Nearly all of the nation’s top military leaders unequivocally condemned racism in public messages Wednesday, posing a stark and unusual contrast to President Donald Trump’s remarks that both white supremacists and counterprotesters were equally to blame for the violent clashes in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend.
The brass did not mention Trump specifically but made clear they would not tolerate racism in the ranks, after it was revealed that some former troops attended and helped organize the deadly white supremacist rally that singled out minorities and Jews.
Dillon Ulysses Hopper, who helped to organize the protest in Charlottesville, reportedly served in the Marine Corps, including tours overseas and time as a recruiter. James Alex Fields Jr., who is accused of running over counter protesters with his car, killing one woman, also reportedly washed out of Army basic training. And NBC reported Wednesday that a leading neo-Nazi recently re-tweeted by Trump is an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve whose security clearance has been revoked.
“The Army doesn’t tolerate racism, extremism, or hatred in our ranks,” Army Chief Gen. Mark Milley tweeted early Wednesday, one of a number of members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to feel the need to restate the military’s commitment to diversity. “It’s against our Values and everything we’ve stood for since 1775.”
He was joined by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, the only member of the Joint Chiefs who is Jewish, who tweeted that “we’re always stronger together.”
The charge was led by Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, who after the clashes on Saturday posted on Facebook that the Navy “will forever stand against intolerance and hatred.”
By Wednesday, virtually all the top military brass weighed in.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller lent his voice, tweeting “No place for racial hatred or extremism” in the Marines.
“Our diversity is our strength,” added Gen. Joseph Lengyel, the chief of the National Guard.
Over the years the military has periodically had problems with troops who have ties to white supremacist groups, some of which have encouraged their followers to join the armed forces, said Jason Dempsey, a former Army officer who is now a researcher at the Center for a New American Security.
He said he believes the generals’ recent statements condemning racism are not intended to take on Trump directly but to ensure that the controversy does not harm morale.
It “most likely had to do with how does the force react, and is it going to cause issues with good order and discipline with having military paraphernalia and some military emblems being seen at a white nationalist rally,” he said. “Normally, if this was any other issue, the chiefs would absolutely stay silent, even if they thought it was going to threaten good order and discipline. It’s a combination of a threat to good order and discipline and the fact that this is all kind of settled by law.”
Trump initially took heat for a statement Saturday in which he blamed “many sides” for the violence. On Monday, he sought to remedy that, condemning the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and saying “racism is evil.”
But after he was criticized for the delay, Trump let loose in a news conference Tuesday in which he said there were “very fine people” among those marching in protest of the planned removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, and he defended monuments to Confederate figures.
Military leaders, however, are clearly seeking to distance their organizations from the rally’s participants, some of whom wore military regalia.
For example, the 82nd Airborne Division, whose paratroopers fought Nazis during World War II, condemned a man at the Charlottesville rally wearing a hat with the unit’s insignia.
“Anyone can purchase that hat,” the 82nd Airborne wrote on Twitter. “Valor is earned.”
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