tools we have." That said, this official called the Pentagon "extremism" policy "absolute milquetoast."

It turns out that the Pentagon's pledge early in the Biden administration—that is, when January 6 outrage was at its height—to bolster its restrictions on "extremism" (ugh) didn't amount to much more than warning servicemembers they can be disciplined for smashing the like button on a far-right or far-left post. The Pentagon says you'd have to change the UCMJ to do more, all while specifically objecting to changing the UCMJ in this regard. Secretary Austin's February 2021 "stand down" order on recognizing extremist behavior turns out to have been the height of the effort, not the inauguration of a departure from past patterns of pretending the problem doesn't exist.

It turns out that in certain contexts, the U.S. military does know how to do conflict avoidance, particularly when there's an outrage industry on the right about the "woke military." Far more troops will have been removed from serving for being queer or trans during Don't Ask Don't Tell and the Trump administration’s trans ban than will be removed for membership in a far-right or white supremacist militia, even though such militias are currently trying to get a civil war going.

I asked if the military was functionally deterred, politically, from doing more against violent right-wing/white supremacist affiliation. While the senior Pentagon official noted that the UCMJ would have to change to move the Pentagon in the direction I'm seeking, they replied, "The unfortunate answer is: probably."

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BACK TO SPOEHR and the Woke Military. I was interested in his piece because I wanted to read how an argument that the military is punishing the un-Woke would be constructed. Read it for yourself as my summary follows.

Spoehr's concerns are (1) gender integrated combat formations and standards; (2) open transgender service; (3) something I was unfamiliar with about HIV-positive deployment eligibility; (4) pronoun training in the Navy; (5) "indoctrination programs, often with roots in the Marxist tenets of critical race theory, either by Pentagon diktat or through carelessness by senior leaders who delegate their command responsibilities to private Diversity, Equity and Inclusion instructors." Apparently a training slide at West Point read "In order to understand racial inequality and slavery, it is first necessary to address whiteness," which Spoehr's audience is meant to see as a calumny, despite being not merely true but insufficiently critical of capitalism. There's also something about the impropriety of the Biden Pentagon's "massive regime of environmental goals and requirements," which is an interesting thing to publish after the Navy poisoned Hawaiian drinking water.

It goes on from there, but that's the gist. On the one hand, you can be a member of the Oath Keepers, but on the other, Admiral Mike Gilday recommended you read How To Be An Antiracist, and so: Woke Military. "To give an idea of how radical [Ibram X.] Kendi's book is, one of its famous (or infamous) arguments is that 'capitalism is essentially racist,' and that 'to truly be antiracist, you also have to be truly anticapitalist,’" Spoehr jeers. Again, no lies detected—I recommend Spoehr and anyone else inclined to contest the point read Eric Williams' Capitalism and Slavery—but it kind of gives Spoehr's game away that a book recommendation from the Chief of Naval Operations hauls this sort of argumentative freight. (Those book recommendation lists from the senior commanders and service chiefs are always eye-rollingly political—an impressive combination of cynicism and cringe—but let's try to distinguish what someone might find obnoxious from what's harmful.)

Spoehr writes:

Last year, Secretary Austin alarmingly called for a one-day military-wide stand-down to address the so-called problem of "extremism" in the ranks, despite the fact that there has been no evidence presented—including in testimony by senior officials—that there is a problem of extremism in the military.

I've lost track of what proportion of January 6 defendants have military backgrounds, but last I checked it was around one in ten. As it happens, this week, a right-wing organization clogged the Department of Veterans Affairs' crisis hotline with "calls complaining that veterans arrested for the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riot are being mistreated while in custody," reports Jeff Schogol at Task & Purpose. But the point of pieces like Spoehr's are to ignore the problem through false equivalences, thereby bolstering the political deterrent that the senior Pentagon official alluded to. Following the conclusion of Spoehr's argument, the mailer asked if I would help promote and defend the principles of liberty with my tax-deductible contribution to Hillsdale College.

THE SPACE FORCE DECIDED it needed a service anthem. I get it: I've also experienced insecurity based on intrusive doubts over whether I was a legitimate member of my chosen profession. What they delivered was a behind-the-scenes documentary of two minutes discussing the production of their song, as if it were a reality-TV confessional or a DVD commentary, followed by the hilariously incongruous and mercifully brief anthem itself. I don't know how many metaphors about Space Force this contains, but I know I would have had to spend a whole day at Danger Room posting about each. [“Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planitia)” by The Flaming Lips is RIGHT THERE—Sam.] Can we get Documentary Now to do a Space Force short?

THE OTHER DAY I GOT PAGES from Eric Battle, the immensely talented artist who's drawing WALLER VS. WILDSTORM, my comics debut, co-written with the also-immensely-talented Evan Narcisse. They immediately put me in mind of interviews I've read and heard over the years with comics writers who say that they go from mono to stereo once they see an artist visualize something that they could only think of as meaning-behind-text. I feel like I've gotten a chance to access a greater depth of meaning in a medium I've been reading since I could read. I'm very grateful for that. And I really can't wait for you to see our first page-turn. Please go to your local comics shop and ask them to reserve a copy of WALLER VS. WILDSTORM #1, out on Nov. 15! Let's not let this flop!

The new edition of Matt Bors' newsletterJUSTICE WARRIORS #4: out now! —generously promotes WVW, as well as the forthcoming comics debut of our friend Adam Serwer, who's also co-writing something with Evan, WAKANDA #2:

Issue #2 of Wakanda, which also drops in November, will feature Serwer writing M’Baku and picking up threads from the "The Intergalactic Empire of Wakanda” storyline. Again co-writing with Evan Narcisse, Serwer is dealing in themes and subject matter I am excited to see him tackle in comics: slavery, resources, and the politics of empire.

Me too. When you go to your comic store to ask them to pull WALLER VS. WILDSTORM, make sure to say you also want WAKANDA #2 and JUSTICE WARRIORS #5, since I assume you've already bought the first four issues of Matt's series.

Matt writes about WVW:

I’m privy to some of the details and there are some real deep cuts being pulled from the back bins for this series. Anyone who grew up reading Wildstorm titles like Stormwatch and Deathblow will be pleased.

Can confirm.

A REALLY UNAMBIGUOUS FUCK-YOU TO BIDEN FROM MBS. A month after the president's fist-bump genuflection, MBS got through an OPEC oil-production cut, the exact opposite thing that Biden's capitulation was supposed to deliver. Saudi Arabia opting for the Russia market/security orbit is historic. Even though we're a long way away from a formal split between Riyadh and Washington, this surely will be noted by historians of American decline.