By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (March 30, 2021) -- Across the Defense Department, in units large and small, commanders and leaders held stand downs to address extremism in the ranks. The direction for those stand downs came in early February from Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III.
By Thursday, as directed by the secretary, all those stand downs should be complete, every service member should have been involved in a conversation about extremism, and any feedback the services might think is important enough to share with department leadership will be readied for transmission upstream.
The overall goal of the 60-day stand down has not been about collecting information from the force, but rather, to reiterate to the force something they all heard the first day of their military or civilian service: the commitment they made to the U.S. military, Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said during a briefing Tuesday,
"It was meant to do two things: to reinforce our values and, specifically, the importance of the oath that everyone takes here to the Constitution and what that oath requires of you," Kirby told reporters. "There are active verbs in that oath that matter. And it was a chance to revisit what we've all promised to do, and what we've all promised to serve."
The stand down was also about listening to service members and civilians and their own feelings about extremism, he said.
"To get a sense from the men and women of the workforce about how they view this issue, if they have any lived experiences that they would be willing to share, and to solicit their ideas and thoughts," Kirby said. "It was not a data collection exercise."
Right now, Kirby said, the defense department doesn't have an idea about the scope of an extremism problem in the ranks. He said the service knows it's a problem greater than zero, but also likely not one that's as large as what some speculate.
"We don't have a perfect understanding of the scope of it," he said. "I think we want to get a better sense of it and the stand down was just a first step in doing that ... It's just a first step -- not meant to be a panacea, not meant to solve all the problems -- just to reorient everybody to the importance of service to this country in the Defense Department and the chance to listen to them."
Having hard numbers on extremism in the U.S. military was not a prerequisite to discuss the issue, Kirby said. That there are no numbers is, in itself, a reason to conduct a stand down.
"It is precisely because we don't have a complete granular body of knowledge about the full extent of the problem that we wanted to conduct this stand down and why the secretary wants to take the issue so seriously," he said. "I don't know that you have to have a specific set of data in front of you to know enough that you've got a problem."
While Kirby told reporters that Secretary Austin has said he doesn't believe the problem is as big as some believe it is, he's also said it does exist. The department, he said, needs to get a better idea of the problem.
"We owe it to the country ... the taxpayers that fund us and support us, to get a better sense of this," Kirby said. "The secretary has said, every time he talks about this, that the vast majority ... are serving this country, whether they're military or civilian, contractor or in uniform -- they're serving this country with honor and character and dignity, they uphold the values that we espouse, they certainly uphold their oath to the constitution."
When the extremism stand downs are complete, and the services have confirmed that to the department, what the next steps will be is unclear at this time. What is very clear, Kirby said, is that there will be follow-on efforts.
"I think you will see the secretary make some decisions about how he wants to approach this going forward," he said. "He wants this to be considered an ongoing enduring leadership issue and I think you'll see that reflected in whatever decisions he makes."