I’d like first to amend some of my recent remarks on the Capitol police. As the full story emerges, it appears that some individual officers performed well. Furthermore, one died of wounds received and another appears to have committed suicide. I believe that these men were failed by their leadership, an idea borne out by the resignation of senior Capitol police officers. Some of the rank and file were likely responsible for the mission failure, but not all, and some have paid a heavy price.
Another fact that is emerging from the attack on the Capitol concerns the numbers of military veterans, reservists, and active duty members who participated. Some voices have been raised attributing this to white supremacist and other extreme ideologies. The presence of white supremacists among military members and veterans is a problem. Their numbers may not be high, but even a small percentage can have a detrimental effect on unit cohesion and effectiveness, introducing elements of divisiveness that have no place in a military unit. Also, the training that service members receive may make them especially dangerous if they turn to violence, and not only because of their training in weapons and combat skills. Some also have training in communications, in cyber operations, in tactics and small-unit leadership that might be useful to an insurgent or terrorist group.
In this post, I will briefly address some of the root causes for some military members to find extreme ideologies attractive. These root causes include the military tendency towards authoritarianism, the preponderance of males and hyper-masculine attitudes in the military, the appeal of violent solutions to problems, and the self-righteousness and sense of entitlement of some service members and veterans.
In his classic and seminal, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, Norman Dixon advances the theory that much military incompetence is due to the tendency of military service to attract and cultivate authoritarian personalities. I have written elsewhere of this tendency to explain why some military members have (and even continue) to support Donald Trump. The authoritarian tendencies of some soldiers may also explain why they are attracted to openly fascistic, racist, even to neo-Nazi movements, all of which are strongly authoritarian. In fact, fascism and Nazism have their origins with discontented veterans of World War I. They are militant ideologies of perpetual war, in which all are subjected to mock-military discipline.
The second feature of military forces that can contribute to extremism is that they are mostly male and often given to hyper-masculine attitudes. This can breed an unbalanced preference for direct action, for harsh language, for (as Ezra Pound says) “love of slaughter, in imagination,” and a contempt for moderation and deliberation. This is connected to the preference for violent solutions. Soldiers have been trained in violence, and they can come to see violent means as the preferred or only solution to a problem. This might even contribute to the military propensity for suicide. Of course, more thoughtful and reflective soldiers, perhaps those with more service, also come to see the limitations, the dual-edged nature of violence, but for others the appeal of violent acts remains.
The last, perhaps most serious and least becoming of the tendencies that lead soldiers and veterans to extremism is the exaggerated sense of entitlement, the Kipling-esque feeling of services and virtue unrewarded. Some military people feel wronged for legitimate reasons, and they may express this feeling in a variety of ways, some productive and some not, but in its extreme form, and especially in an immature or unfulfilled person, the sense of grievance can drive them into political extremism and even political violence: Attitudes and acts which, although political in expression, are usually psychological and even pathological in origin. Related to entitlement is self-righteousness, which a character in Anton’s Myrer’s novel Once an Eagle calls “the occupational disease of the soldier . . . and the worst sin in all the world.”
Some of the forgoing tendencies may be the result of self-selection, but others can be the product of military service itself, perhaps abetted by poor leadership. Leaders should be aware of the signs of extremism in the soldiers they lead and those others around them. A soldier’s comrades can help to talk her down from extreme positions. On an institutional level, to repeat a proposal I made in a previous post (and also elsewhere), it may be time for a joint military ethics code, one that stresses human rights, dignity and diversity along with the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC).
Anyone interested in reading more on the subject of military group think, mis-think and their cures can consult my book, How to Think Like an Officer!