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The presence of right-wing demonstrators amid violence during protests in Charlottesville and elsewhere has brought renewed attention to the issue of neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists in the military.
But the issue of such extremists joining the military and gaining access to lethal weaponry and advanced training is not a new one, nor is it limited to the US.
Earlier this month, four serving members of the UK army were arrested under the Terrorism Act, suspected of membership in a prohibited neo-Nazi group, National Action, which was linked to the murder of parliamentarian Jo Cox in 2016.
A civilian was arrested alongside the troops, and two of the five have been released without charge, but a British anti-extremist group says that a National Action member has helped as many as 10 members of far-right groups join the country’s army.
“He is National Action’s link man to the army,” Matthew Collins, head of research at Hope Not Hate, told The Times of London. “National Action trust him to help people get into the army. We think that maybe 10 attempted to join the army in the last two years.”
Recruits for the British army typically face less scrutiny than those trying to join the air force or navy, as members of the latter two forces are more likely to have access to sensitive information or technology.
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A military source told The Times that the latest arrest were likely to spur more in-depth investigations of those seeking to join the army’s ranks.
“Until now, the most basic clearances are done for most of the people in the army and those joining,” the source said. “It’s been on the army’s agenda for a while … but it all comes down to resourcing.”
Hope Not Hate also said it had tracked a far-right activist on Facebook, where he claimed to be going to through army training, was friends with National Action leaders, and expressed anti-Semitic sentiment.
“The armed forces have robust measures in place to ensure those exhibiting extremist views are neither tolerated nor permitted to serve,” the UK Defense Ministry told The Times. “For security reasons we cannot comment on our vetting process.”
In July, a Royal Marine was convicted of making bombs for dissident republicans and stashing bombs around England and Northern Ireland. Three years ago, a 20-year-old solider with far-right sentiments was jailed for making a nail bomb at his family’s home.
Germany has also faced renewed questions about the presence of neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists in its military in recent months.
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A lieutenant was arrested in April along with two co-conspirators, accused of creating a fake identity of a Syrian refugee and planning to kill a pro-refugee politician under that guise in order to stoke anti-migrant sentiment. (German authorities also investigated students at a military university for alleged links to the lieutenant.)
German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen learned afterward that the lieutenant’s superiors had ignored signs of his far-right feelings and that memorabilia of the Nazi-era Wehrmacht was still on display at German military facilities, including the barracks where the soldier was stationed.
Germany has taken steps to reckon with the history of Nazi-era military, but some Germans maintain affection for the millions of conscripts who served in the Nazi armed forces.
Von der Leyen ordered a review of the policies that allowed those items to be displayed and said new names would need to be found for facilities named after World War II figures, like Nazi field marshal Erwin Rommel.
The US military, which desegregated in 1948, has a history of white supremacy and far-right extremism in its ranks.
“Extremism in the military has long been a recurring problem,” Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center told Vice News in 2012.He cited a 2006 SPLC report that found “thousands” of right-wing extremists were in the military. A 2008 FBI report found 200 identifiable neo-Nazis with military training.
Wade Michael Page, who killed six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012, worked in psychological-operations for the US Army in the 1990s and was open about his neo-Nazi views while in uniform.
Not long after the shooting, a Missouri National Guardsman admitted to helping train members of American Front, a white-supremacist group preparing for a race war. Frazier Glenn Miller, who killed three people at two Jewish centers outside Kansas City in 2014, was a Ku Klux Klan “grand dragon” and member of the Green Berets with combat experience in Vietnam.
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Dillon Hopper, a Marine from 2006 to January 2017 – during which time he spent two years as a recruiter – founded the white-supremacist group Vanguard America, which was present during the violent protests in Charlottesville this summer.
The vast majority of US service members hold no such views and are not involved with any such groups. Some of those who do have such sentiments arrive to the military with them, though others, like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, developed their views while in uniform.
The US military has admitted that it allowed criminals and gang members to join – often issuing them “moral waivers” – when it was short of personnel. A number of white-supremacists and far-right extremists have since returned from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Matt Kennerd, author of “Irregular Army: How the US Military Recruited Neo-Nazis, Gang Members, and Criminals to Fight the War on Terror.”
Potok and Kennerd both said the military has in the past denied or done little to address the issue of right-wing extremism in its ranks, but in the wake of the violent protests in Charlottesville the military’s service chiefs denounced bigotry, and recruiters were warned to look out for tattoos common among such groups.
“Association or participation with hate or extremist groups of any kind violates the Department of Defense’s core values of duty, integrity, ethics, honor, courage and loyalty. We take any and all allegations of misconduct very seriously,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Haverstick told Stars and Strips earlier this year.