Justin Reynolds (second from left) with members of his C-17 crew.

Mandatory Service Can Solve the U.S. Military’s Extremism Problem

By Justin Reynolds, Truman Defense Council

On November 3rd, while most Americans were watching the Presidential election, I was at the controls of a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III. My crew on that flight — seven men dressed in our tactical uniforms, all but one of us white — fit the image most Americans have of their military. Disturbingly, it’s also the image many Americans have of the mob that stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

One in five of those charged in the Capitol riots were veterans, and a recently released Pentagon report found that a small but disturbing number of serving military members were affiliated with extremist, white nationalist, or racist groups. These extremists threaten to erode America’s unique trust in its military. This crisis of trust is why policy makers should heed the growing calls and bipartisan support for mandatory service requirements for young Americans.

Many who stormed the Capitol looked like they just walked out of a Call of Duty cosplay convention. Decked out in tactical gear, their intent was to terrorize Congress — and specifically Mike Pence — into overthrowing an election by appropriating the trust and legitimacy of the American military. While some were actually veterans, most were just doing their best to look the part. Unfortunately, with the smallest percentage of Americans serving in uniform in our history, many citizens without personal connections to the military bought their act.

Military leaders are taking overdue steps to address extremism in the force. Secretary of Defense Austin’s decision to pause operations and training for an extremism “stand down” is warranted, but solving this issue will take more than the perfunctory corporate lessons troops are accustomed to hearing. More effective — and feasible — than ferreting out every member with extremist sympathies is making those members insignificant within military culture by tapping deeper into the diversity and collective strength of America.

Mandatory service would re-forge Americans’ connections to an increasingly insulated but also increasingly diverse military. As of 2015, 15% of the active-duty military were women, up from 11% in 1990 and fully 40% were from an ethnic or racial minority, up from 25% in 1990. And while a disproportionally high number of white men still occupy General officer billets, this too is changing.

The military has undoubtedly benefited from a more diverse force. I know I have. On my first combat deployment my Aircraft Commander, an Asian-American woman, taught me to fly while under enemy fire. The best commander I ever served under was a Black man who now wears three stars on his shoulders. And the husband of one of the most respected (read: feared) men in my Reserve squadron won the ‘spouse of the year’ award at our annual banquet. Mandatory military service would build on the success of policies that integrated the force, allowed women into combat roles, and permitted LGBTQ individuals to serve openly.

Mandatory military service might break us out of our narrowing social-economic and political echo chambers. Take my election night crew. We were raised in liberal East Coast cities, conservative southern towns, and outside of the U.S.; some had parents who went to college some hadn’t themselves; and while some came from military families others were the first to serve. If it hadn’t been for the military we likely wouldn’t have shared a zip code, let alone a cockpit. Our election night straw poll taken somewhere over the Pacific Ocean ended in a draw, roughly matching a Military Times poll conducted a month earlier. But while our crew differed in politics, upbringing, and social economic realities, our shared military service provided us two increasingly rare commodities: common ground and mutual respect.

As our military takes steps to remove the dishonor brought on us by the small but significant number of racists, white nationalists, and extremists in our ranks, we must actively seek new perspectives and fresh thinking from a greater pool of Americans. Giving more U.S. citizens skin-in-the-game might keep us from pursuing decades-long wars; drawing from a wider talent pool might bring new thinking to national defense; and spending time in a government bureaucracy could be the antidote to conspiracy theories that imagine a cabal of 3D-chess-playing masterminds.

Mandatory service gives us the chance to build and recruit a military force that reflects America as it is now — more diverse in thought, race, gender, sexual orientation, and social circumstance than any America before it. And more capable of meeting the future national security challenges our diverse nation is destined to face.

Justin Reynolds is a Lt. Col. in the United States Air Force Reserve, holds a Master in Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and is currently a student at the National Defense University’s Joint Combined Warfare School. His views are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government. Twitter: @justinrreynolds

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We unite veteran, frontline civilian, political, & policy leaders to develop & advance strong, smart & principled solutions to global challenges Americans face.

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