Five top U.S. military officers condemned bigotry following the white-nationalist led protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, even as President Donald Trump reverted to his initial position of blaming both sides for violence there.
Their comments appear to stray from those of Trump, who said the “alt-left” should also be held accountable.
“The shameful events in Charlottesville are unacceptable and must not be tolerated,” wrote Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson in a Facebook post on Saturday. “The Navy will forever stand against intolerance and hatred.”
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Following Trump’s impromptu news conference Tuesday, in which he doubled down on previous statements placing the blame “on many sides,” officials from the Marine Corps, Army and Air Force released statements.
“[There is] no place for racial hatred or extremism in [the U.S. Marine Corps,]” Commandant of the Marines, Robert B. Neller, tweeted on Tuesday.
On Wednesday the Army chief of staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, tweeted “The Army doesn’t tolerate racism, extremism, or hatred in our ranks.”
Later in the day, the Chief of Staff for the Air Force, Gen. Dave Goldfein, issued a statement in solidarity with his fellow service chiefs via Twitter: “We’re always stronger together.”
Chief of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. Joseph Lengyel, also took to Twitter Wednesday, stating "I stand with my fellow Joint Chiefs in condemning racism, extremism [and] hatred. Our diversity is our strength."
Jason Dempsey, an adjunct senior fellow for the Center for a New American Security, a think tank that explores military issues, said that past difficulties combatting white supremacists within the military ranks may be what caused the leaders to speak up.
“The U.S. military had a significant problem with white supremacists and Neo-Nazis in the late '80s, early '90s,” he said. “It was all codified that you cannot belong to these groups. You cannot espouse their views, you can’t say you’re a member.”
Since Saturday, it’s been revealed that two members of Vanguard America, one of the extremist groups involved in this weekend’s violent clashes, have links to the military.
One of those men was James A. Fields, who was accused of killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer when he drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors.
“James Alex Fields reported for basic military training in August of 2015,” Army Lt. Col. Jennifer Johnson stated in an email. “He was, however, released from active duty due to a failure to meet training standards in December of 2015.”
Dillon Ulysses Hopper, the alleged leader of Vanguard America, was identified by news website Splinter as a veteran and former Marine recruiter. A representative from Vanguard America told Splinter that Hopper became a white supremacist in 2012, one year after he started working as a recruiter. Several other news outlets including CNN, later reported that according to Hopper's service records, he was a member of the Marine Corps from 2006 until 2017.
Dempsey said the statements from the military leaders were most likely made in an attempt to reaffirm the military’s commitment to their rules barring hate groups and send a strong message to subordinates about what type of behavior is appropriate.
“None of them would directly go against the president just to go against the president, because that’s not the way the military was built,” said Dempsey, a combat veteran who previously served as a special assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “The chiefs were walking a very fine line but they saw a threat to the force.”
In a post-draft era, promoting acceptance and tolerance has become more of a priority for the military.
“For the first time since World War II, the military has to think about ‘What does our image look like? How are we going to recruit? How do we make sure we have a broad enough talent pool?’” Dempsey said.