For most of the 20th century, the veteran population of the United States was very large, thanks to two world wars that mobilized millions of men and women into the military, as well as several smaller wars and a peacetime draft that lasted from 1948-1973. In 1980, with a total population of 226 million, the U.S. had 28.5 million veterans. Indeed, veterans constituted such a sizable percentage of the adult male population that their appearance in some numbers among extremist and fringe groups and movements was to be expected.
Today, because of the passing of older veterans and decreased size of the U.S. military, the proportion of Americans who are veterans is smaller. In 2020, with a population of 330 million, the U.S. has about 18 million veterans, according to the Census Bureau (the Veterans Administration estimates 19 million). Still, despite dropping from 12.6% of the population to 5.5%, the current number of 18 million veterans is still a very large population pool, large enough to be representative of broader American society in many respects—including the presence of extremists. Because extremists of various kinds exist in American society, we should expect to see their presence among American veterans as well. The question then becomes not whether or not there are extremists who have served in the military but rather one of whether there may be a disproportionate presence of extremists within the veteran population.
In addition to the broad issue of extremists in the general veteran population, there historically has also been a second, quite different issue of concern related to extremism and veterans. This is the long-standing issue of high-ranking former military officers joining extremist causes after their retirement. In America’s professional and apolitical military, serving officers are taught to keep their political opinions to themselves. Most—though not all—officers abide by such strictures. However, once they have retired, they are free to go wherever their ideological inclinations lead them—and for some, it is towards extremist causes.
One of the most prominent military figures to do so, as described by historian Joseph W. Bendersky, was the rabidly antisemitic Major General George Van Horn Mosely, whose retirement from the Army in the late 1930s allowed him more openly to promote Jewish Communist conspiracy theories and praise groups like the pro-Hitler German-American Bund.
During the 1950s and 1960s, a number of retired high-ranking military officers became prominent opponents of desegregation, promoters of right-wing conspiracy theories, and leaders in a variety of far right causes. These included U.S. Army Generals Edwin Walker and Edward Almond, Rear Admiral John Crommelin, Jr., and USMC Lieutenant General Pedro del Valle, among others. Some may have gone beyond mere promotion; there is evidence to suggest that Crommelin may have been tied to the 1958 bombing of a synagogue in Atlanta.
Former high-ranking military officers have been involved in extremist causes in more recent years as well. After the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, retired Air Force Brigadier General Benton K. Partin emerged as one of the most influential OKC bombing conspiracy theorists. In the 2000s, William G. Boykin, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general, became an outspoken anti-Muslim ideologue, helping to produce the report “Shariah: The Threat to America” for the anti-Muslim Center for Security Policy. Boykin currently is an executive vice-president with the anti-LGBT+ group Family Research Council.
More recently, retired brigadier general Anthony Tata, who served in the Trump Administration, also promoted anti-Muslim views, as well as calling former President Barack Obama a “terrorist leader” and a Muslim. Michael Flynn, another retired general and Trump Administration figure, has connections to the anti-Muslim group ACT for America and became a promoter of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
One of the more enduring problems involving veterans and extremism, then, is the involvement of former high-ranking—and thus high-profile—military figures in far-right causes and conspiracy theories.