Support for extremism among military veterans is similar to U.S. public

A recent report by the RAND Corporation suggests that support for extremist groups and ideas among military veterans is similar to or even lower than the levels found in the general U.S. population. This finding contradicts concerns that support among veterans could be higher.

The researchers conducted a survey among a group of military veterans that represented the entire nation. They discovered that the level of support for extremist groups like the Proud Boys and Antifa among veterans was generally lower compared to the rates obtained from previous surveys conducted with a representative sample of the general U.S. population.

When examining the level of support for extremist beliefs among veterans, the researchers discovered mixed results. Support for QAnon among veterans was lower compared to the general public. However, when it came to support for political violence and the Great Replacement theory, the findings indicated that the levels of support were similar between veterans and the general population.

The survey found that veterans of the Marine Corps expressed the highest support for extremist groups and beliefs among the different branches of military.

Todd C. Helmus, the lead author of the study and a senior behavioral scientist at the nonprofit research organization RAND, stated that their findings did not provide any evidence to support the belief that the veteran community, as a whole, has higher rates of support for violent extremist groups or extremist beliefs compared to the general American public. However, Helmus noted that the study’s findings do highlight the importance of continued efforts to ensure that veterans are not susceptible to recruitment by individuals with extremist ideologies.

There is growing concern about the potential for radicalization to violent extremism within the veteran community. This concern has intensified due to reports indicating that a notable number of individuals involved in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, had either current or prior affiliations with the U.S. military.

There are several factors that are believed to contribute to the radicalization of veterans and why certain extremist groups specifically target both active-duty and military veterans. Veterans are seen as valuable assets for these groups due to their prior training in weapons, as well as their logistical and leadership skills. Additionally, their association with the military can lend a sense of legitimacy to militant organizations, making it easier for them to recruit new members.

Researchers have observed that the veteran population in the United States has a higher proportion of males and White individuals compared to the general population. These demographic factors have been associated with a higher likelihood of engaging in right-wing extremism, and to some extent, left-wing extremism as well, within the United States.

In order to gain a deeper understanding of the issue, researchers from RAND conducted the first-ever nationally representative survey to assess the perspectives of veterans regarding extremism and extremist groups. This survey aimed to provide valuable insights into the attitudes and opinions of veterans on this subject.

Researchers surveyed a group of veterans from the NORC AmeriSpeak panel, analyzing responses from 989 people who reported that they previously served on active duty, but were not currently doing so.

During the survey, participants were asked various questions regarding their views on extremist groups such as Antifa, the Proud Boys, and white supremacist groups. They were also queried about their attitudes toward the QAnon ideology, support for political violence, and their stance on the xenophobic Great Replacement theory. By exploring these specific topics, the researchers aimed to gather comprehensive data on the participants’ perspectives and beliefs related to extremism.

The survey revealed that a significantly smaller percentage of veterans expressed support for Antifa compared to the overall U.S. population. Similarly, veterans showed much lower levels of support for White supremacist groups compared to the general population. The study also found that veterans had relatively less support for the Proud Boys and the QAnon conspiracy theory compared to the wider population. Additionally, around 5% of the participants expressed support for Black nationalist groups. These findings provide insights into the varying levels of support for these different extremist groups among veterans.

In spite of these promising results, the level of endorsement for political violence (17.7% versus 19%) and the Great Replacement theory (28.8% versus 34%) remained comparable to that of the general population in the United States. It’s worth noting that among the veterans who expressed support for extremist groups, only a minority also endorsed the idea of resorting to political violence.

The research findings revealed that Marine Corps veterans displayed the highest levels of support for various groups such as Antifa, the Proud Boys, and Black nationalists. Additionally, they demonstrated elevated levels of support for political violence and the Great Replacement theory. Both Air Force and Marine Corps veterans exhibited stronger support for QAnon compared to other groups.

“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 said.

According to researchers, there is a possibility that veterans who express support for these groups are more likely to actively join or participate in their activities compared to nonveterans. Therefore, even if the prevalence rate of extremist attitudes among veterans is relatively lower, it could still pose a significant security threat to the United States due to the potential for their active involvement.

Ryan Andrew Brown, the co-author of the study and a senior behavioral scientist at RAND, emphasized that veterans possess distinct and potentially hazardous skills and capabilities that make them valuable assets for extremist groups. As a result, even if the prevalence rate of extremist attitudes among veterans is relatively low, it still holds the potential to pose an exaggerated security threat to the United States.

Researchers recommend that the U.S. military and veteran service organizations should maintain their focus on investigating the underlying factors that lead certain active-duty personnel and veterans to endorse extremist beliefs and engage in extremist causes. To achieve this, they propose conducting further surveys and interview-based studies. These efforts would contribute to a better understanding of the drivers of radicalization, enabling the development of more effective strategies to address and prevent extremist behavior within military and veteran communities.

The study received support from the Epstein Family Foundation, established by Daniel J. Epstein, which provided funding for the RAND Epstein Family Veterans Policy Research Institute in 2021. Additionally, support was also provided by the Pritzker Military Foundation on behalf of the Pritzker Military Museum and Library. The contributions from these foundations played a crucial role in facilitating the research conducted by the study.

The report, “Prevalence of Veteran Support for Extremist Groups and Extremist Beliefs: Results From a Nationally Representative Survey of the U.S. Veteran Community,” is available at Rajeev Ramchand also co-authored the report.

The RAND Justice Policy Program conducts research across the criminal and civil justice system on issues such as public safety, effective policing, drug policy and enforcement, corrections policy, court reform, and insurance regulation.

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