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The U.S. Military and the Perils of Wokeness
Last week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley ignited a political firestorm during his Congressional testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. When asked about Critical Race Theory in the U.S. military, which has become a bugbear among many conservatives, Milley was dismissive: “I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military...of being 'woke' or something else because we're studying some theories that are out there,” he explained.
The nation’s top military officer went further, stating that military personnel should be “open-minded and be widely read,” adding:
“I want to understand white rage, and I'm white. And I want to understand it. It is important that the leaders, now and in the future, do understand it. I've read Mao Zedong. I've read Karl Marx. I've read Lenin. 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?”
This answer did not please many Republicans on the HASC, though it should be noted that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who is black (and a retired Army four-star general), broadly took the same tack as Milley did when asked abut CRT in the U.S. military, insisting that there really isn’t a problem here. That got pushback, including from committee member Rep. Mike Waltz (R-FL), a former Army Green Beret, who asserted that he’s heard from many servicemembers who are deeply worried about CRT in the military: “I cannot think of anything more divisive, and more destructive. I want to be very clear. The military needs to be open to all Americans … but once we’re in, we bleed green and our skin color is camouflage.”
In other words, what played out on Capitol Hill last week regarding the U.S. military and CRT closely resembles how that increasingly animated debate is developing among Americans generally: the Right sees a vote-getter with complaints about CRT, what more broadly can be termed Wokeness, while the Left denies that there’s even an issue here. Indeed, it has become standard to dismiss conservative complaints about CRT as fake, even “astroturfing.”
There’s quite a bit of cheek in this, since the Left until recently was lauding “The Great Awokening” that over the last few years dramatically transformed discussions of race and identity among liberals. Now that CRT is generating substantial push-back, especially from parents who are unhappy about anything smacking of Wokeness being taught in public schools, the Left is pretending that it doesn’t even exist, it’s merely a figment of the fervid right-wing imagination.
This is not a wise take, as recently explained by Damon Linker, no conservative, who observed that the Left has become anti-anti-CRT, in manner which denies that there really is a political problem here, which amounts to “an act of intellectual cowardice and political malfeasance.” As he explained:
Republicans and conservative muckraking activists are using the term CRT as a politically efficacious slogan to describe something distinct from but also adjacent to the academic field that goes by the same name. To fixate on the phrase and reduce the debate around it to a dispute about nomenclature is to sidestep vastly more import issues — a little as if Cold War intellectual fights had focused primarily on whether communists really aimed to force people to live on communes.
Defining what exactly CRT is has become a dodge for members of the progressive commentariat who until quite recently were extolling it. Therefore, it might be best to simply consider Wokeness to be the ideological glue which binds together a rather fragmented Democratic coalition which shares an aversion to whites, especially white men, and not much else. As one conservative pundit put it, “I think the meaning of CRT, Wokeness, intersectionality, whatever, is simple and hiding in plain sight. It is nothing more, and nothing less, than the ideology of the modern Democratic Party.”
Once seen this way, the stakes involved in discussions of CRT and the U.S. military come into proper focus. While it’s technically accurate to state that Wokeness is not being taught in the U.S. military, that too constitutes a bit of a dodge. Recommended reading lists for military personnel include CRT tomes that are considered anti-white by many conservatives, while our military academies and colleges indeed are hosting talks by CRT luminaries which are deeply ideological and unwelcome to many servicemembers. There is no doubt that the U.S. military, like our federal bureaucracy more generally, is sharing CRT viewpoints with its personnel in a manner which implies that they have the imprimatur of the big brass. Anybody who’s ever served in the military knows that the generals and admirals don’t supply you with briefings which they deeply disagree with. It’s no secret that you get to wear three or four stars by saying things which the ruling political class likes to hear.
The Right has traditionally been enamored with the U.S. military, at least from a safe distance, viewing it as a bastion of conservative values. For many Republicans, watching the country go into deep moral decline in recent decades has been mitigated somewhat by the knowledge that the military at least was standing fast. That turns out to be an illusion, one abetted by the reality that few Americans of any political persuasion actually serve in our military. It’s easy to develop a teenage crush on an institution which you know nothing about personally. General Milley’s rather Woke-adjacent Congressional testimony last week thus constituted a rude wake-up call for many on the Right. Tucker Carlson, the most watched Fox News nighttime talker, can be considered a decent bellwether for what many conservatives think (at least privately), and he castigated the CJCS as “stupid” and “a pig” for his comments before the HASC. Carlson further stated that Milley’s comments about “white rage” were “disgusting” and “disgraceful.”
While Carlson’s intemperate comments have been denounced by liberals in terms as harsh as Carlson’s statements, there is a serious issue here, particularly if CRT can be viewed as merely the current ideology of one of our two political parties. The military must remain resolutely non-partisan, no matter which party is in power in Washington. Endorsing the worldview of any political party is a major mistake, not to mention a looming catastrophe for civil-military relations. General Milley, who was appointed CJCS by President Trump, seems to have done a good job of pushing back hard when The Donald attempted to exploit the U.S. military for his own partisan purposes. We should expect the nation’s top military officer to show the same fortitude when Democrats seek to get the armed forces involved in politics too.
Then we have the knotty issue of how CRT impacts our racially and ethnically diverse armed forces. The history of the U.S. military and Africa Americans is complex and difficult to explain in soundbites. From the American Revolution until after the Second World War, blacks in the U.S. Army served in black-only units, led by mostly white officers, until President Truman ordered the break-up of racially segregated Army units shortly before the Korean War. The Navy is even more complex here. During the Civil War, the U.S. Navy was one-fifth black and fully racially integrated. It became segregated in later decades, with African American sailors mainly serving as cooks, until the whole U.S. military was desegregated by Truman in the late 1940s.
Since then, the U.S. military has generally functioned much better than American society in general when it comes to matters of race. During the Vietnam War, when racial tensions appeared in the military but less so than on the home front, the Marine Corps famously put it that “There are no white Marines or black Marines, there are only green Marines,” a saying which was mirrored by Rep. Waltz’s comment last week. Yet such race-blind thinking is decidedly passé in today’s Pentagon.
Last year, Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston, that service’s top enlisted soldier, not only “came out” as biracial, he shared his concerns about “unconscious bias” in the Army in CRT-flavored terms. Additionally, Grinston explained that he no longer employs the phrase “All I see is green,” which was standard in the Army for decades, since that means “you don’t see all of me.” He continued, “Racism is happening in our country and everybody needs to sit down and have this conversation. If you’re not having these conversations and you’re saying ‘It’s not happening in my unit’ then you’re ignoring it. It’s happening.” If the military isn’t exactly teaching CRT, its leadership is unquestionably endorsing Woke-flavored sentiments, from the very top.
There is ample reason to think that shifting from race-blind to race-accentuating practices will end badly for the Pentagon. Multiethnic militaries are a field I’ve studied for several decades and published about extensively, so I come to this discussion as an expert. Take the Habsburg Army, which was considerably more ethnically diverse than today’s U.S. military, with a dozen languages spoken in its ranks. The Habsburg military went the exact opposite direction as the American armed forces do now. Although Austro-Hungarian soldiers were spoken to by officers in their own languages, except for parade-ground commands (which were in German), that was a military-wide requirement, the Habsburg Army otherwise pretended that ethnic and religious differences didn’t exist. Racial or religious discrimination was strictly forbidden, and there was no “affirmative action,” indeed the officer corps ignored ethnicity as much as it possibly could. Each officer’s impressively detailed personnel file included extensive descriptions of the subject’s education, performance, even health, yet made no mention whatsoever of the officer’s nationality: it was considered irrelevant. The Austro-Hungarian Army held together until the very end of World War One, contrary to most expectations, despite catastrophic setbacks, in large part because its soldiers knew that, whatever their military’s shortcomings, they were not discriminated against over their race or religion.
Other modern multiethnic militaries have enjoyed less happy experiences. The multinational Soviet Army, like the Tsarist military before it, was run as an exclusively Russian-speaking institution with limited tolerance for non-Russians in any cultural sense. It held together through what Moscow terms the Great Patriotic War in part because Stalin was willing to shoot staggering numbers of his own soldiers for alleged malingering. It was frequently more dangerous to attempt to flee battle than to attack the enemy. During the Cold War, the Soviet military was plagued by ethnic problems of varying degrees of severity. During the late 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, some Central Asian reservists deserted to the Afghan resistance, their ethnic and religious kin. The military could not be walled off from the simmering ethnic resentments that tore apart the USSR in the late 1980s, and in the end the once mighty Soviet Army fragmented along national lines.
The same happened in Yugoslavia, where the Communist military treated its ethnic and religious minorities somewhat more gently than Moscow did. Yet there, too, racial resentments could not be kept out of the armed forces, and Yugoslav efforts at “affirmative action” in promotions only made morale worse. For political reasons, Belgrade wanted its generals and admirals to “look like Yugoslavia” but the problem was that, due to self-selection, certain ethnic groups, above all Serbs and Montenegrins, opted for military careers more than, say, Croats and Slovenes did. This meant that promotions had to be nationally skewed to maintain the balanced “ethnic key” which the Communist Party demanded. How well this worked out can be assessed by the violent collapse of Yugoslavia, led by the fragmentation of its military along national lines starting 30 years ago this week.
Although nobody is suggesting that the U.S. military is in a similarly parlous state, there is cause for concern. The historical record clearly demonstrates that great care is required in dealing with matters of race and ethnicity inside multiethnic militaries. Efforts to secure racial justice in the ranks, however well intended, can have unplanned consequences on morale and readiness. While no military can be walled off from civilian political problems, particularly not in any democracy, it is unwise to introduce the political hot-buttons of the wider world into your armed forces intentionally.
This month, the U.S. Navy, which is facing the rise of a Chinese peer competitor across the Pacific Ocean, announced starkly that it simply does not have the funding required to build a balanced fleet for the 2030s, therefore difficult choices must be made. The Pentagon, together with Congress, must decide soon whether it wants the Navy to have a new jet fighter or a new destroyer class or a new class of submarines: there isn’t enough money for all of them. However, the Navy clarified that it has money for the full range of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs, which are “critical to the readiness of our Navy…and ultimately to our mission success.”
Beijing is watching and the clock is ticking…