Some of the trickier lessons to teach cadets at the Air Force Academy, at least for me, were the lessons we spent on the Bill of Rights, and the First Amendment in particular. My goal was to convince the cadets that the only way free speech is truly protected is when people are free to say the most horrific and outrageous ideas they wish to espouse. I also taught them that a freedom to say or write an offensive statement does not mean the speaker is somehow immune to the consequences. If you, for example, work for Sears, your right to say “Sears tires are terrible” is protected, but Sears can and will still fire you for observation. Simply put, free speech is free, but not without consequence.
That said, I would then tell the cadets that what I just championed was true for civilians, but not quite as true for military folks. We were entrusted, I pointed out to these future officers, with profound and far-reaching duties and responsibilities. For example, before I came to USAFA to teach, I was first an ICBM launch officer — one of those “underground, finger on the button” people shrouded in mystery. My brothers and sisters in arms fly ridiculously high-priced aircraft, drive big tanks, and slip under the oceans of the world in billion-dollar subs. I was, at the end of my career, also patrolling as a military cop, entrusted with a high-power automatic weapon and lots of bullets. We are given, I’d preach to the cadets, extraordinary responsibilities and powers, and thus a higher standard of behavior is appropriate for military members.
Which brings me to white supremacists and their place (or rather lack of) in today’s military service.
A recent news story reported on the Air Force investigating an airman posted to Schriever Air Force Base, alleged to be an active member of a white supremacy website. And here is where it starts to get a bit trickier for military folks than civilians. (I admit, when I see the words “white supremacist,” my very first reaction is always the same two words: “to whom?” I have yet to see an interview with a white supremacist who struck me as scholarly, thoughtful, clever or even smart.)
There are lots and lots of jobs out there wherein a worker is never asked about group memberships or political opinions, but the U.S. military is most assuredly not one of them. We military folks (actually including retired folks like me, still) fall under the oft-mentioned UCMJ, or Uniform Code of Military Justice. The UCMJ is the bedrock of military justice, and it includes a number of “laws” that are far more restrictive of military folks than civilian law is to civilians. For example, if you lied about your age to get a job at the Olive Garden, they might fire you when they find out. Try that in the military, and you might end up facing actual charges. Adultery is an example of a criminal statute that exists for military folks but not for civilians.
Which again (Ed: finally!) brings me back to so-called white supremacists.
The delusional set of beliefs held by this group are, simply put, incompatible with military service. Yes, there are things you can believe that are so extreme, so offensive, that the military services of the United States don’t want you. The presence of a white supremacist in a unit would be damaging to unit cohesion and good order and discipline. So, we don’t want them in any uniform of the United States, and I never wanted to serve with any. During my 25-plus years of active duty, if I had had a young lieutenant come work for me who then spewed out that vicious doctrine, my duty would have been to work for his removal from the military.
There is a certain irony in how the part of government most directly charged with protecting fundamental rights cannot give its own members a break when it comes to such deeply un-American thinking. But the fact is simple — an organization that would seek to safeguard our future must be free of those, from any political perspective, that espouse a doctrine of hate. I’m very proud to have spent my adult life in such an organization, and I’m honored to still be under the Code in retirement. Freedom, as they say, isn’t free. White supremacists need not apply.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.