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No, the U.S. Military Is Not Being Weakened by “Wokeness”

The world's greatest fighting force is stronger because it doesn't require recruits to uncritically embrace American mythology.
November 30, 2022
No, the U.S. Military Is Not Being Weakened by “Wokeness”
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The right’s typical flanking maneuver in the culture wars these days is to charge anything it finds distasteful with being woke. Nothing is immune, not even the institutions it glorifies.

The partisan champions of the free market, business, and free speech get upset when corporations express opinions about voting laws or equal protection for LGBTQ rights, lamenting that “parts of the private sector keep dabbling in behaving like a woke parallel government.” The party of choice for white evangelicals attacks churches practicing a love-thy-neighbor theology for preaching a woke religion that’s insufficiently traditionalist. And then there’s Senator Ted Cruz’s Twitter feed—McCarthyesque in its accusations of everything being woke: the CIA, media, Hollywood, women’s collegiate swimming, cartoons, and the list goes on.

It was only a matter of time before the right put the military in its crosshairs. The cohort of folks who seized every opportunity to fawn over the U.S. military and veterans—except, of course, prisoners of war or Gold Star families—as a tactic to challenge the patriotism, dignity, and livelihood of folks who knelt during the national anthem now believes that the military itself has become woke.

Here’s Senator Tom Cotton last week:

I can’t speak for the senator’s motivations for spending four years in the Army, but in my more than two decades of military service, I don’t think I ever met a service member who joined to kill people. Is this why he thinks the military remains one of the most respected institutions in America? Because the nation’s young men and women aspire to be killers? He could not be more wrong.

First, let’s get the easy stuff out of the way. If you want to know why Americans join the military, just pay attention to what they say when asked. A RAND study from 2018 and an academic article published last year are pretty clear: The two overwhelming reasons Americans join the military are for economic security (pay and benefits) and patriotism/a sense of duty. That certainly tracks with my personal experience serving alongside others and taking the time to, you know, actually get to know them.

And also, because it’s really important not to let the narrow viewpoint of one veteran be accepted as gospel truth, here’s something to consider: After white men, the largest group of people who enlist in the Army are black women. I’m gonna go out on a limb here, but I suspect that I know, and have had more conversations with, more black women than the Arkansas Republican—so trust me when I say that killing people is not even remotely a consideration for their joining the military.

To the accusation of wokeness infiltrating the military, this is a line of attack that Republicans have lobbed at military leadership for months now. Earlier this year, an exchange between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Representative Matt Gaetz grabbed headlines when the congressman accused the military of being too focused on “wokeism,” a claim that Austin rejected outright. Republicans have since blamed various military challenges on the nebulous concept: Annual recruiting goals not met? Wokeness is the reason (though the general in charge of Army recruiting says that’s not true). Making service members get the COVID-19 vaccine? Wokeism. Military readiness lagging? Woke run amok. Republican House members are presently threatening to hold up this year’s national defense bill because they accuse Democrats of sneaking in “woke provisions.”

In this way, wokeness has become a catchall for whatever congressional Republicans don’t like or a convenient distraction whenever they need to find a way to sow partisan division for political reasons.

But despite the novelty of the word for these purposes, its intellectual progenitor is nearly a century old. If today’s right thinks having specific books on a military reading list is too woke and endangers national security, then it’s pretty safe to say they would’ve been part of the unfortunate lot who rejected President Harry Truman’s 1948 executive order desegregating the military years before Brown v. Board and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. In reaction to Truman’s decision, Army Secretary Kenneth Royall and Marine Corps Commandant Clifton Cates, among others, labeled the order an “instrument of social evolution”—that’s 1948 lingo for “too woke.”

To anyone who believes that Truman’s order was a mistake at the time, or that having Americans of all colors serve alongside one another today is too woke, I submit that the Constitution is no longer the thing they’re protecting and defending. And is it really just a coincidence that the accusations of a woke military come at a time when the Department of Defense has its first black secretary, first Hispanic Navy secretary, first female secretary of the Army, first black general to head the Air Force, and first woman to serve as commandant of the Coast Guard? Perhaps.

But the idea that the military shouldn’t encourage its members to be curious about their country is supremely wrongheaded. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, had an exchange with Gaetz at a hearing last year where he defended reading books and learning about theories that the right labels woke. “I want to understand [the idea of] white rage,” Milley said, as a way of gaining insight as to why an overwhelmingly white horde of rioters stormed the Capitol on January 6th. “I’ve read Mao Zedong. I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a Communist.”

The point Milley makes here brings to mind a famous line from William Francis Butler, a Victorian-era British Army officer: “The nation that will insist upon drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking by cowards.”

It’s a maxim that congressional Republicans, perhaps especially those who are veterans, would do well to keep in mind. Our military is stronger when it has a better understanding of both the nation and people it defends. The reason that the military is so often recognized as the best example of how a multiracial America can operate successfully is because it does the hard work—in education, in exposure to a diverse set of Americans, in giving them common purpose and shared identities—of providing a means for us to get to know one another as more than just avatars of identity politics, something the everything-is-woke-but-me crowd traffics in. Despite what the right might believe, it is not at all necessary to insist that the military adopt an uncritical embrace of American mythology to construct a force capable of defending the Constitution. To the contrary, a nation that creates space for examination and critique is one worthy of sacrifice.

This is why we (well, most of us) serve—not because we are hellbent on killing but because we believe our country and its principles are worth dying for.

Theodore R. Johnson

Theodore R. Johnson was a writer at The Bulwark and a senior advisor at New America. He is the author of the book When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America (Atlantic, 2021). Twitter: @DrTedJ.