Joint Chiefs chairman clashes with GOP on race theory, 'white rage'

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Army Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyBiden authorizes up to 0M for Afghan refugees US carries out strikes against Taliban in support of Afghan forces Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief defends Milley after Trump book criticism | Addresses critical race theory | Top general says Taliban has 'strategic momentum' in war MORE on Wednesday said it was important for service members to understand critical race theory, shooting down assertions by Republican lawmakers that studying the topic was harmful to military cohesion.

In an impromptu and passionate statement, Milley at a House Armed Service Committee hearing rejected the assertion that critical race theory and other such teaching could be damaging, telling lawmakers that “a lot of us have to get much smarter on whatever the theory is.”

“I do think it’s important, actually, for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and be widely read ... and it is important that we train and we understand,” Milley said. “I want to understand white rage, and I'm white.”

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“What is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America? What caused that? I want to find that out. I want to maintain an open mind here, and I do want to analyze it. ... It is important that the leaders now and in the future do understand it.”

Critical race theory — a relatively new academic concept in the eyes of the public despite being more than 40 years old — promotes the idea that racism is a pervasive issue that is steeped in U.S. society and its legal systems.

Republicans in the past year have sought to politicize the issue and ban or limit the teaching of the theory in schools, particularly following the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 when a violent mob of former President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump hails Arizona Senate for audit at Phoenix rally, slams governor Arkansas governor says it's 'disappointing' vaccinations have become 'political' Watch live: Trump attends rally in Phoenix MORE's supporters sought to overturn President BidenJoe BidenTrump hails Arizona Senate for audit at Phoenix rally, slams governor Republicans focus tax hike opposition on capital gains change Biden on hecklers: 'This is not a Trump rally. Let 'em holler' MORE’s election win.

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“I've read Mao Zedong. I've read Karl Marx. I've read Lenin," Miley said during the hearing. "That doesn't make me a communist. So what is wrong with understanding, having some situational understanding about the country from which we are here to defend?"

“I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military, our general officers, our noncommissioned officers, of being ‘woke’ or something else because we are studying some theories that are out there,” he added.

Milley was responding to several lines of questioning earlier in the hearing, including from Rep. Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzLawmakers introduce bipartisan Free Britney Act Performance or performance art? A question for voters in 2022 (and 2024) Six takeaways: What the FEC reports tell us about the midterm elections MORE (R-Fla.), who claimed he had been told by numerous unnamed service members that a militarywide “stand-down” — meant to address extremism in the ranks earlier this year — had “impaired group cohesion.”

Gaetz also claimed that Bishop Garrison, Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: US launches another airstrike in Somalia | Amendment to expand Pentagon recusal period added to NDAA | No. 2 State Dept. official to lead nuclear talks with Russia Warren-backed amendment to expand Pentagon recusal period added to defense bill Pentagon chief to restore advisory panels after purge of Trump loyalists MORE's senior adviser for human capital, diversity, equity and inclusion, was a "critical race theorist."

“Could you enlighten us as to what advice Mr. Garrison has given you and are you concerned that while you testified publicly to our committee that the department doesn’t embrace critical race theory, you have hired someone who is precisely a critical race theorist?” Gaetz asked Austin.

Austin shot back, "This is the first I'd ever heard Mr. Garrison being described as a critical race theorist, so this is new."

That was followed by Rep. Michael WaltzMichael WaltzOvernight Defense: US to evacuate Afghan allies at end of July | Biden meets with final top US commander in Afghanistan | Weapons buyer nominee withdraws amid IG probe US to evacuate Afghans who assisted US military House passes bills to boost science competitiveness with China MORE (R-Fla.), a National Guard colonel and Green Beret, criticizing the United States Military Academy at West Point for having cadets learn and discuss critical race theory in class, which he claimed was “divisive.”  

Waltz pointed to a voluntary seminar at West Point on “understanding whiteness and white rage.”

Milley noted that a summit on critical race theory was held at Harvard Law School “years ago” and that “it proposed that there were laws in the United States, antebellum laws prior to the Civil War, that led to a power differential with African Americans, [who] were [considered] three-quarters of a human being when this country was formed.”

“Then we had a civil war and the Emancipation Proclamation to change it, and then we brought it up to the Civil Rights Act in 1964. It took another 100 years to change that. So, look, I do want to know. ... It matters to our military and the discipline and cohesion of this military,” he said.

Republican lawmakers and top Pentagon leaders earlier this month also tangled over the Defense Department’s efforts to bolster diversity, equity and inclusion in the military.

In a May 10 Senate Armed Service Committee hearing, Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonEx-Rep. Abby Finkenauer running for Senate in Iowa Poll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis Republicans raise concerns about Olympians using digital yuan during Beijing Games MORE (R-Ark.) claimed without any concrete evidence that there was “plummeting morale, growing mistrust between the races and sexes” in the military due to “woke ideology.”

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Austin, the nation’s first Black Defense secretary, has made tackling extremism a priority after a number of individuals arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 attack were found to have military backgrounds.

On Wednesday, Austin pushed back at Gaetz, calling his claims that he had hired a critical race theorist “spurious.”

“I trust my leadership from top to bottom that they will give me fair and balanced and unvarnished input,” Austin said.

Gaetz also suggested Austin might be getting positive feedback on efforts to better understand division in the ranks because of his staff telling the Pentagon chief what he wants to hear.

Austin then fired back at Gaetz over his unnamed sources, saying, “Maybe they're telling you what you want to hear.”