Do military veterans support extremist groups more than the average American?

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Extremist groups on both ends of the political spectrum have become a real concern in the U.S. in recent years. One concern is that military veterans may favor these radical positions. Now, despite fears that it could be higher, new research reports that support for extremism is not growing among military veterans compared to the general U.S. public. If anything, the survey suggests veterans are less likely to back these groups.

Researchers from the RAND Corporation surveyed a nationally representative group of military veterans, discovering support for extremist groups like the Proud Boys or Antifa appears to be generally lower than rates from previous surveys of the general U.S. population.

Regarding support for extremist beliefs, however, results were more mixed. Veteran support for QAnon was lower than the public, while support for political violence and the Great Replacement theory appeared quite similar to that of the general public. Notably, among the different branches of military, veterans of the U.S. Marine Corps expressed the most support for both extremist groups and beliefs.

“We found no evidence to support the notion that the veteran community, as a whole, exhibits higher rates of support for violent extremist groups or extremist beliefs than the American public,” says Todd C. Helmus, the study’s lead author and a senior behavioral scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization, in a media release. “However, our findings do suggest work still may be needed to make sure veterans are not susceptible to being recruited by those with extremist ideologies.”

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Photo by Mathias Reding from Pexels

Concerns that the veteran community in particular is at an increased risk of radicalization to violent extremism has increased since the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Reports since then have confirmed a significant proportion of the people who stormed the Capitol on that day had been affiliated with the U.S. military.

Why would veterans be more vulnerable to radicalization?

To start, they are often sought after and actively recruited by extremist groups. Military experience is considered a big benefit to violent extremist groups, as veterans usually possess past weapon training, as well as logistical and leadership skills. They also lend a sense of legitimacy to militant groups that can help with recruiting efforts.

The veteran population is also more male and more White than the general U.S. population. Both of those demographic factors are associated with right-wing (and to a lesser degree, left-wing) extremism in the United States, according to researchers.

So, in an effort to better understand this complex issue, RAND researchers put together the first nationally representative survey analyzing veterans’ views about both extremism and extremist groups. They surveyed veterans from the NORC AmeriSpeak panel. In all, the survey included 989 people who reported that they previously served and were on active duty but were not currently doing so.

Respondents were asked about extremist groups like Antifa, the Proud Boys, and other white supremacist groups. Questions also covered attitudes toward QAnon ideology, support for political violence, and the xenophobic Great Replacement theory.

Fewer veterans expressed support for Antifa than the overall U.S. population (5.5% vs. 10%). Veterans also expressed much lower support for White supremacists than the U.S. population overall (0.7% versus 7%). Vet­erans expressed relatively less support for the Proud Boys (4.2% vs. 9%) and the QAnon conspiracy theory (13.5% vs. 17%) as well. Roughly five percent of respondents expressed support for Black nationalist groups.

Nearly 1 in 5 supported political violence

While those findings are quite positive, support for both the neces­sity of political violence (17.7 vs. 19%) and the Great Replacement theory (28.8% vs. 34%) were very similar to support in the general U.S. popula­tion. Only a minority of veterans who expressed support for extremist groups also endorsed the necessity of political violence.

Marine Corps veterans reported the highest levels of support for Antifa, the Proud Boys, and Black nationalists, as well as the highest levels of support for political violence and the Great Replacement theory. Both Air Force and Marine Corps veterans, meanwhile, tended to show stronger support for QAnon.

“Given the anecdotal information about extremist group recruitment preferences and their active targeting of veterans, we would have assumed that these reported prevalence rates would be higher,” Helmus adds.

Study authors theorize that veterans who support such groups may be more inclined to actually join them or participate in their activities than their non-veteran counterparts. Thus, even a smaller prevalence of extremist attitudes among veterans could still represent a major security threat to the United States.

“It seems clear that veter­ans bring a unique and danger­ous set of capabilities to extremist groups,” concludes Ryan Andrew Brown, co-author of the study and a RAND senior behavioral scientist. “So even a smaller prevalence rate of extremist attitudes among veterans could still represent an outsized security threat to the United States.”

“It seems clear that veter­ans bring a unique and danger­ous set of capabilities to extremist groups,” adds Brown. “So even a smaller prevalence rate of extremist attitudes among veterans could still represent an outsized security threat to the United States.”

In conclusion, the research team suggests that U.S. military and veteran service organizations continue to explore what is driving some active-duty person­nel and veterans to endorse extremist beliefs and join extremist groups. Such efforts could include additional survey work and interview-based studies aimed at helping researchers better understand the underlying factors driving radicalization.

The full report is available here.

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