Military Sociology

The KKK Recruiting Veterans

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) might sound like a cultural relic, hardly taken seriously in the 21st century, but it is actively recruiting American Veterans. A recent VICE documentary takes an inside journey into this divisive hate group, uncovering why Veterans are joining their ranks.

Founded shortly after the civil war, the KKK originally served as a support-group for disenfranchised and disgruntled confederate Veterans. Their mandate read:

“To protect the weak, innocent and defenseless from the indignities, wrongs, and outrage of the lawless, the violent, and the brutal; to relieve the injured and oppressed especially the widows and orphans of ex-Confederate soldiers”

Taking out the last line, one might mistake this for a contemporary social justice initiative or a counter-terrorist mandate. How could this be the mandate of one of the most infamous hate groups? The answer to this question gives us insight into why Veterans have joined the KKK.

What do Veterans, the KKK, and the rest of us have in common? The need for a sense of justice and belonging. The most extreme acts of violence are often committed due to one’s sense that it is for a just cause. Even murder-suicides are shown to result from a perversion of virtue, as argued by psychologist Thomas Joiner.

The KKK always had close recruitment ties to periods with a large influx of Veterans in transition. This occurred after each of the world wars, continuing to the most recent influx of Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Veterans are a prime target for the KKK because of their training as well as their vulnerability during transition. In addition to dealing with anger and psychological traumas, Veterans in transition are often seeking a sense of belonging. Regarding the Klan, as a well-decorated Purple Heart Veteran in the documentary states at 4:15:

“…you get to know these guys and it’s like a sense of belonging. It’s like you found brothers and sisters you never knew you had.”

Upon hearing that line, it sounded strangely familiar. In my own research a Veteran expressed a similar sentiment when discussing the sense of belonging he found at Treble Victor – an entrepreneurial support-group for Canadian Veterans. He stated: “it’s like meeting family you never met.”

When struggling with transition, Veterans need a group to come home to. Although biological and conjugal families often assist, they are not enough. Veterans require meaningful occupational groups that can guide their new mission in a search for justice. This way, we can combat the influence of predatory hate-groups like the KKK and their perverted sense of virtue, while also utilizing the elite skills and training of our nations Veterans.

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  1. Excellent article. Very true that vets have a hard time assimilating back into society after serving, especially overseas. The questions and people just not understanding some of the ticks that you might have picked up makes it challenging.

  2. Wow, powerful sentiments and writing – I totally agree. Worked with veterans for years and they need to ‘belong’. I used gym programs, drop in centres, booze and blokes programs, etc. The ones that got most benefit were those who ran these programs/groups for me … supporting each other! KKK is sadly alive in Australia, they used to target rural HIV people and I don’t mean for recruitment.

  3. Thank you for bringing this up. Seeking to renew their sense of belonging and purpose are very important factors in veteran readjustment. I have seen this in my research on veteran volunteerism and community-based approaches to trauma treatment. In general, NGOs such as Team Rubicon and The Mission Continues address the same urge to belong and to continue to serve one’s community – giving Vets a sense of purpose and belonging through civic engagement.
    The KKK seems to propose similar ideas and to invoke the same appeal of community service (I just don’t know how active the KKK is today in actually doing the nitty-gritty work of “relieving” those in need), but it adds its political agenda of promoting a very exclusive community through racism and ostracizing those who “don’t belong.”

  4. Steve, insightful post. I’ve heard a lot of speculation and conjecture about the KKK’s activity but your article and the Vice reference definitely add a lot more credibility. It’s not surprising with all that’s going on in our country in terms of excessive force among police officers, gangs, racial tension, terrorism, etc. Thank you for the work that you do with our veterans and with raising awareness on suicide. Project i Am You is always looking for groups and individuals who are engaged in powerful work to raise consciousness and engage the community.

  5. I’m glad you brought this up. In my undergraduate social psychology course, I remember learning about how those who feel lost and meaningless are much more likely to join questionable groups. This includes cults, terrorist organizations, and the KKK: any group that can give them a sense of purpose and belonging.

    Like you mentioned, the best way to deal with this is to have positive groups that give veterans (and others in transition) the sense of belonging and significance that they crave. We also need to publicize such groups so people can easily find them.

  6. The KKK is a hate group that has long past its reason to exist, 100 years or so. If it really wanted to create a worthwhile purpose, it would travel to Syria, and fight ISIS. All talk and no action.

  7. Skimming the doc I see smiling faces and scared symbols. This seem a part of our social nature. That is, the need for inclusion, commitment, shared belief, etc. If this sounds like a simplified Travis Hirshi, it is, regarding social bonding.
    In one doc I recall (I think it is “Why We Fight” a military psychiatrist talks about how a unit is bonded so strong, it is as if the soldiers are “mothering” one another. So transitioning to civilian life would, I should think, involve the search for a replacement. First come first serve I fear. The military, I suspect, could do a better job of directing veterans before they stumble on something as volatile and socially corrosive as the KKK.
    Regarding the symbolism, it enhances bonding. We see it in nearly every level of society from clothing marked “PINK” to professional sports logos to religious symbols. The confederate battle flag has come to do that once again.
    We are a frightened and frightening species.

    1. I believe it can. This perspective would allow us to get to the root of the problem. Although it is difficult to view these groups as consisting of disenfranchised individuals, it is the only way we can address all forms of terrorism, beyond temporary solutions. We can try to bomb these groups off the map, but there will be a resurgence of members or the group will mutate into new forms when the underlying issues are not addressed. This is not to say punitive measures are unnecessary. It’s like a leaking drain pipe under the sink; you should fix the pipe, but that doesn’t mean you can’t also mop up the floor.

    2. Excellent question! I’m hoping there are interventions already in place that are trying to address this. We just don’t hear about them with all the media hype.

    3. I think so,because if people are loved and happy and belive in the world, they won’t turn to terrorism. These people think that they’ve been wronged or their religion is in danger or Western culture is demoralising them. So we should look into these issues and if there’s a problem, fix it. Otherwise, let the world,and the themselves, know that their hate is not justified.

  8. Excellent post! I’m convinced there needs to be more invested in addressing trauma and recovery at all levels and areas of life. I even think terrorism has it’s roots in unhealed trauma. There’s a great book out called “Trauma and Recover”. This is the first time I considered what you’ve written here about the KKK.

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