Why We Should Screen Muslim Soldiers

As the Pentagon probes what happened at Fort Hood and Obama readies for a fresh surge in Afghanistan, retired Col. Ken Allard asks the hard questions the Army needs to put to Muslim soldiers.

Jay Janner / AP Photo

The memorials are behind us. The Pentagon’s investigation has only just begun. With the president set to send a fresh wave of troops into battle in Afghanistan, it is time to examine the really hard questions confronting us.

Were Army leaders guilty of political correctness in missing obvious warning signs about the radical Islamist leanings of Major Nidal Malik Hasan, Fort Hood’s accused mass murderer? Was it simple negligence or PC-induced spinelessness when authorities at Walter Reed Army Medical Center failed to investigate a psychiatrist-in-training who inexplicably suggested that his patients be tried as war criminals? Worse yet: Why was such an officer promoted to major and shipped off to Fort Hood instead of being separated for cause from the Army’s commissioned ranks?

After the Twin Towers fell, religion—specifically Islam—became an ambiguity, raising questions about the internal order of a military force drawn from a pluralist society.

Army Chief of Staff General George Casey drew fire immediately after the attack for urging that the murders at Fort Hood not descend into a “backlash against some of our Muslim soldiers.” In the New York Post last week, Bob McManus wrote that, because complex military systems require “extraordinary levels of trust,” the Army should suppress “Islamist crackpots” just as it does swastika-wielding white supremacists. But monitoring the possibility of divided loyalties among some of our Muslim soldiers is far more complex than keeping the Klan out of the ranks.

As it did elsewhere, the September 11th attacks blurred traditional military dividing lines. A soldier’s religion had always been a deeply personal question thought to reinforce basic patriotic values. However, after the Twin Towers fell, religion—specifically Islam—became an ambiguity, raising questions about the internal order of a military force drawn from a pluralist society. Those ambiguities grew more troubling as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan required soldiers to have a working familiarity with different Islamic cultures. Muslim soldiers brought clear advantages to our extended involvement in the Middle East, but the wars also threatened to pit their patriotic values against their religious ones, with potentially dangerous consequences. With few clear answers, the avoidance of ambiguity became a bureaucratic sacrament.

Had it been asked, history might have suggested some useful precedents. The American military establishment has always had considerable latitude to maintain good order and discipline—especially when offsetting history’s latest trump card. Even more than religious questions, the American military tradition has always regarded political judgments with an abiding distaste. Yet the Cold War demanded uncomfortable new distinctions. Traditional liberalism was good while democratic socialism provoked the uneasy but passing grade of neutral. Communism was an easy touchdown: evil incarnate and the preferred codeword for Russian imperialism. Soldiers with Marxist leanings had a tough time obtaining security clearances.

Like September 11, the Vietnam War erased many traditional guidelines. It also redefined the always-uneasy boundaries between patriotism and dissent. The Army was forced to defend core institutional values while struggling to apply them to the new uncertainties. A once-segregated Army that came to appreciate black talent now learned that black nationalism could be dangerous, especially if accompanied by military indoctrination. Within limits, peace symbols and anti-war sentiments would be tolerated, but the Weather Underground and the Red Army Faction were not. The paramount concern: insuring that such groups did not infiltrate military units. As the Army recovered from Vietnam, it rediscovered inherent powers to combat espionage, sedition, and subversion. Throughout the 1970s, it used similar authorities to discharge soldiers whose backgrounds or behavior made them unsuited to serve in the newly professional force.

Can that often-overlooked experience provide some useful guidelines in reducing the currently prevailing ambiguities? Had I been charged with the responsibility of evaluating Major Hasan’s suitability, I believe that these initial questions might have been relevant.

1. Does this soldier appear to believe that Islam is a religion of peace? Does he believe that American defense policies are helping or hurting that general belief system?

There is no more fundamental global conflict than the struggle for the soul of Islam, fundamentalists on one side and reformers of various persuasions on the other. When not otherwise engaged in watchful waiting, American foreign policy routinely distinguishes those countries we can work with from those we cannot. So why not apply this same kind of distinction while making critical judgments on personnel security policy?

2. How has this soldier demonstrated recurring actions, patterns, or observable behaviors that might indicate his real beliefs?

Except for wives (and maybe ex-wives), no person on this earth is competent to judge the conscience of another. But we routinely base character judgments on actions, confidence being proportionate to the length of the track record. Profiling works the same way, the only issue being: How good is the information on which that profile is based?

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3. Is this soldier’s retention in the U.S. Army clearly consistent with the national interest?

Make no mistake. We are all security risks with backgrounds and personal histories resembling a silhouette of the Rocky Mountains. Those peaks and valleys translate into strengths and vulnerabilities for us all. We shouldn’t make Muslims into a mysteriously protected class somehow exempt from scrutiny.

4. Assuming that his service is clearly consistent with the national interest, do the soldier's religious principles contradict the oath taken to "uphold the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic"?

Professor Jeffrey Addicott, director of the terrorism law center at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas, points out that the oath required of all commissioned officers imposes no religious test but only a simple affirmation of the special trust required of those selected for leadership responsibilities in defending the nation. “If you can't swear to that,” he says, “then 'game over.' "

Finally: If it seems as if I am singling out Muslims—especially those in uniform—for unusual attention, the answer is yes. But please blame history rather than me for telling you because, last time we looked, we were not at war with Lutheran, Baptist or Catholic extremists. (But those Episcopalians might bear closer scrutiny, too.)

Colonel Ken Allard (US Army, Ret.) is a draftee who eventually served on the West Point faculty, as dean of the National War College and as a NATO peacekeeper in Bosnia. His most recent book, Warheads: Cable News and the Fog of War, is a memoir of his 10 years as an on-air military analyst with NBC News.