Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

GOP Tries to Drag the Military into the Culture War

The harm of having Republicans—including Trump—claim the armed forces are ‘woke’ and ‘weak.’
June 28, 2021
GOP Tries to Drag the Military into the Culture War
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley listens before a hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill on June 10, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

At a rally in Ohio on Saturday night, former President Donald Trump criticized the U.S. military, claiming that it is incapacitated by “woke” politics. His remarks were blatantly false and harmful, like so much that comes out of his mouth. They should be understood as part of a troubling new push by Republicans and their allies in right-wing media to subsume the military into the culture wars.

Here are Trump’s remarks—from about an hour into his ninety-minute speech:

Earlier this year, the Biden administration issued new rules pushing twisted critical race theory into classrooms across the nation, and also into our military. Our generals and our admirals are now focused more on this nonsense than they are on our enemies.

You see these generals lately on television? They are woke. They’re woke. Our military will be incapable of fighting and incapable of taking orders.

You’re gonna tell some private, “Private stand up! You stand up! Right now!”

“I’m not standing up. You can’t talk to me that way, general!”

We’re gonna have a whole different ball game here. I don’t know how they’re gonna work that out. The private’s going to tell the general, “Don’t even you ever speak to me that way, general, or I’ll kick your ass.” That’s our military. That’s where we’re going. Woke. I know some of these guys. Boy they change quickly. They went right over to the other side. I heard that about a couple of them.

The military brass have become weak and ineffective leaders, and our enemies are watching and laughing.

Let’s start with the most glaringly stupid part of this diatribe: There is absolutely no evidence of a major disciplinary problem in the U.S. military, let alone one in any way connected to being “woke” or to “critical race theory.”

As an assertion about the present, it is baseless.

As speculation about the future, it is idiotic.

As a political ploy, it is dangerous.

Although Trump didn’t name any names, it was clear that he had in mind the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, whose testimony before Congress last week is the proximate cause for the GOP’s sudden spurt of rhetoric critical of the military.

What made headlines was Milley’s exchange with Reps. Matt Gaetz and Michael Waltz, both Republicans from Florida and the latter a decorated Army veteran (a Green Beret) still serving as a National Guardsman. The two Republicans went after Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Gen. Milley for the military’s supposed embrace of critical race theory, especially its inclusion in the curriculum at West Point. In reality, critical race theory seems to have been something mentioned in just two sessions of one course at the military academy. And a West Point guest lecture that the congressmen were exercised about, called “Understanding Whiteness and White Rage,” was attended by perhaps 140 students, mostly voluntarily—about 3 percent of the West Point student body.

Gen. Milley’s response was spot-on:

First of all, on the issue of critical race theory, et cetera, a lot of us have to get much smarter on whatever the theory is. But I do think it’s important, actually, for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and be widely read. And the United States Military Academy is a university. And it is important that we train and we understand.

And I want to understand white rage. And I’m white, and I want to understand it. So, 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’s important that we understand that—because our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and guardians, they come from the American people. So, it is important that the leaders, now and in the future, do understand it.

Milley then raised an important issue: that there is value in having troops well versed even in political theories they don’t subscribe to:

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? And I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military, our general officers, our commissioned, non-commissioned officers of being “woke” or something else, because we’re studying some theories that are out there.

One can hardly improve upon Milley’s argument. There is an obvious distinction between teaching about an idea and indoctrinating students in an idea. Sensible conservatives understand this. And while some schools might indoctrinate students in critical race theory, one can be reasonably confident that West Point—or any U.S. military academy for that matter—is not in that business.

And to the extent that progressive literature and ideas are being taught about in the service academies, the National Defense University, and the various other formal and informal efforts at military education, it is far from clear that the effect is baleful. In many cases, this would be officers’ first encounter with these ideas, since, as Rosa Brooks writes, the military has in recent decades “become more southern, less urban, and more politically conservative than American society as a whole.” The military itself is also institutionally conservative. Challenging the troops’ pre-existing biases can be both a valuable intellectual exercise and important in developing their understanding of millions of Americans they will be serving, as well as the minority progressive troops they will be serving with.

The U.S. military has done a tremendous job of staying out of divisive, partisan issues, and politicians have largely kept the military out of their partisan fights for decades. This has been a key reason for why the military remains a bastion of confidence among Americans—Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike. By a wide margin, the military has been America’s most trusted institution for many years.

Now, though, the GOP is taking the culture war to the military. Republicans are gearing up to run in the 2022 midterms on critical race theory and wokeism. And they are being amplified and goaded on by their allies on Fox News and other right-wing media.

Fox’s Tucker Carlson has been on a “military is woke” kick for some months. Last year, he attacked Trump’s Pentagon for new guidelines aimed at improving the recruitment of minorities. He returned to the topic this year by complaining about pregnancy flight suits in the Air Force.

Fox host Laura Ingraham, in response to Gen. Milley’s remarks last week, channeled her inner Rashida Tlaib and called for defunding the military:

And earlier this month, in a break with norms about political commentary by active-duty service members disparaging the Pentagon’s civilian leadership, National Review published an article by a pseudonymous Army officer criticizing the secretary of defense for pushing “full acceptance of all elements of DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion]” and “creating a new permanent DEI infrastructure to push policies in line with critical race theory.”

Also, Marine veteran J.D. Vance, laying the groundwork for an anticipated Senate run, criticized Gen. Milley’s “pandering on progressive wokeness”—but in a way that contradicts what Vance himself wrote in his book Hillbilly Elegy:

The GOP’s effort to drag the military into its culture-war politics endangers national security. The military needs the continuing support of the American people to receive the funding necessary to meet the level of threat our adversaries pose. The military needs American volunteers, especially at a time when the force is struggling with recruitment. And the military needs to remain free from partisan fights so, when struggling during a war, politicians will attempt to diagnose the real problems keeping America from winning rather than complaining about how critical race theory is why success is not arriving.

If the Pentagon’s civilian leadership is introducing inappropriate diversity policies, or if our officer corps is being indoctrinated in inappropriate ideological views about race and racism, the correct way to investigate and address those problems is via sober, serious congressional oversight. For right-wing TV hosts, grandstanding politicians, and an ex-president to bash the military to score cheap political points degrades our political discourse and risks harming an institution we esteem and need. And by extension, it harms America’s security.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.