"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
On a muggy Florida evening in 2008, I meet Iraq War veteran Forrest Fogarty in the Winghouse, a little bar-restaurant on the outskirts of Tampa, his favorite hangout. He told me on the phone I would recognize him by his skinhead. Sure enough, when I spot a white guy at a table by the door with a shaved head, white tank top and bulging muscles, I know it can only be him.
Over a plate of chicken wings, he tells me about his path into the white-power movement. “I was 14 when I decided I wanted to be a Nazi,” he says. At his first high school, near Los Angeles, he was bullied by black and Latino kids. That’s when he first heard Skrewdriver, a band he calls “the godfather of the white power movement.” “I became obsessed,” he says. He had an image from one of Skrewdriver’s album covers — a Viking carrying a staff, an icon among white nationalists — tattooed on his left forearm. Soon after he had a Celtic cross, an Irish symbol appropriated by neo-Nazis, emblazoned on his stomach.
At 15, Fogarty moved with his dad to Tampa, where he started picking fights with groups of black kids at his new high school. “On the first day, this bunch of niggers, they thought I was a racist, so they asked, ‘Are you in the KKK?’” he tells me. “I said, ‘Yeah,’ and it was on.” Soon enough, he was expelled.
For the next six years, Fogarty flitted from landscaping job to construction job, neither of which he’d ever wanted to do. “I was just drinking and fighting,” he says. He started his own Nazi rock group, Attack, and made friends in the National Alliance, at the time the biggest neo-Nazi group in the country. It has called for a “a long-term eugenics program involving at least the entire populations of Europe and America.”
But the military ran in Fogarty’s family. His grandfather had served during World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and his dad had been a Marine in Vietnam. At 22, Fogarty resolved to follow in their footsteps. “I wanted to serve my country,” he says.
Army regulations prohibit soldiers from participating in racist groups, and recruiters are instructed to keep an eye out for suspicious tattoos. Before signing on the dotted line, enlistees are required to explain any tattoos. At a Tampa recruitment office, though, Fogarty sailed right through the signup process. “They just told me to write an explanation of each tattoo, and I made up some stuff, and that was that,” he says. Soon he was posted to Fort Stewart in Georgia, where he became part of the 3rd Infantry Division.
Fogarty’s ex-girlfriend, intent on destroying his new military career, sent a dossier of photographs to Fort Stewart. The photos showed Fogarty attending white supremacist rallies and performing with his band, Attack. “They hauled me before some sort of committee and showed me the pictures,” Fogarty says. “I just denied them and said my girlfriend was a spiteful bitch.” He adds: “They knew what I was about. But they let it go because I’m a great soldier.”
In 2003, Fogarty was sent to Iraq. For two years he served in the military police, escorting officers, including generals, around the hostile country. He says he was granted top-secret clearance and access to battle plans. Fogarty speaks with regret that he “never had any kill counts.” But he says his time in Iraq increased his racist resolve.
“I hate Arabs more than anybody, for the simple fact I’ve served over there and seen how they live,” he tells me. “They’re just a backward people. Them and the Jews are just disgusting people as far as I’m concerned. Their customs, everything to do with the Middle East, is just repugnant to me.”
Because of his tattoos and his racist comments, most of his buddies and his commanding officers were aware of his Nazism. “They all knew in my unit,” he says. “They would always kid around and say, ‘Hey, you’re that skinhead!’” But no one sounded an alarm to higher-ups. “I would volunteer for all the hardest missions, and they were like, ‘Let Fogarty go.’ They didn’t want to get rid of me.”
Fogarty left the Army in 2005 with an honorable discharge. He says he was asked to reenlist. He declined. He was sick of the system.
Since the launch of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military has struggled to recruit and reenlist troops. As the conflicts have dragged on, the military has loosened regulations, issuing “moral waivers” in many cases, allowing even those with criminal records to join up. Veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder have been ordered back to the Middle East for second and third tours of duty.
The lax regulations have also opened the military’s doors to neo-Nazis, white supremacists and gang members — with drastic consequences. Some neo-Nazis have been charged with crimes inside the military, and others have been linked to recruitment efforts for the white right. A recent Department of Homeland Security report, “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” stated: “The willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned, or suffering from the psychological effects of war is being replicated today.” Many white supremacists join the Army to secure training for, as they see it, a future domestic race war. Others claim to be shooting Iraqis not to pursue the military’s strategic goals but because killing “hajjis” is their duty as white militants.
Soldiers’ associations with extremist groups, and their racist actions, contravene a host of military statutes instituted in the past three decades. But during the “war on terror,” U.S. armed forces have turned a blind eye on their own regulations. A 2005 Department of Defense report states, “Effectively, the military has a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy pertaining to extremism. If individuals can perform satisfactorily, without making their extremist opinions overt … they are likely to be able to complete their contracts.”
Carter F. Smith is a former military investigator who worked with the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command from 2004 to 2006, when he helped to root out gang violence in troops. “When you need more soldiers, you lower the standards, whether you say so or not,” he says. “The increase in gangs and extremists is an indicator of this.” Military investigators may be concerned about white supremacists, he says. “But they have a war to fight, and they don’t have incentive to slow down.”
Tom Metzger is the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and current leader of the White Aryan Resistance. He tells me the military has never been more tolerant of racial extremists. “Now they are letting everybody in,” he says.
The presence of white supremacists in the military first triggered concern in 1976. At Camp Pendleton in California, a group of black Marines attacked white Marines they mistakenly believed to be in the KKK. The resulting investigation uncovered a KKK chapter at the base and led to the jailing or transfer of 16 Klansmen. Reports of Klan activity among soldiers and Marines surfaced again in the 1980s, spurring President Reagan’s Defense Secretary, Caspar Weinberger, to condemn military participation in white supremacist organizations.
Then, in 1995, a black couple was murdered by two neo-Nazi paratroopers around Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The murder investigation turned up evidence that 22 soldiers at Fort Bragg were known to be extremists. That year, language was added to a Department of Defense directive, explicitly prohibiting participation in “organizations that espouse supremacist causes” or “advocate the use of force or violence.”
Today a complete ban on membership in racist organizations appears to have been lifted — though the proliferation of white supremacists in the military is difficult to gauge. The military does not track them as a discrete category, coupling them with gang members. But one indication of the scope comes from the FBI.
Following an investigation of white supremacist groups, a 2008 FBI report declared: “Military experience — ranging from failure at basic training to success in special operations forces — is found throughout the white supremacist extremist movement.” In white supremacist incidents from 2001 to 2008, the FBI identified 203 veterans. Most of them were associated with the National Alliance and the National Socialist Movement, which promote anti-Semitism and the overthrow of the U.S. government, and assorted skinhead groups.
Because the FBI focused only on reported cases, its numbers don’t include the many extremist soldiers who have managed to stay off the radar. But its report does pinpoint why the white supremacist movements seek to recruit veterans — they “may exploit their accesses to restricted areas and intelligence or apply specialized training in weapons, tactics, and organizational skills to benefit the extremist movement.”
In fact, since the movement’s inception, its leaders have encouraged members to enlist in the U.S. military as a way to receive state-of-the-art combat training, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer, in preparation for a domestic race war. The concept of a race war is central to extremist groups, whose adherents imagine an eruption of violence that pits races against each other and the government.
That goal comes up often in the chatter on white supremacist Web sites. On the neo-Nazi Web site Blood and Honour, a user called 88Soldier88, wrote in 2008 that he is an active duty soldier working in a detainee holding area in Iraq. He complained about “how ‘nice’ we have to treat these fucking people … better than our own troops.” Then he added, “Hopefully the training will prepare me for what I hope is to come.” Another poster, AMERICANARYAN.88Soldier88, wrote, “I have the training I need and will pass it on to others when I get out.”
On NewSaxon.org, a social networking group for neo-Nazis, a group called White Military Men hosts numerous contributors. It was begun by “FightingforWhites,” who identified himself at one point as Lance Cpl. Burton of the 2nd Battalion Fox Company, but then removed the information. The group calls for “All men with military experience, retired or active/reserve” to “join this group to see how many men have experience to build an army. We want to win a war, we need soldiers.” FightingforWhites — whose tagline is “White Supremacy will prevail! US Military leading the way!” — goes on to write, “I am with an infantry battalion in the Marine Corps, I have had the pleasure of killing four enemies that tried to kill me. I have the best training to kill people.” On his wall, a friend wrote: “THANKS BROTHER!!!! kill a couple towel heads for me ok!”
Such attitudes come straight from the movement’s leaders. “We do encourage them to sign up for the military,” says Charles Wilson, spokesman for the National Socialist Movement. “We can use the training to secure the resistance to our government.” Billy Roper, of White Revolution, says skinheads join the military for the usual reasons, such as access to higher education, but also “to secure the future for white children.” “America began in bloody revolution,” he reminds me, “and it might end that way.”
When it comes to screening out racists at recruitment centers, military regulations appear to have collapsed. “We don’t exclude people from the army based on their thoughts,” says S. Douglas Smith, an Army public affairs officer. “We exclude based on behavior.” He says an “offensive” or “extremist” tattoo “might be a reason for them not to be in the military.” Or it might not. “We try to educate recruiters on extremist tattoos,” he says, but “the tattoo is a relatively subjective decision” and shouldn’t in itself bar enlistment.
What about something as obvious as a swastika? “A swastika would trigger questions,” Smith says. “But again, if the gentlemen said, ‘I like the way the swastika looked,’ and had clean criminal record, it’s possible we would allow that person in.” “There are First Amendment rights,” he adds.
In the spring, I telephoned at random five Army recruitment centers across the country. I said I was interested in joining up and mentioned that I had a pair of “SS bolts” tattooed on my arm. A 2000 military brochure stated that SS bolts were a tattoo image that should raise suspicions. But none of the recruiters reacted negatively, and when pressed directly about the tattoo, not one said it would be an outright problem. A recruiter in Houston was typical; he said he’d never heard of SS bolts and just encouraged me to come on in.
It’s in the interest of recruiters to interpret recruiting standards loosely. If they fail to meet targets, based on the number of soldiers they enlist, they may have to attend a punitive counseling session, and it could hurt any chance for promotion. When, in 2005, the Army relaxed regulations on non-extremist tattoos, such as body art covering the hands, neck and face, this cut recruiters even more slack.
Even the education of recruiters about how to identify extremists seems to have fallen by the wayside. The 2005 Department of Defense report concluded that recruiting personnel “were not aware of having received systematic training on recognizing and responding to possible terrorists” — a designation that includes white supremacists — “who try to enlist.” Participation on white supremacist Web sites would be an easy way to screen out extremist recruits, but the report found that the military had not clarified which Web forums were gathering places for extremists.
Once white supremacists are in the military, it is easy to stay there. An Army Command Policy manual devotes more than 100 pages to rooting them out. But no officer appears to be reading it.
Hunter Glass was a paratrooper in the 1980s and became a gang cop in 1999 in Fayetteville, North Carolina, near Fort Bragg. “In the early 1990s, the military was hard on them. They could pick and choose,” he recalls. “They were looking for swastikas. They were looking for anything.” But the regulations on racist extremists got jettisoned with the war on terror.
Glass says white supremacists now enjoy an open culture of impunity in the armed forces. “We’re seeing guys with tattoos all the time,” he says. “As far as hunting them down, I don’t see it. I’m seeing the opposite, where if a white supremacist has committed a crime, the military stance will be, ‘He didn’t commit a race-related crime.’”
In fact, a 2006 report by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command shows that military brass consistently ignored evidence of extremism. One case, at Fort Hood, reveals that a soldier was making Internet postings on the white supremacist site Stormfront.org. But the investigator was unable to locate the soldier in question. In a brief summary of the case, an investigator writes that due to “poor documentation,” “attempts to locate with minimal information met with negative results.” “I’m not doing my job here,” the investigator notes. “Needs to get fixed.”
In another case, investigators found that a Fort Hood soldier belonged to the neo-Nazi group Hammerskins and was “closely associated with” the Celtic Knights of Austin, Texas, another extremist organization, a situation bad enough to merit a joint investigation by the FBI and the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command. The Army summary states that there was “probable cause” to believe the soldier had participated in at least one white extremist meeting and had “provided a military technical manual … to the leader of a white extremist group in order to assist in the planning and execution of future attacks on various targets.”
Our of four preliminary probes into white supremacists, the Criminal Investigation Command carried through on only this one. The probe revealed that “a larger single attack was planned for the San Antonio, TX after a considerable amount of media attention was given to illegal immigrants. The attack was not completed due to the inability of the organization to obtain explosives.” Despite these threats, the subject was interviewed only once, in 2006, and the investigation was terminated the following year.
White supremacists may be doing more than avoiding expulsion. They may be using their military status to help build the white right. The FBI found that two Army privates in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg had attempted in 2007 to sell stolen property from the military — including ballistic vests, a combat helmet and pain medications such as morphine — to an undercover FBI agent they believed was involved with the white supremacist movement. (They were convicted and sentenced to six years.) It found multiple examples of white supremacist recruitment among active military, including a period in 2003 when six active duty soldiers at Fort Riley, members of the Aryan Nation, were recruiting their Army colleagues and even serving as the Aryan Nation’s point of contact for the state of Kansas.
One white supremacist soldier, James Douglas Ross, a military intelligence officer stationed at Fort Bragg, was given a bad conduct discharge from the Army when he was caught trying to mail a submachine gun from Iraq to his father’s home in Spokane, Wash. Military police found a cache of white supremacist paraphernalia and several weapons hidden behind ceiling tiles in Ross’ military quarters. After his discharge, a Spokane County deputy sheriff saw Ross passing out fliers for the neo-Nazi National Alliance.
Rooting out extremists is difficult because racism pervades the military, according to soldiers. They say troops throughout the Middle East use derogatory terms like “hajji” or “sand nigger” to define Arab insurgents and often the Arab population itself.
“Racism was rampant,” recalls vet Michael Prysner, who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 as part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. “All of command, everywhere, it was completely ingrained in the consciousness of every soldier. I’ve heard top generals refer to the Iraq people as ‘hajjis.’ The anti-Arab racism came from the brass. It came from the top. And everything was justified because they weren’t considered people.”
Another vet, Michael Totten, who served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne in 2003 and 2004, says, “It wouldn’t stand out if you said ‘sand niggers,’ even if you aren’t a neo-Nazi.” Totten says his perspective has changed in the intervening years, but “at the time, I used the words ‘sand nigger.’ I didn’t consider ‘hajji’ to be derogatory.”
Geoffrey Millard, an organizer for Iraq Veterans Against the War, served in Iraq for 13 months, beginning in 2004, as part of the 42nd Infantry Division. He recalls Gen. George Casey, who served as the commander in Iraq from 2004 to 2007, addressing a briefing he attended in the summer of 2005 at Forward Operating Base, outside Tikrit. “As he walked past, he was talking about some incident that had just happened, and he was talking about how ‘these stupid fucking hajjis couldn’t figure shit out.’ And I’m just like, Are you kidding me? This is Gen. Casey, the highest-ranking guy in Iraq, referring to the Iraqi people as ‘fucking hajjis.’” (A spokesperson for Casey, now the Army Chief of Staff, said the general “did not make this statement.”)
“The military is attractive to white supremacists,” Millard says, “because the war itself is racist.”
The U.S. Senate Committee on the Armed Forces has long been considered one of Congress’ most powerful groups. It governs legislation affecting the Pentagon, defense budget, military strategies and operations. Today it is led by the influential Sens. Carl Levin and John McCain. An investigation by the committee into how white supremacists permeate the military in plain violation of U.S. law could result in substantive changes. I contacted the committee but staffers would not agree to be interviewed. Instead, a spokesperson responded that white supremacy in the military has never arisen as a concern. In an e-mail, the spokesperson said, “The Committee doesn’t have any information that would indicate this is a particular problem.”
Matt Kennard graduated from the Colombia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2008 as a Stabile Investigative scholar.More Matt Kennard.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)