Pentagon punches back against GOP culture wars
Republicans are increasingly pulling the military into their culture wars — and the military is increasingly hitting back.
The latest clash came at a House hearing this week when a pair of Republicans questioned Pentagon leaders on whether critical race theory was being taught in the military, prompting an impassioned speech from the nation’s top general on the importance of being well read and his desire to understand where “white rage” comes from.
The speech only elicited more howls from conservatives that the military has been lost to “woke” ideology.
Critics decrying what they label as “social experiments” in the military — from racial integration in 1948 to opening combat jobs to women and allowing LGBT troops to serve openly — is nothing new.
But the latest attacks from conservatives come amid a broader GOP campaign to weaponize what was once an obscure graduate school-level theory into an electoral strategy.
“It has the feel of grandstanding for cable news rather than genuinely seeking to explore a tough policy issue,” Peter Feaver, a civil-military relations expert at Duke University who was a White House adviser to former President George W. Bush, said of the recent Republican criticism of the military.
Republicans across the country have turned critical race theory into a rallying cry, applying the label to all manner of racial and diversity teachings. Several state legislatures have passed laws purporting to ban it from being taught in K-12 schools even though there is little to no evidence it is part of any grade school curriculum.
Critical race theory dates back to the 1970s and, in broad terms, focuses on the intersection of race and law and how U.S. laws and institutions were built to maintain advantages for white Americans.
The GOP campaign against critical race theory recently extended to the military, from sending letters to pressing witnesses on claims that troops are being indoctrinated. The issue came to a head Wednesday when Florida GOP Reps. Matt Gaetz and Michael Waltz questioned Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the nation’s first Black Pentagon chief, on the issue, including that a voluntary lecture at West Point included a slide on “white rage” and that the syllabus for one class at the academy includes a book titled “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction.”
Testifying alongside Austin at the House Armed Services Committee, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley tried to chime in during Gaetz’s questioning, but was cut off by the congressman.
Later in the hearing, Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) asked Milley if he wanted to comment on the issue. Milley did not hold back.
“I want to understand white rage, and I’m white,” Milley said.
“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?” Milley continued, referencing the Jan. 6 insurrection by supporters of former President Trump.
“I’ve read Mao Zedong. I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin,” he added. “That doesn’t make me a communist. So what is wrong with understanding, having some situational understanding about the country for which we are here to defend?”
Milley also said he found it “personally offensive” that the military is being labeled “woke” for studying a range of perspectives.
After the hearing, conservatives lashed out at Milley.
“With Generals like this it’s no wonder we’ve fought considerably more wars than we’ve won,” Gaetz tweeted.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham said on her show she was “totally outraged” and suggested defunding the military.
“We are sending our tax dollars to this military in an attempt to weed out so-called extremists, which just means conservative Evangelical, as far as I can tell,” Ingraham said. “We’re paying for that? Why is Congress not saying we’re not going to give a penny until all of this is eradicated?”
The episode was just the latest in a series of conservative attacks over the military’s efforts to be more inclusive, even though several initiatives began during the Trump administration.
In March, Fox News host Tucker Carlson complained about changes meant to attract and retain female service members, including allowing a broader array of hairstyles and designing a maternity flight suit, saying those efforts make a “mockery of the U.S. military” and that the Armed Forces are becoming too “feminine.”
Carlson’s comments sparked a wave of criticism from senior military leaders, but he has kept up his criticism. On his Memorial Day broadcast, Carlson asserted that, “our military, at times, does not seem interested in protecting the country.”
In May, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) compared an ad featuring a soldier who talked about her childhood marching for LGBT rights to Russian propaganda showing its military’s machismo, complaining the ad showed a “woke, emasculated military.”
Military leaders again pushed back, with U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Robert Abrams calling the soldier in the ad a “superstar by any measure.”
Republicans argue the Pentagon’s efforts on diversity, equity and inclusion — particularly Austin’s focus on rooting out extremism from the ranks after several Jan. 6 suspects had military connections and the backlash against critics — amount to targeting conservatives in the ranks.
They point to the case of Lt. Col. Matthew Lohmeier, a Space Force officer who was removed from his post after appearing on a podcast to promote his self-published book arguing Marxism is invading the military in the form of critical race theory.
The Department of the Air Force, under which Space Force falls, has said Lohmeier was removed amid an investigation, which has since been taken over by the Air Force inspector general, into whether the podcast appearance violated Pentagon policy prohibiting partisan political activity.
After his firing, House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) expressed concern about “conservative voices being silenced” in the Pentagon and said the issue must be addressed in the annual defense policy bill.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) also launched a web portal for “whistleblowers” to report examples of “woke ideology” in the military. Cotton said this month he and Crenshaw have received “several hundred whistleblower complaints” on diversity training in the military.
“Mr. Secretary, we’re hearing reports of plummeting morale, growing mistrust between the races and sexes, where none existed just six months ago, and unexpected retirements and separations based on these trainings alone,” Cotton told Austin at a hearing this month.
Several Republicans have also questioned Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday’s decision to include “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi on a list of recommended books.
After being asked at a recent House hearing to respond to several Kendi quotes without context, Gilday shot back that he wasn’t “going to sit here and defend cherry picked quotes from someone’s book.”
“What this is really about is trying to paint the United States military, in this case the United States Navy, as weak, as woke,” Gilday said. “We are not weak. We are strong.”
At Wednesday’s hearing, Gaetz also confronted Austin about his order earlier this year for every unit to take a day to discuss extremism. Gaetz asserted that he’s heard from troops the stand-down “impaired group cohesion.”
“Thanks for your anecdotal input, but I would say that I have gotten 10 times that amount of input, 50 times that amount of input on the other side,” Austin replied.
When Gaetz suggested Austin was being told what he wanted to hear since it was his order, Austin snapped back: “You know, maybe they’re telling you what you want to hear.”