Every time you attend an Ottawa Senators home game there is a moment, usually during the second period, where a member of the Canadian military is honoured in a commemoration called ‘Heroes’ Ridge’. Fans stand and give the soldier a standing ovation – even the players on the ice tap their sticks – and I am pretty sure that the same kind of thing occurs in NHL rinks in US cities. Some find the practice distasteful, as if we are sometimes glorifying war, but I think those people are overreacting a little. I find the gesture respectful: after all, the military is a dangerous profession and we should salute those that opt for it.
And yet we may be lionising and unfairly raising our expectations for those men and women in uniform. There is little doubt that the vast majority of those who serve are good people: I worked alongside many when I was at CSE and can attest to that. But the military is a human institution and we all know that humans are far from perfect. Why, then, do we pretend that everyone who joins the Armed Forces is a hero/exemplary person? Why do we turn a blind eye to practices like sexual abuse just because soldiers are involved? At least we in Canada, and elsewhere I believe, are starting to address these issues rather than cover them up.
The same applies, alas, to violent extremism. There have been cases of those who enlisted who happen to hold some very problematic views. Canada is all too familiar with this scourge, going back to the infamous Airborne Regiment fiasco in Somalia back in 1993 where two members tortured and later killed a young Somali they had discovered on their base. There was some evidence that the two, and others, held racist and far-right views. The regiment was disbanded after the event.
A similar incident is unfolding in Germany where a lieutenant in the army is alleged to have been involved in a very bizarre terrorist plot. The man, identified only as Franco A., faked being a Syrian refugee and planned a gun attack which he would subsequently blame on his fictitious alter-ego, thus feeding a worrisome rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in Germany. Evidence is surfacing that the man expressed far right views back in 2014 and the German military is now looking into his case, as well as 280 other suspected far-right sympathisers in the ranks.
Is there something about the military that attracts those who hew to violent ideologies? Frankly I am not sure and I would be interested in any studies in this regard. Intuitively one would think that there may be a link: the military, after all, engages in state-sanctioned violence and what better avenue for someone with such inclinations? Would far-right/racist/white supremacist supporters see the armed forces as a vehicle through which they could channel their desire to carry out extremist acts?
We must not over-exaggerate this possibility. As I noted above, the lion’s share of our soldiers are decent people. Nor should we, nonetheless, ignore the problem. There must be careful screening for these beliefs and those who hold them should simply not be considered for a nation’s highest call. The few that subscribe to violent extremism will certainly taint the reputations of the many who rightfully find these views abhorrent.
What we must never do is mirror the response in the US to an intelligence report, written by a Department of Homeland Security analyst back in 2009, that warned about white supremacism in the military. He was personally attacked for his analysis and ended up quitting DHS. The rabble questioned his patriotism and demanded that DHS rescind the report: DHS actually dissolved the team looking at this brand of terrorism. Pretending that something does not exist does not make it so and the US to this day refuses to see right wing terrorism as a much bigger threat than the Islamist extremist variety.
I am very certain that the public would go nuts if it turned out that an Islamist extremist were allowed to serve in our military. Shouldn’t we be as equally concerned about a far-right or racist member of the Armed Forces?