Racism in the Ranks
On a December night in 1995, three white soldiers from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, N.C., got into a car and drove around Fayetteville in search of black people to kill. They happened on a couple out on a stroll. Two of the GIs, Pvts. Jim Burmeister and Malcolm Wright, got out of the car and confronted Michael James and Jackie Burdern. Holding a 9mm pistol, Burmeister forced both to kneel and then fired several shots into their heads. Burmeister had told friends that although he had already been tattooed with a spider, a symbol of having killed for the cause, he wanted to officially earn the racist badge. The next morning, Burmeister was arrested as the principal shooter. When police searched his room, they turned up a virtual Nazi shrine, complete with swastika flags, white supremacist tracts, and bomb-making equipment. Co-defendant Wright, also charged with murder, appears to share Burmeister's white supremacist views, while Pvt. Randy Meadows, who had driven the car, was a gullible tag-along rather than a committed fascist.The heartlessness of the killings and the virulent racism of the killers stirred alarm, once again, about the extent of right-wing extremism in the military. The murders also touched off a brief feeding frenzy by the national media and provoked editorials deploring racism in uniform. But after interest died down, little changed. The Pentagon continued to insist that racism within the military is confined to a few sensational incidents, committed by a small number of individuals or an insignificant number of organized neo-Nazi or skinhead cells. The reality is quite different. Rather than isolated anomalies, these occurrences are simply the sensational side of a pervasive problem of institutionalized racism.READING THE HANDWRITING ON THE WALLEven before the killings, signs that there was a serious problem at Ft. Bragg were so blatant they could have been spelled out on a billboard. In fact, some were. After the April 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, the West Virginia-based National Alliance, one of the country's largest far-right groups, rented billboard space on the main road to the Army base. The message read: Enough! Let's Start Taking Back America and provided a toll-free number. The Alliance boasts in recruiting material that North Carolina "continues to be an excellent recruiting area." Dr. William Pierce, head of the Alliance, is also the author of the influential novel, The Turner Diaries, which endorses terrorism as a way to "take back" the government from oppressive usurpers. Although Pierce disavows violence, his book includes scenes glorifying the public hanging of Jews and blacks from lampposts, as well as a pivotal event in which FBI headquarters is destroyed by a fertilizer bomb at 9:15 a.m. (There has been speculation that alleged bomber Timothy McVeigh drew inspiration for the 9:02 a.m. attack on Oklahoma City from the book, which he had distributed.) Pierce acknowledges receiving inquiries from active duty GIs, but denies involvement in the bombing. Apparently, at least one of the alleged Fayetteville killers, Jim Burmeister, had been in contact with the Alliance, although local police say he didn't join because of political differences.COMMANDERS COVERED UP SKINHEAD PROBLEMSAfter the killings, a great deal of evidence surfaced indicating that Ft. Bragg's commanders had ignored or suppressed many incidents of skinhead or neo-Nazi criminality on or near the base.** On numerous occasions from October 1994 to June 1995, Ft. Bragg-area skinheads attacked college students. Local police reported their suspicions that Ft. Bragg GIs were involved, but Army officials took no action. ** Ft. Bragg officials also ignored a complaint from a Pennsylvania district attorney and the FBI reporting that they had taped a call from Burmeister to his hometown police chief, Tom Rivenburgh. In it, Burmeister, later charged with the December murders, had threatened to blow up Rivenburgh's house because the cop had given a traffic citation to the GI's friend. In the same call, Burmeister boasted that he could smuggle grenade launchers and armor-piercing bullets out of Ft. Bragg. ** On April 1, 1995, Ed Worthington, an Army skinhead, shot another GI skinhead near the base. No Army investigation was launched until months later -- after the December 7 slayings. Other evidence of a problem was in plain sight. Although some racists are secretive about their views and their affiliations with hate groups, others wear their allegiance on their sleeves -- and backs. For identification, racist skinheads wear high and tight haircuts, black bomber flight jackets, and red laces in their Doc Marten boots. Their jackets sport patches such as Confederate flags, German eagles, "SS" or "88" (neo-Nazi lingo for Heil Hitler -- "H" is the eighth letter of the alphabet). Before the Fayetteville killings, military skinheads were often seen around the base and in nearby towns sporting such regalia.Despite visible evidence of extremist sympathy and activities, it was not until the highly publicized racial murders in Fayetteville that the Criminal Investigation Division (CIS) at Ft. Bragg launched a general probe. The command announced the results on January 8, 1996: Twenty-two soldiers were identified as active right-wing extremists and would be either discharged or prevented from re-enlisting. Current Army regulations bar soldiers from "active" membership in racist groups -- "active" being defined as demonstrating, recruiting, fundraising, or conducting training for such an organization. Department of Defense (DoD) officials have said that they can't prevent GIs from "passive" participation, such as receiving literature. CONGRESSIONAL WARNING IGNOREDNor, it seems, can they prevent passive response by the Army. Even before the Ft. Bragg murders drew national media attention, the Army should have been aware it had a potentially explosive problem on its hands and taken steps to deal with it. In December 1994, the House Armed Services Committee, then headed by Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Calif.), published a comprehensive report on the state of racial affairs within the US military. The committee sent investigators to 19 military bases at home and abroad where they interviewed 2,000 randomly selected GIs. They found that overt racism was "commonplace" at four of the bases and that inadequate training in racial awareness was a widespread problem.Preceding the Ft. Bragg murders by a year, the committee noted that white supremacist and skinhead activity was ongoing at several bases, with extremist activity at one unnamed base so intense that it "poses a threat to good order." The report concluded that "the frequency of [complaints] related to the grievance system, disciplinary process, career progress [assignment and promotion], equal opportunity training, and cross-cultural understanding points to a need for the Department of Defense to improve their equal opportunity efforts." When the Republicans took control of Congress following the 1994 elections, the leadership dropped plans for any further investigation or hearings on the Dellums committee's findings. PUTTING A SPIN ON INSTITUTIONAL RACISMAfter the Fayetteville murders, intense outrage both in and out of the military spurred Army Secretary Togo West to establish a Task Force on Extremist Activities. Ignoring recommendations to include non-military panelists, he named only high-ranking military officers and civilian military appointees. They sent investigators to 28 Army bases in the US and 12 overseas, where they interviewed 7,600 GIs. Another 17,000 soldiers were given a confidential 94-item questionnaire. The investigation was limited to looking for extremist activity and failed to examine in any detail the problems of institutional racism, including the explosive issues of equal opportunity and racial awareness training.Nor, say critics, did West take the Ft. Bragg killings seriously enough to order a "stand down" during which all ordinary activities would cease for a day so that the Army could focus on its policies on extremism. (The Navy and Marines had called one-day stand downs in response to the Tailhook and other sexual harassment scandals.) Speaking five months after the Fayetteville killings, West acknowledged that "We do not at the present have any training about extremism groups, about extremism, about the army's policies for that first [training] block when a person enters the army. ... We have lots of blocks of instruction about things that are important to the Army, but nothing about extremism, no training, so we are looking to do that." The Army did, however, announce in April 1996, that it would start tackling racism by emphasizing "character development" in its training.It is likely that the Clinton administration was pleased when West's task force found only minimal evidence of extremist activity and was relieved when most media highlighted this spin. The report's own data, however, belie that conclusion. For one thing, 3.5 percent of the GIs who responded via the confidential survey stated that they had been approached to join an extremist group since enlisting. Twice as many (7 percent) said that they knew another soldier whom they believed to be a member of an extremist organization, while 11.6 percent reported that they knew a soldier who held extremist views. Finally, 17.4 percent said they had some "contact" with racist or extremist material. Rather than showing minimal exposure, these numbers suggest that far-right outreach among GIs is not isolated to a few cases.The Task Force report also noted that some senior Army commanders feared that Special Operations units are "targeted by the militia movement." West confirmed that there are "cells off-post of those who openly boast that they'd like to recruit among our members." Apparently they have met with considerable success. Applying these numbers to the half million-member Army, the task force's findings mean that some 17,500 GIs were solicited for recruitment, while 87,000 have had contact with white supremacist publications. LOCALS DOCUMENT PATTERNS OF RACISMCommunity groups also responded to the killings. The North Carolina NAACP put together a citizens' task force to gather information about extremists and conducted ad hoc community "speak outs" for active-duty GIs at Ft. Bragg and several other large North Carolina military bases, including the Marine Corps' Camp Lejeune, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, and the Cherry Point Marine Air Station. Its report, summarizing testimony by active-duty GIs, detailed numerous overt acts of racism, such as displaying hangman nooses from the windows of pickup trucks and using racial epithets to describe minority GIs.As did both the Dellums and West investigations, the NAACP found institutional racism. Many minority GIs, it reported, complained of an "old boys' network" within the command which resulted in blacks receiving less favorable assignments and harsher punishment when disciplinary action was taken. A Government Accounting Office (GAO) study released a month before the Fayetteville killings also corroborated the problem of routine discrimination, finding that African Americans are less likely to be promoted in the military. Although the GAO report did not conclude that racism caused this disparity, it did recommend that the Pentagon improve its monitoring of equal opportunity programs. VERY SPECIAL FORCESOne of the findings by Secretary West's task force also cut against an optimistic view of race relations. The report noted a "dramatic decrease" in minority participation in the combat arms (infantry, armor, and artillery). This trend toward white-only units is even more pronounced in the elite Special Operations forces. Such racial separatism could lead to problems, the report warned, because it "foster[s] supremacist attitudes among white combat soldiers." In the all-volunteer army, these units carry a certain macho prestige and appeal to the more gung-ho enlistees. "The more you get into the killing trades," writes Canadian military historian Desmond Morton, "the more likely you are to get people from small towns and other back-of-beyond places, who don't have a great education or career prospects otherwise. They're keen on adventure. They're not here to learn a trade." Unfortunately, the panel did not attempt to analyze why minorities seem to be moving away from combat and Special Forces assignments. One possible explanation is that blacks are more likely to enlist in the first place because of limited job opportunities in civilian life and are drawn to units that teach skills that can be transferred to civilian life. Another is that the white Special Forces members intimidate or harass minority recruits, thus limiting their numbers. BRAGGING RIGHTSWhatever the reason, this trend toward lily-white Special Forces units is ominous. Ft. Bragg is considered a world center where elite special forces from armies around the world come for training in combat techniques and leadership. Apparently, not only the macho, "hell for leather" spirit of the 82nd Airborne and Special Forces, but also some of the racism may rub off on the hundreds of international special forces including troops from Germany, France, Great Britain, the Ukraine, and Australia who train at Ft. Bragg for varying periods each year. According to Kenneth Stern, the American Jewish Committee's expert on hate groups, the problem is not confined to the US and Canada. Australia's army "had recent problems with right-wing cells." The Canadian example, however, is the most dramatic. After members of the 660-man Canadian Airborne Regiment trained at Ft Bragg, it adopted Confederate flags and perhaps other habits. According to Morton, "the regiment was spending too much time down at Ft. Bragg, picking up the ethos and gung-ho fighting spirit of the 82nd Airborne. This is Americanization," he said. "The Confederate flag is hardly what you would call an enduring Canadian symbol. I think an absolute rule should be that a Canadian soldier be allowed only a single trip to Ft. Bragg. They're taught that they're superior beings. They jump out of airplanes and they're given silver wings for it. And then they're licensed to do things criminals do."Members of the 2-Commando unit of the Airborne Regiment took that license literally while serving in Somalia as part of the international peacekeeping force. Canadians were appalled to learn that regiment members had tortured and murdered a Somali teenager whom they suspected of theft and had photographed the crime. It was one of several illegal killings carried out by the group.There was no doubt that racism was an important ingredient in the crimes and a persistent component of military life in Somalia. Some of the troops had renamed "Operation Restore Hope," "Operation Smash Niggers." A video taken by another Canadian commando unit which depicted hazing rituals in the elite unit showed recruits simulating anal and oral sex and being forced to eat vomit and bread soaked in their urine. The unit's lone black recruit was put on a dog leash and forced to walk on all fours with the words "I love the KKK" scrawled on his back in human excrement. In May 1993, the CBC investigative news program, The Fifth Estate, broke the story that several members of the unit were known neo-Nazis. Recently, an internal Canadian Army document surfaced which confirmed that some soldiers had been dispatched to Somalia despite a recommendation that their histories of mental instability or potentially inflammatory racist views disqualified them from the peacekeeping mission.In the wake of a national furor, the Canadian unit was ordered disbanded and an inquiry begun. It continues amid charges of a government cover-up reaching to the highest levels of the Defense Ministry. Duncan McWaters, of Esprit de Corps, a Canadian military magazine, expects revelations that will confirm an even closer US link to the Canadian troops involved in the murders. McWaters claims that there were "two four-man [US] A-Team Special Forces personnel stationed with the Canadian tour. From the information gathered, they apparently wore Canadian uniforms in an attempt to keep their involvement secret from the locals. (It is a violation of military law and regulation for US troops to don foreign uniforms unless given a lawful order by their commanders.) On March 3, 1993, a US sergeant, Robert Deeks, Special Forces, was killed during a mine patrol. On March 4, a Somali civilian was killed allegedly in retaliation for the death." He was reportedly executed by Canadian commandos with a shot to the head as he was lying on the ground. CASTING A NETThese links are particularly worrisome in light of evidence that organized hate groups within the military may be trying to set up an international as well as a national right-wing network. The Special Forces Underground, which claims that most of its members are active duty Special Forces troops, publishes The Resister in hard copy and on the Internet. The quarterly newsletter advocates "strict constitutionalism, isolationism, individual rights, laissez-faire capitalism, limited government, and republicanism" and "features detailed critiques of current US military policies and operations." It opposes what it sees as a dangerous expansion of federal power and US participation in peacekeeping missions abroad. While the organization aggressively promotes its views through The Resister, by guarding its membership lists, makes it impossible to determine whether it constitutes a significant movement or is just a gathering of a few overheated zealots. Interestingly, the Army, which acknowledges the existence of the group, ruled that the Special Forces Underground was not an "extremist organization" as defined by its regulations.In any case, a recent issue of The Resister attracted attention with its harsh critique of the destruction of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, in April 1993. The article asserted that an Army Special Forces unit assigned to Joint Task Force-6 (JTF-6) at Ft. Bliss, Texas, offered direct support and pre-mission training to the BATF forces who took part in the raid and that this role violated federal law prohibiting the US military from performing domestic police functions. According to The Resister, JTF-6 provided four kinds of operational support through Operation Alliance: reconnaissance; training; logistics; and research, development, and acquisition. The newsletter argues that this integration of military and police forces "has been exploited by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to militarize the forces at their disposal." DID GREEN BERETS UNDERMINE THE US MISSION IN HAITI?Another issue of The Resister, widely circulated on the Internet, claimed that right-wing Green Berets sympathetic to the Haitian coup government were able to undermine US military goals during Operation Restore Democracy in Haiti. The article begins with a scathing, racist condemnation of Aristide and the Lavalas movement. The far-right FRAPH (Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti) is described as "the equivalent of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion forming a political party." The hated "attaches" -- armed civilian thugs who worked with local police or military units -- are described as nothing more than a "community-watch organization."The article's most explosive claim is that Special Forces members serving in Haiti met with and advised senior NCOs of the now defunct Haitian military, attaches, and FRAPH members:"First, we [told] the most active anti-communist Attaches and FRAPH members to take long vacations ... on the other side of the island [the Dominican Republic]. Second, we informed them about plans and timetables for weapons confiscation and told them how to [hide] their functional firearms. ... Third, we identified the Lavalas leadership, their friends and associates, and collected from [the Haitian army] information about Lavalas they had. Fourth, we told FRAPH members to stay out of politics and...let the communists expose their true agendas. Fifth, we waged a clandestine offensive against Lavalas [details omitted by The Resister's editor] which in our operational areas [drove] the leadership back underground. Finally, we established an escape line to help [our Haitian allies] under threat of arrest ... to reach relative safety in the Dominican Republic."When former Army Capt. Larry Rockwood, who served with Operation Restore Democracy, was shown this document, he commented: "It sounds a lot like the views of most of the senior officers I served with in Haiti. They made no attempt to hide their contempt for the average Haitian."A spokesperson for Brig. Gen. Richard W. Potter, Jr., commander of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Haiti, told the New York Times that he considered The Resister's account of military activities in Haiti "ridiculous." But in the wake of the publicity, Lt. Gen. J.T. Scott, Special Operations commander, issued a memo reiterating the rules on extremist groups and ordering a survey of Special Forces troops. Not surprisingly, none of the 1,111 respondents admitted violating Army regulations by participating in extremist groups. Although many observers find the Special Forces Underground's self-proclaimed activities incredible, the existence and widespread dissemination of the claims are in themselves disturbing. FACING RIGHTIt is difficult to evaluate how serious the long-term threat of extremists in uniform is. Obviously, at least some GIs are being actively targeted for recruitment, but it would be easy to exaggerate the danger. As Gary Wills has written, paranoia about paranoids is itself dangerous.During a recent visit to Ft. Bragg, I observed vehicles on and off base with bumper stickers that implied or stated racist sympathies. Some featured a confederate flag along with slogans such as "The South Was Right"; another had a drawing of the US capitol flying a rebel flag with the caption "I Have a Dream." Army technical manuals, such as Incendiaries or Unconventional Warfare Devices, which provide how-to instructions on building a booby-trap bomb in your basement, are widely available in stores ringing the base. One clerk reported that sales were "excellent."Does this mean that dozens of right-wing GIs are hard at work on new fertilizer bombs to bring down symbols of the hated federal bureaucracy or are organizing hate groups armed and trained with taxpayer dollars? It is impossible to say. What is clear is that some groups, such as the Special Forces Underground, are working hard to influence and perhaps recruit new military converts to their cause.The US military prides itself on its racial policies and, indeed, has made progress since World War II, when all units were segregated. Its waning commitment to equal opportunity and affirmative action is disturbing not only because of its implications for the military, but because it reflects a process occurring throughout US society. A federal appeals court recently junked an affirmative action program for admission to the law school at the University of Texas. In 1995, the University of California Board of Regents voted to end affirmative action programs throughout its vast system. Similar decisions are occurring in other regions. The US Supreme Court is expected to address the issue in the near future with years of racial progress hanging in the balance.According to former Army intelligence officer Rockwood, Army commanders not only monitor the politics of the troops, but discipline those who hold unacceptable views. For example, "during my four years as an intelligence officer in Central America, if any GI had expressed the slightest criticism of the Reagan Doctrine, they would have been stripped of their security clearance and sent home. So it's a question of what your views are, not whether the command knows what's going on. Believe me, they do." *40 The other question is what they are going to do about it.