Irregular Army: How the US Military Recruited Neo-Nazis, Gang Members, and Criminals to Fight the War on Terror, Matt Kennard, Verso, 288 pages

By Clark Stooksbury
April 8, 2013

Since the Vietnam War, America’s more successful interventions have been brief. That war engendered a legitimacy crisis in the United States military. Domestically, large numbers of young men resisted the draft or took advantage of deferments, but conscription still kept the armed forces supplied with men. In Vietnam, the military was riven by drug use, racial strife, and “fragging”—the assassination of unpopular officers by their troops. Operation Desert Storm in 1991 may be a model for a successful large-scale intervention post-Vietnam: the coalition allied with the United States dropped some bombs and sent an overwhelming ground force; Saddam capitulated while Lee Greenwood provided the soundtrack. If one ignores pesky issues such as the fate of Iraqi Kurds who were encouraged to rebel and the blowback from stationing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, the first Gulf War was a big success.

The United States fares worse when our goals are more ambitious and the enemy doesn’t quickly fold. When a volunteer army becomes bogged down in an unpopular war, protesters don’t fill the streets the way they did in 1969, and soldiers don’t “frag” their officers—people simply stop joining the military. The quest to fill that enlistment gap is where the investigative work of English journalist Matt Kennard comes in. In Irregular Army, Kennard documents a series of disturbing trends in the military: lowered standards, inadequately treated mental-health and substance-abuse problems, and the enlistment and retention of white supremacists, Nazis, and gang members.

Irregular Army begins with an investigation of undesirable elements who in years past would have had difficulty entering and staying in the military, such as racists and Nazi skinheads. Such extremists have made it into the military before—I briefly served in the Marine Corps in 1986 with someone who described himself as a racist skinhead—but Kennard provides background on how today the military often looks the other way to keep the ranks filled. He interviewed one neo-Nazi who had tattoos (a Celtic Cross and a Nordic warrior) that recruiters are supposed to flag. Forrest Fogarty’s story somewhat undercuts Kennard’s thesis, however, since he actually joined the Army prior to the War on Terror. He is something of a celebrity as the leader of the skinhead band Attack; he took leave in 2004 to play two concerts in Dresden, Germany. A bitter former girlfriend alerted the military to his leanings by sending pictures of him at neo-Nazi events, but that didn’t derail his military career. After his discharge the Southern Poverty Law Center intervened to keep him out of a job with a private military contractor.

Kennard’s confused timeline indicates that the seeds of the extremist infiltration problem existed before the Iraq War descended into a quagmire, although figures he received from the Department of Defense indicate that the military almost stopped the policy of denying reenlistment to undesirables at the height of the Iraq occupation, with the number of rejections falling from 4,000 in 1994 to a mere 81 in 2006.

Neo-Nazis have been joined in the military by members of African-American and Latino gangs. This came to light in an ugly and frightening fashion in 2005, when soldiers who were also members of the Chicago-based Gangster Disciples beat an Army sergeant to death in an initiation gone awry while stationed in Germany. Tracking gang membership in the military is difficult, as there is no specific prohibition against belonging to a gang, and according to Kennard the FBI “cannot gauge the problem of criminal gangs in the country’s fighting forces because the military [has] refused to report gang activity.” While the killing is the most disturbing gang-related incident reported in Irregular Army, Kennard reproduces numerous photos of gang graffiti in Iraq and military personnel flashing gang symbols, indicating that the 2005 incident was not simply a fluke.

Read more